Five lessons learnt from Bangladesh’s experience responding to COVID-19

by Md. Afzal Hossain Sarwar (a2i), Iqbal Hossain (UNICEF Bangladesh) and Tom Kaye (EdTech Hub)

In recent months, the EdTech Hub has produced a range of documents to support and guide countries as they develop and implement plans to help students keep learning during school closures. Some of the work we have produced includes:

In this post, The EdTech Hub joined up with Md. Afzal Hossain Sarwar from a2i and Iqbal Hossain from UNICEF Bangladesh to highlight how Bangladesh has so far responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons learned along the way.  #

UNICEF and a2i are supporting Bangladesh’s Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education to ensure students from pre-primary to secondary in both urban and rural areas, particularly the most marginalised, keep learning while not in school.

Bangladesh context

Bangladesh has one of the largest education systems in the world, with more than 35 million students of primary or secondary age. Enrolment has improved in recent years, with primary education enrolment rising from 87.2 percent in 2005 to 97.9 percent in 2018. Likewise, secondary enrolment has risen from 47.7 percent in 2010 to 66.6 percent in 2018. Education quality is slowly improving. Teacher numbers are increasing, which has led to a fall in the student–teacher ratios (from 47–1 in 2010 to 38–1 in 2018), and teachers are receiving more and better in-service and pre-service professional development opportunities. Curriculum and assessment reform is ongoing, and the quality of textbooks and teaching and learning materials continues to improve. 

The COVID-19 pandemic puts at risk the improvements made to Bangladesh’s education system. With schools closed since March 18, 2020, the Bangladeshi government acted quickly to ensure the gains were not lost.  

Bangladesh’s COVID-19 educational response

Bangladesh was well-positioned to respond to school closures thanks to its recent focus on strengthening online and distance education offerings. Since 2008, Bangladesh has been pursuing “Digital Bangladesh”, a program increasing access to digital public services. Progress towards this goal started in the education sector in 2010 and has led to a substantial increase in online learning opportunities. For example:

  • The students’ platform Konnect serves millions of learners with thousands of pieces of online learning content and live classes. 
  • The Skills Portal provides technical and vocational students with online content and live classes.
  • The government’s e-learning platform MuktoPaath, which mostly hosts online courses and virtual classes at the tertiary level, has more than 690,000 subscribers.

Bangladesh’s COVID-19 response was accelerated by, and has accelerated, this ongoing process of deploying a robust alternative education strategy.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Bangladesh, education policy-makers and stakeholders provided additional resources to strengthen these existing tools to reach the millions of students that were now out of school. A multi-modal approach was deployed to serve K-12 students, with tools such as television, internet, radio, and mobile phones. 

Bangladesh’s multi-modal response to COVID-19 for more detail look at the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education and Ministry of Education’s response and recovery plan

Some of these tools have been more commonly used than others. Examples include: 

Online classes: Online classes serve students in primary, secondary, Madrasa, technical and vocational education. Students, parents, and teachers are providing positive feedback on online classes. The Facebook live class platform has reached millions of learners. More than 12,000 live classes shared on Konnect, the Teachers Portal, and the Skills Portal.  

Educational television: More than 1,200 primary, secondary, Madrasa, technical, and vocational classes have been broadcast on Bangladesh’s national Sangsad Television. Short only classes to support technical and vocational skill development have received approximately 1.2 million views.  

Mobile Phone: In addition to providing large-scale opportunities for mainstream students, the most disadvantaged students (who do not access to the internet or television) must also be supported. A telephone hotline has been created to allow students and parents who require additional support to consult teachers for free via phone. 

Lessons learned

The lessons learnt from Bangladesh’s experience of rapidly rolling out alternative education to a large population could be helpful in other contexts as countries develop and implement their own education continuity plans. 

  1. A collaborative response is required: The ability of Bangladesh to rapidly deliver an at-scale response was made possible by the government’s philosophy of equity and inclusiveness. The ministries worked to ensure all actors – government, non-government, development partners, and the private sector – are aligned towards the same vision. For example, all actors are encouraged to provide resources through – a single platform hosting a wide range of digital learning resources. Ongoing transparent dialogue conducted through the local education group has also played a significant role in ensuring all development partners are integrating their support around the government’s response program rather than running many parallel responses.
  2. Stigmas about using technology in education can be overcome. Traditionally Bangladesh was hesitant to mainstream e-learning because connectivity and access to devices were considered a luxury. The need to use remote learning during school closures has shifted this view. Education leaders were forced to pivot towards using online learning and did so within 10 days of school closures. The ministries should build on this positive momentum and explore how technology can be integrated into education services to support learning when students return to classrooms. 
  3. Ensuring equity must be a priority: COVID-19 educational responses run the risk of further exacerbating pre-existing inequities if not carefully planned and implemented. While television or internet-based education can reach large numbers of students, many disadvantaged children cannot access these tools. Other tools can reach marginalised children more easily (e.g. radio) but are likely to result in less improvement in learning as they are not as interactive or engaging as other tools such as television. Policy-makers must balance investing in tools which provide access to as many students as possible with supplying students with access to more engaging tools with high-quality content, which often comes at a greater cost.
  4. Changes in mindsets about pedagogy and assessment can increase quality: Traditional approaches to pedagogy and assessment like rote teaching have long been recognised as barriers to learning. Being forced to implement remote learning approaches has changed that mindset, with policy-makers, teachers, and students welcoming the diverse approaches now being deployed. For example, teachers’ feedback to a2I and UNICEF indicates that this experience is giving them the opportunity to develop their own capacity. Having to deliver online classes has meant that teachers must build technical skills to conduct their own lessons. At the same time, teachers are able to view the lessons provided by colleagues. This allows them to gain insight into other teaching approaches and strengthen their teaching practices through the observation of lessons from across the country. 
  5. The philosophy of using multiple pathways to support learning should be retained and formalised when classes resume: In Bangladesh, education pathways and curriculum delivery have traditionally been generic and linear, with little flexibility to respond to individual student needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the government to identify new and innovative ways to provide students with learning opportunities. Policy-makers and teachers have needed to supply students with multiple pathways and platforms to achieve learning goals. Students in different contexts can personalise their learning journey to align with their context. Maintaining this level of personalisation can help to ensure students have more, and better, opportunities to learn in the post-COVID-19 era. Policy reform should be pursued to ensure that remote learning options are maintained, not only for responding to emergencies but also as continuous support and remedial learning options for classroom-based learners. As part of this effort, the Bangladeshi government is exploring a digital learning ecosystem. This will involve working through a public-private partnership to equip each school with the digital facilities to host a blended learning environment.
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