School of Another Kind
Online networks are being utilized to bring the fruits of education to rural Bangladesh.
The children of rural Bangladesh are now served by online teaching.
Much like in Pakistan, the quality of education in Bangladesh, particularly its rural areas, leaves much to be desired. Given the shortage of proper infrastructure and qualified, experienced teachers, children in Bangladesh’s rural areas remain deprived of education. In such a scenario, several socially responsible companies and not-forprofit organizations have taken it upon themselves to set up – and sponsor – schools in rural centers across the country. Conventional approaches to the problem, however, have been largely unsuccessful and as a result several online schools have been set up that cater specifically to rural centers.
In this regard, the Grameenphone (part of the Telenor Group) -Jaago collaboration has been reasonably successful. “The concept of online school is indeed groundbreaking. If this can be successfully put into operation in Bangladesh, not only will the quality of education improve but we will also take a step forward towards a digital Bangladesh. We want to show how mobile connectivity can transform conventional ways of providing basic services to the masses,” says Kazi Monirul Kabir, Chief Communications Officer, Grameenphone.
The idea is hardly new – in areas where children are unable to traverse
long distances because of the rough terrain or social/cultural/security restrictions, the classroom comes to them. This is much like an earlier version where teachers would go from door to door, collect children of a certain age and set up a makeshift classroom for them. The remote ‘classroom’ is connected online with a classroom in Dhaka where the teacher conducts the session using video conferencing technology, along with the support of assigned staff at remote locations. While the class is in session, both the teacher and the students have the freedom to interact live.
A practical and feasible solution to the country’s education problem, the first Grameenphone-Jaago Foundation online school was set up in 2012 at Gazipur, followed by two others in Hazaribagh and Lalbagh in Dhaka. Soon enough, other schools were set up around the country with the fourth one being launched in the Southeastern Bandarban district that allowed access of children from nearly 100 families in remote hilly villages to the information superhighway.
Teachers from Dhaka instruct students at the online school in Bandarban, some 316 km southeast of Dhaka, using video conferencing technology and with the aid of moderators in the physical classrooms. Officials say the school was established in an effort to offer quality education for underprivileged children in Bandarban, a remote region, with mountainous terrain, yet boasting exquisitely beautiful nature -- though it was not conducive to the regular style of education for students in the far-flung region. “40 children are now studying here. Most of them are from Tonchongga and Bom tribes. Some Bengali children are also enrolled in the schools,” says Shudanonda Tonchongga, local coordinator of the school.
Meanwhile, Mahmud Hossain, chief corporate affairs officer at Grameenphone says: “Children who belong to the indigenous community have no internet access. The school is our effort to give such access to the indigenous children. It is the 3G network that has created the opportunity to ensure internet for all.”
The Jaago Foundation, which is responsible for providing physical support in the classrooms and designing the online curricula for all the classes, said the students along with their families, had never previously dreamed that basic education would ever be possible for them. The next closest school for the folks living there is roughly five kilometers away, which in the hill tracts is an even more arduous area. The online school has created an opportunity for children because their impoverished parents don't have to bear the expenses for their education and they also don't have to commute far from their village. "Considering our financial situation, thinking about our daughter’s education was a luxury we just couldn't afford since schooling was too expensive. Moreover, my daughter needed extra care," says Afroja Khatun, a local whose daughter Mukti goes to the Bandarban online school. "I always wished for a normal life for my daughter."
So how does an online classroom work? Children are admitted to a class specially geared to teach the students the manners and etiquette that come with online education. To maintain this atmosphere, students are not admitted to higher classes from outside, but promoted internally . Two classes now exist, with 30 to 40 students in each. Rotation is maintained in the seating arrangement so that each student may have a chance at proximity with the teacher and vice versa.
Since it is difficult for teachers to control children without physical presence, there are moderators present who act as their assistants
The remote ‘classroom’ is connected online with a classroom in Dhaka where the teacher conducts the session.
and proxies when necessary. The moderators are taken from the locality and their engagement in the classroom instills them with valuable skills and experience. After class ends, the teachers hold a 10-15 minute discussion with the moderators about the day and their lesson plans and ideas for the next day. In the event of a connectivity issue, the moderators may hold the class by themselves. The technology used is basic and is suitable for video conferencing. Nevertheless, it still entices the students and encourages them to attend class.
The curriculum followed by the school is Jaago's own. It is closest to the English version of the national curriculum but borrows things from other curricula as well. The school goes up to class 5, after which students sit for the national Primary School Certificate (PSC) examination. They can transfer to other schools after PSC.
The concerned authorities in Bangladesh are hopeful that this initiative will create an example across the country - that communication can overcome any boundaries – geographical or otherwise. The goal here is to make education the best it can be and accessible for all and from the looks of it, Bangladesh is on the right track to achieving that target.