Democratic digitalisation of higher education


The education report prepared for the UNESCO World Summit, 2009 was named “Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution”. This report showed strong indications towards a shift in the global economy due to the unprecedented changes of direction and depression of the economy worldwide. This situation in turn is changing the trends in industrial economics and playing a role in the growth of service based industries and a knowledge based economy. It is also making unparallel contributions towards the increase in demand for higher education. This can be identified as the democratisation of higher education. 

The principal objective of higher education is to build a market worthy workforce and to ensure efficient use of that. This manpower is beneficial for the ever increasing population. It can be said without a doubt that the undertaking in the government level is mostly insufficient and inactive in meeting the growing demand for higher education in the country. 

Worldwide privatisation of industries started as early as the 80s' to ensure the highest standard of industries and industrial products. Education is also an industry and it has been privatised in many countries of the world. There has been noteworthy privatisation of education in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and many countries of South Asia. Following that trend, higher education has been and is still being privatised in Bangladesh. There is no scope to underestimate the role of private universities in creating an effective workforce.

Various experimentations and long term identification of shortcomings, and finding ways to recover from them are needed to bring about revolutionary changes in higher education. Again, experimentations are needed to make these revolutionary changes work. As higher education has become competitive through privatisation, the entire world has faced a new phenomenon and this experience is limited to Bangladesh. 

John Daniel, the president and CEO of “The Commonwealth of Learning”, has stressed on the importance of open education and distance learning in a recent seminar. To privatise higher education, or in other words, to cross this tough road of revolution, he has encouraged everyone to take the pledge of technological transformation. He said, “Adding value to education or higher education and turning it into an asset would be expensive. To reduce the expenses would bring inevitable risk to the availability and quality.” Mr. Daniel also said, “Through using technology, more can be gained, higher quality can be achieved, and the expenses can be lessened. This in itself is a revolution that has never happened before.” He brought up the success of the open universities (Indira Gandhi Open University for example). He also talked about the open educational programs by MIT as examples of excellence in technological progress. Open universities run with the combination of numerous out-campuses. To accelerate the processes of their out-campuses, MIT has completely digitised them or in other words, they have used technology.

In a recent seminar organised by the collaboration of British Council and English in Action, Mr. Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor of the UNDP and USAID-supported Access to Information Program, Prime Minister's Office, Bangladesh, said, “Education is going outside the building.”

Both the speakers show an indication towards the important issue, and that is the use of technology. The physical building is no longer the primary concern. Buildings are useful; a permanent address is essential too. However, to bring revolutionary changes, clutching on to a building will not do.

The rate at which technology is advancing in providing high quality service to every sector in a short time tells us that there is no need to worry about constructing buildings. It can be understood more clearly if we draw the example of a service sector, such as, the postal service. Post offices were used to talk to the dear ones, to send information from one part of the country to another, and to send money. There was no other media other than the post. Thousands of post offices were built in this country spending hundreds of crores of taka. With the advent of technology, post offices are not used any more. The post offices, worth so much, have become obsolete. Even though the necessity of post offices has become exhausted, the service did not stop. Rather the quality of the service has increased in multiples taking less time and money. An electronic letter (e-mail) is not only going from one edge of the country to another, it is going from one edge of the world to another. The amount of paper and ink used in writing letters is not needed anymore. As the usage of paper has become less, fewer trees are cut and the environment is also harmed less. Now we do not even need a computer to send an e-mail. We can do that from a mobile phone. All of this is the excellence of technology.

Let me give you another example, that is, newspapers. We don't need to take up grand offices, huge printing machines or cut thousands of trees to make newspapers anymore. Now online news is getting more focus. Hundreds of newspapers have gone online around the world and we do not even need a computer to read them. We can read them from the mobile phones on our hands. These are the uses of technology. Bangladesh, also, is not behind in this regard. “Digital Bangladesh” is a groundbreaking announcement by the honourable Prime Minister. It is a brave and ambitious utterance that is helping the country to keep pace with the contemporary world. Digitalisation is essential for every section of the service sector. Today, due to the visionary thinking of the Prime Minister, digitalisation has started in every section of the country. “Digitalisation” is a must to achieve the revolution of privatising higher studies. 

A permanent campus has been identified as the only measure of quality education of the private universities. Is it really the case? As a citizen, I think, enough qualified teachers, advanced laboratories, enriched libraries, task-based syllabus, and suitable environment for teaching need to be identified for controlling and evaluating the quality of education. Often in newspapers and television reports, only a permanent campus is highlighted as one of the problems of the private universities. How logical are these reports? It has also been written in the newspapers that most of these reports are made based on guesses. Of course, a permanent campus is necessary but that cannot be the only way to ensure high standards of the private universities. 

To accelerate the higher education revolution in the poor and middle income countries, as we have to save time, we also have to keep from spending money in unproductive works. A building is now essential for teaching but it is very 

possible that these buildings will turn out to be like the post offices. Use of technology needs to be put forward while using the resources of the private universities. It has been noticed that the classes in the public universities often get closed due to student uprisings, strikes, and shutdowns. As a result, the courses do not end in time and session jams increase. Classes are closed at the private universities too but the teachers of the private universities send course outlines to the students online and the students are downloading them with their phones and computers and even sitting for the exams online to finish the courses on time. So it is proven that it is not necessary that studying has to be done in a classroom of a building. Studies can go on outside the classroom and that is what is happening. 

There is no need to set up libraries taking up thousands of square feet of space. If all the books and journals of the library are digitised, the students can read them from their homes. This way, there is no need for the students to crowd inside libraries or to occupy extra space.

In this era of technology and globalisation, the experts who are believers of revolutionising education, think of constructing highly expensive buildings for a permanent campus as an obstacle. The traditional universities are bound to be obsolete because of information technology, distant learning, and technological inventions. Whether the building is a rental or permanent should not be the concern. Rather, the matter of concern should be whether there is a suitable environment for teaching. We are jumping into making expensive buildings but soon they will become antiquated. 

World Bank, in a recent report, mentioned that Bangladesh is developing in education despite the poor management. To accelerate the revolution of higher education, the emphasis needs to be put on research and development, skilled teachers, environment of teaching, extra-curricular activities/clubs, quality of education, and the working skills of the graduates. The role of education in sustainable development is very important in South Asia, and especially in Bangladesh. Not only prioritising infrastructure, supervision or just making graduates, rather, the proper use of technology to create the future leaders of the country needs to be given importance above all.

The writer is Professor, Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka. and Chairman, Northern University Bangladesh

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