It is a hard fact that some of the high-risk sites for the spread of the COVID-19 are school, college and university campuses. This evolving situation will not only be vastly disruptive but may also be the driving force for an unprecedented paradigm shift in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). The virus seems to be increasingly fatal for the aged with underlying health medical issues – quite an apt analogy for the metamorphosis brought on by the pandemic on the HEIs around the world.
The Conundrum of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)
This crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities prevalent, not only amongst the governing bodies across borders but within the industries and institutions as well. The HEIs in the academic landscape is no different. Many educational institutions are still rooted within traditional systems of education, entrenching their curriculums in conventional theories and restricting their delivery to a one-way transfer of knowledge. This leaves them susceptible to the disability of stagnation in progress, with the unfortunate possibility of deterioration in the development of learning in the long run, especially in today’s rapidly evolving and increasingly uncertain times.
This pandemic has forced academic communities across borders to rethink their approach towards teaching and learning, exploring the uncharted territories of distance learning and online education. It is not only a daunting challenge for institutions and students alike but even more so for those who are yet to be able to adapt to this change and adopt the ‘new normal’. That in itself is an incredibly difficult task for those in developing countries, given their pre-existing conditions of socio-economic constraints, slow advancement of the IT infrastructure, and the poor literacy & general apathy towards technology. Amidst this global crisis, HEIs have been stripped to its fundamental functionalities and put to an eccentric acid test. Now, it is the survival of the fittest, amongst countries, industries, organizations, and of course, most importantly, the people.
This pandemic changes everything, and this time, a daunting challenge is upon us. It has altered life as we know it, catalyzing a transformation that prompts us in HEIs to rethink, reform, and remodel our operations at every level. It is one of those unpredictable, unforeseen, and uncertain circumstances with extreme consequences on multiple fronts.
In Bangladesh and around the world, students live in close community proximity, take classes in 4-walled classrooms, eat with friends and family, spending time for both study and leisure in communal settings. Whether it is in usual greetings or cheering their favourite teams, shaking hands, high-fives, and hugs have always been relatively common. But, with the virus becoming a common phenomenon across the globe, nothing is even remotely normal anymore. With the varying degrees of worldwide lockdowns, some HEIs have had to move quickly and respond with a remote-teaching alternative. A few were a step ahead, already have the capability and resources to make the shift online, while others struggled to either explore the available platforms or create one of their own.
COVID-19 has become more of a catalyst for online education, along with numerous other sectors like healthcare, commerce, ICT, etc., that were curve, the lack of medical test kits, and the elusive breakthrough for the vaccine, sending students home ensured their safety. But enabling them to finish off their academic term online ensured that no one fell behind. This was of critical importance to safeguard the youth of our nation, not only in terms of their health but also the continuity of their pursuit to realize their dreams. It is a light of hope amidst the chaotic darkness that engulfs the world today.
‘Physical distancing’ being a temporary new norm, HEIs are now developing more pedagogical and administrative tools so as to enable operations as a distributed organization. In the long run, this will not only work towards enriching education as we know it but enhancing the learning experience altogether.
Unfortunately, in developing countries like Bangladesh, most HEIs have struggled to adapt to the change brought about by the pandemic. Many faced challenges with ensuring an adept remote workforce for the duration of the lockdown. The means for implementing virtual classes was not something they were prepared for. Unlike the tech sector, HEIs are not exactly built for remote operations, having little or no prior experience in managing such radical shifts.
There is also a financial backlash on this, obviously. Students may not be in the classroom, but some have either typically welcomed the respite or may have actively resisted it. But they are still getting the same curriculum, courses, teachers and administrative staffs; they had initially signed up for. The only thing is, the cost of making the shift to online delivery and augmenting the requisite supports, that undoubtedly adds value to their educational experience under the current circumstances, adds to the overall cost as well. Contradictorily, one that goes unaccounted for.
No one wants to consider a scenario where this perplexing situation persists well into the next semester, rendering universities unable to reopen. It may not be a likely scenario, but it is definitely a possible one. But that very notion raises difficult questions. Would it be an affordable alternative? A feasible option? A sustainable one? Given the ambiguity we all face now, sadly, we can only prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
American International University-Bangladesh (AIUB): Digital to Virtual
As the global events unfolded, the pandemic looming closer, prompted the American International University – Bangladesh (AIUB) to transition online. Since its inception, AIUB, as an institution, had always strived to be digital, but now it had to go virtual as well.
From the 20th of March 2020, AIUB has successfully shifted all the classes of all 4 Faculties, for both undergraduate and graduate programs, onto the virtual platform of Microsoft Teams Application. Initiating one of the very first efforts of HEIs in Bangladesh going online, AIUB enabled students and teachers to conduct and undertake their lectures and assessments within the safety of their homes. Since 2008, AIUB has been affiliated with Microsoft [email protected], currently known as Microsoft Office 365 for Education, making it one of the most long-standing and constructive collaborations with the technology giant in the country till date.
As a result of this partnership, AIUB students, faculty members, and officials get unlimited user access to many of its applications, including the Microsoft Teams. It is a unified platform for communication and collaboration that combines persistent workplace chat, video meetings, file storage, and application integration. Being one of the first private universities in Bangladesh to make a move within days of the initial outbreak in the country, AIUB has now gone entirely virtual with its classes with the licensed MS Teams App that everyone can access using their own university email IDs. With its dynamic interface and diverse features, students and faculties can now participate in a unique teaching-learning experience; MS Teams enables an interactive and versatile system that not only ensures the health and welfare of its students, faculty, and administration but also encourages the continuity of academic activities even in these difficult times.
For the Summer 2019-20 session, approximately 10,000 active student users along with around 650 faculty members and administrative officials of AIUB, are accessing the online platform, utilizing it to its full capacity for real-time online class lectures and team-based work projects. Faculty members are delivering lectures through video conferencing with embedded PowerPoint presentations, Microsoft Learn, Microsoft Stream, Microsoft Administration, Microsoft Forms for quizzes, Gradebook, Assignments, whiteboard incorporations, attendance monitoring and desktop sharing options. Students can communicate with them through video, audio, or message boards for queries, clarifications, and class participation, as required and appropriate. They can also undertake various means of assessments like quizzes and assignments online on MS Teams.
The platform has unlocked a dynamic set-up as an alternate medium to the conventional in-class teaching and learning environments, augmenting another layer of advanced digitized education in the modern world today. The initiative safeguarded the students from incurring the loss of the semester, giving them the leverage and flexibility to pursue their degrees and achieve their goals, while giving their parents and guardians peace of mind in these precarious times. To date, positive feedbacks are relayed by the teachers, along with enthusiasm shown by the students, to continue improving the education experience, prioritizing the learning objectives, teaching methods, and student outcomes with the utmost attention and consideration.
Overcoming the Obstacle-Course
Adapting to this new normal was not easy. Integrating Microsoft Solutions with our pre-existing infrastructure, we were able to make the remarkable transition from on-campus to online with over 10,000 students, faculty members, and administrative staff onboard within four days! The Microsoft 365 Education has amplified our efficiency and productivity, which in retrospect of the lockdown is an incredible feat in itself. We have been able to re-create the physical classroom learning experience for the students and teachers, improving the collaboration in the pandemic. This unanticipated shift as expanded horizons, to a phase where we are now considering a hybrid approach to education, with lectures being engaged in both virtual and physical classrooms, post-pandemic.
We have been receiving many inquiries on how we adopted this cultural transformation. The younger generation can adapt to technological changes more easily than senior members. But the smooth transition that was made possible by Microsoft and their seamless, user-friendly applications. We conduct, not only class lectures, but also operational meetings with administrative officials, the board of trustees, and even academic council members, through MS Teams, triggering the journey of digital transformation throughout our university.
With dedicated leadership from the people who truly make the institution come to life, technology can indeed revolutionize the curriculum and better prepare students for the new world of work. Unleashing their full potentials and harnessing their talents, such radical changes can catalyze and catapult them into greater heights even in this challenging landscape. It is now a tried and tested fact today, that digital transformation of institutions has the capability to provide equality, accessibility, and empowerment to all, making the previously impossible, possible.
Agility, resilience, and adaptability aren’t just fundamental skills for the 21st-century students. They are important skills for the 21st-century educational institutions as well — especially in an era when disruptive pathogens and natural calamities are predicted to become all the more common. Whether or not COVID-19 subsides quickly, the life as we knew it, has been irrevocably altered. Tumultuous times have a way of reordering reality and, in the process, opening doors to new opportunities and mind-sets. At the end of the day, every cloud, no matter how stormy, may have a silver lining. It all depends on how we look at its perspective.
This paper has been written by Dr Carmen Z. Lamagna, Vice-Chancellor, American International University-Bangladesh and Shama Islam, Assistant Professor, Department of Marketing, Faculty of Business Administration
American International University-Bangladesh