2020 has been a year of immense suffering all over the world, as well as learning. A major transformation that 2020 accelerated is online education & work culture. As many experts rightly pointed out, the widescale adoption of these tech tools that happened almost overnight because of pandemic lockdown might have taken many years in usual circumstances.
While the world embrace this “new normal” of working-learning from home, it remains a challenging option in many corners of the globe, where quality internet access is unavailable to mass people. According to the stats of ITU (International Telecommunications Union), global internet penetration was 53.6% at the end of 2019. The rest are offline population, most of them obviously live in less developed countries. In the least developed countries (LDCs), only 19% of individuals were online in 2019. Even if internet service remains accessible, a significant portion of them cannot afford its connectivity , device and associated costs.
Let us consider the scenario of Bangladesh, which has been the largest enlisted least developed country (LDC) in terms of population and economic size, and now scheduled to leave the LDC category by 2024 considering its broad improvement in health, education and other parameters. Rapid digitalization endeavors during last one decade has also facilitated such development for this South Asian nation. However, for its population of around 170 million, mobile internet remains as the principal connectivity option, which again is not affordable for all segments and not stably accessible everywhere. According to the November 2020 stats of Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Communication (BTRC) ; among 110.56 million internet users in the country, just 7.8% use fixed broadband , while the rest 92.17% use mobile broadband.
Educational institutions in Bangladesh, particularly schools have remained closed since March 2020. As long as the pandemic scenario does not come under full control (upto 3 January 2021, Bangladesh has 7500+ deaths and around 515,000 cases of COVID-19), any specific re-opening possibility is not visible in near horizon. A wide range of remote educational endeavors are continuing there, like: television broadcasting of school lessons, online classes in many institutions and enrichment of different localized online educational sites. The basic challenge however remains same- lack of proper internet access for majority of school-going children.
This scenario basically prompted some alternate thought. Despite being the most densely populated country in the world where mobile penetration levels are relatively high even in rural areas, consumer spending levels in Bangladesh are among the lowest in the world. Consequently, although over 60% people own mobile phones, only 18% own smartphones. Lack of awareness-skill of users along with lack of sufficient content in local language are other significant barriers in this regard. For this huge segment who own basic mobile phones but remain unreachable through online connectivity, offline contents appear as a potential option. Particularly for long the usage of mobile memory cards has been quite popular across the country to share various sort of contents. Current stalemate scenario provoked the need to utilize this option for educational content distribution.
Accordingly, a trial run was performed during November-December 2020 among some under-privileged students in capital city Dhaka, who have not been in touch with school education and also unable to access online contents since the lockdown started. Each of these students were given a 4 GB sized mobile memory card, which contained 20 video lessons made by some volunteers. These lessons were basically made in storytelling mode in local language (Bangla), each on a particular topic from the textbooks of class 9,10,11 & 12 on different subjects (English, Bangla, Geography & Environment, Career Education etc). The purpose was to assist the students to understand the related contents in textbook, during this period when they have no other form of learning assistance available.
2 months after handing over the memory cards to the students, they were gathered again along with the volunteers on early January 2021 for a feedback & award session (carried out through simultaneous in-person and virtual interaction). Each student was first asked to mention 2 video lessons that they have watched, then they were asked 2 questions from each of those lessons to evaluate their understanding of the content.
All the students answered the questions correctly and elaborately, indicating effectiveness of the video lessons. They also mentioned that these video lessons have helped them significantly in their studies. They suggested that this initiative will be very helpful for other students particularly those in rural area, so length and numbers of lessons can be increased covering more topics. Each student was then given a symbolic prize set (containing a diary marking 50 years of Bangladesh independency, a pen with hand sanitizer sand, a pen with mobile phone stand). Special thanks go to the volunteers on the field whose relentless end-to-end effort made this endeavor fruitful.
Successful completion of this trial, and its findings will be helpful for proceeding towards extended implementation of this concept. As remote educational schemes continue to boost, offline digital learning remains as a promising option for so many who are still lacking online access.