Post-pandemic the world of education has changed. While the old forces, practices and inertia still pulling it back to earlier practices, but there is decidedly a change for ever. Learning shall not be any more only face-to-face, merely chalk and talk, from the books and teachers alone.
Education now and ahead must be blended: blending the physical with the digital, the creative with the logical, the structured with the organic, the mentor-led with self-learning.
Interesting to see that Bangladesh has already embarked upon the process of formally creating a blended learning policy for the nation, with a Task Force created for this purpose led by the minister of education, Dr Deepu Moni MP, and with many leading educationists and all top functionaries of education focused bureaucracy in it, and a key role being played by the a2i program adviser with ICT Division, Anir Chowdhury. The Task Force has already submitted the report and draft policy to the Prime Minister’s Office and it is a question of some time before it is announced. Perhaps it shall be the first ever such a policy on blended learning in Asia, and would envisage a complete overhaul of education in this country over the next decade which would be perhaps with an expenditure of nothing less than 1.5 lacs crores taka.
The Blended Learning framework integrates several new age aspects of mentoring and learning, beginning with the perspective of teachers evolving to mentors and students become modern-day learners. Mentors guide, support and inspire with their own proprietary learning resources (ppts, films, podcasts, infographics, books, cases and chapters) and also with aggregated learning resources found in open sources. They surely cover the structured syllabi, but also motivate good learners towards organic deep dive learning and self-learning. Learners learn to internalize and practice knowledge acquired, use it for life and productivity, and learn from mentors, peers, experiences, digital resources and from books. Learning begins even before the class, through self-learning and flipped classroom, and evaluations are done in multiple ways during and at the end of the course (formative and summative assessments). Blended makes this entire experience seamlessly from online to physical, classroom to laboratory to the field, and finally further learnt through self-learning digitally.
Blended learning has various dimensions. They can be as follows:
Institutional dimension: This dimension regards the organization’s preparedness in terms of administrative and academic matters and student services. The policy hence shall look into this which will encompass physical infrastructure, human resources and rules and compliances in place.
Pedagogical dimension: This dimension analyzes the consistency between course content and the learners’ needs. In addition, the appropriate method to deliver the content is chosen. The most accepted form today is about Outcome Based Education where every program and courses therein shall have specific learning objectives and outcomes which can be demonstrated or quantified.
Technological dimension: This dimension examines aspects related to technological infrastructure (e.g., infrastructure planning as well as accessibility to necessary hardware and software). This calls for bridging the digital divide and bringing all stakeholders to a minimum level of access to device and broadband. This is indeed a battle for any society and government to ensure this in a developing nation. Interestingly, the University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh had taken some distinctive initiatives during the pandemic period in higher education in this regard, which include providing devices, zoom connection et al to the mentors to conduct online sessions better and keep quality delivery.
Interface design: An interface is concerned with the overall look and feel of a blended learning program, such as page, site, and content design, and navigation that enables learners to use and switch between different delivery methods. One of the remarkable blended learning practices in Bangladesh in recent times has been that of the Blended Learning Centre (BLC) of the Daffodil International University.
Evaluation: This dimension focuses on the blended learning program’s usability. It includes assessing the learners as well as the instruction and learning environment. It will include formative assessment being done while one is learning a course, summative assessment done at the end, and evaluation done online, in studio or lab, on ground and in person. It also evaluates the learning content through learners’ and peer feedback.
Management: This dimension denotes maintaining the learning environment and managing content delivery. So, learning management systems needed ideally, or at least using available Google Class and other tools.
Resource support dimension: This dimension handles online support and the resources required to create meaningful learning environments. This can include Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), paid online courses (like Coursera), proprietary content of the mentors, aggregate open source content as available in the internet, books, and many other sources. In an economically highly stratified nation like Bangladesh, resource support to the less privileged is an absolute necessity.
Ethical considerations: Such considerations are related to cultural and geographical diversity, etiquette, equal opportunity, and legal issues. Such issues are important in diverse developing nations with strong cultural, religious and ethical considerations.
In Bangladesh context, the policy is expected to envisage a major teachers’ professional development in all scenarios: no-tech (for smaller classes and in remote areas), low-tech (where electronic media like television and radio can be of great help), and high-tech (where high speed broadband availability with good quality laptops combine to bring the full force of digital learning), and all these seamlessly integrated with synchronous face-to-face learning. The training and development will require first competency needs and essential standards of the mentors, and at all levels of education. The training manuals for effective mentoring and multi-dimensional assessment of the learners shall have to be developed. For higher education, industry integration in learning is also a major necessity. Such training of the mentors shall be required even in Madrasahs where modern technology, courses and Islamic values and practices shall converge to create the new age learners. The mentors’ capacity enhancement must include preparing online courses through audio, video, infographics, power-point presentations, and case-studies or illustrations.
The policy also needs to incorporate evidence-based research and development on blended pedagogy and creation of blended education accelerator to innovate on current educational practices from school to university. Without disruptive new practices, cosmetic changes cannot revolutionize education, first on paper and then on ground. Application of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to accelerate higher education, customize learning to a learner’s natural interests, and modernise the process is another necessity in the policy. EdTech integration for pace and quality, instructional design components to enhance interest of learners, and bringing in playfulness and aesthetics in education are some other needs as well.
To modernize education for a mid-level developed nation, Bangladesh surely has to completely solve the energy problem, encourage decentralized solar energy production and consumption, bring in full coverage of 5G telecom-internet connectivity, and make device availability easy and cheap from hinterland to the heartland of the country. Inclusive infrastructure at all levels of education through smart class, internet and campus network, tollfree learning helpline, low cost learning devices, simulation lab & digital studio support for mentors and learners, etc, can lead to actualizing the vision of an advanced blended learning ecosystem in the country. World-over, virtual labs and studios are also in vogue now and are useful in times of limited access to campus infra-structure.
We must consciously blend the right (the creative) and the left (the rational) brains through our education, and actively encourage learners to take science or commerce-based courses with liberal arts-based ones. Similarly, blending learning with applying and playing also necessary in our campuses.
For a high population, even community based shared learning is a good start with inclusive infrastructure. Skills-focus at all levels is needed. Sharing learning resources, having common learning repository in a region or among multiple institutions, and collaborating rather contesting are other important and necessary measures to take education to the next level, towards which the policy needs active focus. Community outreach, peer-to-peer learning, assessment less by memory more by application, employability as a critical outcome and institutional assessment criterion, alternative learning systems, et al, shall also make critical components of such a Blended Learning Policy for Bangladesh.
Hope the nation gets the policy surely by World Teachers’ Day on October 5, 2022.
Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury
Adviser & Professor, Daffodil International University