Seeding Change: Bytesforall Bangladesh advocates for online education as a fundamental right

“For the first time, the entire country understood how important the internet is and how fast, reliable and widespread internet access can be a game-changer.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began and the message from health authorities to “shelter at home” spread across the globe, activities that traditionally took place in person were cancelled, postponed or moved online. These impacts cascaded through the public sector, where often the most marginalised populations – those who are economically and socially vulnerable – have been the most heavily impacted.

In Bangladesh, this was made evident as the realities of the pandemic meant that close to 36 million students (including 17 million in primary education) stopped attending in-person classes, instead being directed toward to an online education model through platforms like Facebook, Zoom and websites hosted by the Ministry of Education.

The challenges and barriers resulting from this shift to online education were considerable, including lack of interaction between teachers and students along with loss of access to food programmes and flood and cyclone shelters. Compounding the problem, the move to remote learning was significantly exacerbated given that only 37.6% of households in the country have access to the internet, according to a 2019 survey from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, and only 5.6% of households have a computer. The prospect of educating millions of children quickly became an overwhelming challenge that required urgent and intensive solutions.

Education as a fundamental human right

Recognising the need for a rapid and effective response to the pressing issue of access to online education, organisation and volunteer network Bytesforall Bangladesh (B4A) saw an opportunity to advocate for equitable access to the internet as a public good alongside the need to affirm access to education as a fundamental human right.

In November and December 2020, they embarked on an ambitious two-month project entitled “Online education in the time of pandemic: Issues of accessibility, right to education and e-learning for the remote, unconnected students of Bangladesh” through the support of an APC subgrant. This timely project centred around three main activities:

  • Conducting research to understand the landscape of e-learning and remote online education systems for primary schools in Bangladesh.

  • Campaigning to raise awareness on the challenges of e-learning and remote education models in Bangladesh by studying the current policies and compiling policy best practices.

  • Building a network of stakeholders working in the education sector, policy makers, students, parent groups and content-making bodies to initiate conversations on challenges and solutions.

With these objectives in mind, the project set out to explore how access to faster, reliable internet can serve the public good and, in this case, education for all.

Digital inclusion for the most vulnerable

At the heart of the project was the strategic goal of advocating for digital inclusion for the most vulnerable, remote and marginalised communities who could not get access to online education due to lack of access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) and internet connections. The closure of schools and shift to online learning marked a drastic departure from previous models of education and communication. As B4A co-founder Partha Sarker noted, “For the first time, mass people in Bangladesh have been using the internet for a fundamental reason such as education, which relates to learning, livelihood opportunities and empowerment.”

Despite working within a short time frame, B4A was able to publish an impressive body of research. It included a report on e-learning and remote education models in Bangladesh that identified relevant policies and gaps to address the needs of online education/learning for all; audio documents that highlighted the challenges of current e-learning/remote education; and numerous posts on alternative, innovative solutions for e-learning and online education. The organisation furthermore developed a database to help stakeholders working in the education sector connect with each other.

By visibilising the barriers to access, identifying policy gaps and pooling best practices from their network of stakeholders, the project made important steps toward establishing policy recommendations that could address necessary network equality in order to access education.

Reflecting on successes and future challenges

With many years of experience mobilising around the usage and spread of ICTs for development, B4A was well positioned to engage in research that could influence and shape ICT policies. Reflecting on its impact, Sarker shared several insightful reflections on the learnings and discoveries that arose from this project.

Sarker noted that he was particularly proud of how this project built up a network at a time when many in Bangladesh were grappling with the question of access to education. Remote studies were quickly contributing to learning loss and drop-out rates, particularly among poor, marginalised communities. With students seeking their education online or using hybrid learning models, Sarker noted the pandemic was “creating a significant disparity among students who do not have proper ICT tools and access to a faster, reliable and cheaper internet, and students who have.”

In addressing these issues, he highlighted the success of the online seminar that was conducted on 26 December 2020 in the form of a round-table. To strategise possible responses to the crisis, the seminar brought together subject matter experts, policy makers, students, teachers, ICT experts and researchers to hear about the struggles, education delivery models, policy interventions and technology options, and start to work towards possible solutions.

Video: Round-table on online primary and secondary education in the time of pandemic.

One particular challenge that Sarker identified was the lack of engagement from mobile data providers. He noted that “cell phone-based internet connectivity is the most prevalent in Bangladesh, but we found they seem to be less interested to come into this conversation of faster, reliable and cheaper access to the internet.” He said that bridging this divide may require further policy influence and regulatory oversight, including a way for government to subsidise access to learning, particularly internet-based learning. The ultimate goal would be a level playing field with no learning loss among students from rural and urban poor backgrounds. Sarker pointed out that on a positive note, the Internet Service Providers Association in Bangladesh was nonetheless engaged in the discussions.

Image: Round-table on efficacy, challenges and preparedness of remote online education in Bangladesh on 26 December 2020. Image by B4A.
 
Overall, this project opened the door to opportunities for further campaigns and research to look into the issue of access to the internet for public good, such as education. Future discussions will seek to explore a hybrid model of education – what it could be, how it could benefit disadvantaged families (who probably are busy during the day but could complete studies in the evening) and how it can be supported by subsidised internet connectivity.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, it is important to strategise how to bring students back to the classroom, both in person and online. The urgency of the pandemic is contributing to catalysing the call for greater, more affordable internet access. According to Sarker, “We have been talking about this for the last few years but much more on a conceptual level. For the first time, the entire country understood how important the internet is and how fast, reliable and widespread internet access can be a game-changer.”

Feature image: Stakeholders participate in online round-table on access to education, 26 December 2020.

This piece is a version of the information provided by Bytesforall Bangladesh as part of the project “Online education in the time of pandemic: Issues of accessibility, right to education and e-learning for the remote, unconnected students of Bangladesh", adapted for the Seeding Change column. This column presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through APC's core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects.

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