Since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the country’s education system has faced challenges and passed milestones. Its education policies have been focused primarily on access and enrolment, as a result of which it now almost has universal enrolment in primary schools. The next frontier for its education policy-makers is learning outcomes.

In 2021, the country launched a fresh school curriculum, the roll-out of which is underway. This is a progressive intervention: it has created a watershed moment for innovations on blended learning going beyond the classroom structure. Nonetheless, it is also true that there are severe challenges in scaling blended learning.

A 2022 World Bank report, South Asia’s Digital Opportunity, is pertinent in this regard, pointing to the need for ‘clear institutional arrangements and a whole-of-government approach to coordinate policies, resources, and initiatives’ and highlighting that ‘inclusion should be at the forefront of policy and innovation, through human-centred design and stakeholder engagement.’

Blended learning in Bangladesh

In 2020, the covid-19 pandemic-induced school closure brought blended learning into mainstream education in Bangladesh. Blended learning was also gaining popularity in response to disruptions to schooling owing to weather events and political unrest. The reality is, blended learning is not a response to a single crisis but to the pressing conditions of everyday life.

In 2022, Bangladesh ranked sixth out of 10 comparator countries on the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Digital Education Readiness Framework (DERF). It scored very high on the ‘student and parent engagement’ category of the index. However, on ‘policy and providers’ category, it scored very poorly.

In Bangladesh’s public education system, there are 6,460 one-off digital labs in secondary and 50,000 multimedia classrooms in primary schools. Teachers are instructed to use these facilities for information and communication technology (ICT) lessons but they are not trained for it. There is no digital up-skilling programme for educators to enhance their day-to-day teaching.

There are three key learning management systems (LMS) available for public use: 1) Connect, for students, 2) the Teachers’ Portal and 3) Muktopaath, for teachers. But these platforms unfortunately do not have quality content. Content creation LMS need multisectoral expertise, resources and agility.

As stated in the World Bank’s 2022 report, ‘it is not only about technology, but also about processes.’ Here, in other countries, stakeholders outside of the government often play a role. However, in Bangladesh, there are no scaled public–private partnerships to provide content to the schooling system.

…in Bangladesh, there are no scaled public–private partnerships to provide content to the schooling system.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s latest Education Policy was formulated in 2010. This drives the general direction of the education sector. It needs a revisit, given the fast-changing learning landscape globally. The reformed policy should drive the system towards the new agenda of quality education for all. Bangladesh’s education policy-makers have formulated some strategic documents, including the Blended Education Master Plan (in 2022) and the Smart Bangladesh ICT Master Plan (in 2023), which weave in the country’s policy pronouncements on blended learning.

A classroom of grade four students using one-notch-up low-cost technology (like the visible projection) designed by CholPori initiative to enhance learning in rural, resource-constrained schools. The students are learning about occupations in their English subject class, Chattogram, southeastern Bangladesh | Photo by CholPori Foundation.

Blended Education Master Plan: It is a 10-year policy agenda. It is an output of a multi-ministerial taskforce, from the covid-19 pandemic era, which outlines a framework focused on:

  1. Teacher learning practices;
  2. Educational content;
  3. Assessments;
  4. Teacher professional development;
  5. Inclusive infrastructure.

The Blended Education Master Plan was designed to aid in recovery from the detrimental impacts of the covid-19-induced school shutdowns. It stipulates digital content development and the use of remote learning modalities. It also recommends comprehensive curriculum reforms by incorporating digital learning, 21st century skills and climate change considerations. It also points to the need for new pedagogical methods in the general curriculum.

This transformation will facilitate the shift towards a more digitally inclusive education system. The plan outlines a dynamic process to enable education policies to be flexible to the evolving context. The document contains budget guidelines and regular review mandates. However, to ensure its success, a new Education Policy accompanied by public investments for blended learning will be key.

A good public policy must have two things: a timeline and a clear costing estimate. Without such guides, a broadening digital divide may cause more people (especially the marginalised) to fall behind. Such groups often do not have access to devices and networks.

Smart Bangladesh ICT Master Plan: It is an overarching plan to support the country’s educational goals by focusing on:

  1. Blended teaching and learning;
  2. Digital upskilling;
  3. Educational content development.

The plan is aligned with Bangladesh’s education sector targets to make education adaptive to the need for 21st century skills. This alignment supports inclusive equitable quality education and promotes lifelong learning opportunities.

Blended learning scaled in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is a case in point of a strong national education policy. Uzbekistan has the highest score in the policy category of ADB’s Digital Education Readiness Framework (DERF). The DERF assesses the readiness of the policy environment through three factors: 1) relevant policies and investments, 2) curriculum and content; and 3) teachers’ training.

Uzbekistan is a case in point of a strong national education policy.

The Uzbekistan policy has situated the education system in the larger context of the economy by:

  • Introducing changes in the basic curriculum to increase students’ tech usage;
  • Advancing computer science teaching methods in schools by involving IT firms;
  • Introducing a One Million Programmers project at schools;
  • Assessing students’ knowledge using digital tools and distance learning;
  • Ensuring the curriculum reflects the requirements of the digital economy;
  • Developing cooperation between the education system and research institutions, government agencies and industry;
  • Connecting students with IT parks.
Uzbekistan is the most robust education system among Asian Development Bank’s top 10 comparator countries for blended learning integration. Students from remote areas harness modern educational resources and digital tools to enhance their computer literacy skills, Kyzyltepa District, Uzbekistan, 30 January 2024 | Photo by Ministry of Economy and Finance, Uzbekistan.

Challenges of scaling blended learning in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh’s public schooling system, there is genuine enthusiasm to adopt classroom technology usage. However, without a budget allocation for maintenance, teachers’ training and content creation, full implementation of blended learning remains farfetched. The key challenges are:

  • Lack of earmarked funding for blended learning technologies;
  • Lack of teacher trainings in ICT;
  • Poor quality learning and teaching content;
  • Non-transparent procurement process for specialised content and services:
  • Low internet penetration (less than 50%) and slow broadband speed;
  • Outdated institutional hardware;
  • Weak cooperation between the educational ecosystem, research institutions and industries.

A low-cost, scalable solution for Bangladesh

There are a few private initiatives on blended education in Bangladesh. Some are scalable and others are not. CholPori is one scalable initiative. It is an innovative learning platform built to aid students and teachers. CholPori learning content aligns with the country’s national curriculum. In 2023, CholPori launched a pilot study of public–private partnership in 54 schools (with government-provided multimedia labs) in rural Bangladesh.

The intervention provided teachers with digital materials and training in blended teaching. Over the course of six months, assessments were conducted to measure academic progress. In this short time, the findings showed an increase in both performance and classroom engagement (despite the challenges of outdated hardware).

CholPori’s pilot gives hope for a large-scale intervention to deliver the country’s new curriculum across Bangladesh.

CholPori’s pilot shows that teacher synthesisation needs hands-on support. The learning curve for using quality digital tools is small and the results of application were almost immediate. However, hardware, internet access and power disruptions were major inhibitors. Even schools with government-provided multimedia labs had outdated technologies.

CholPori’s pilot gives hope for a large-scale intervention to deliver the country’s new curriculum across the country. Such partnerships can provide content and training, aligned with the national curriculum, at public schools for a lower cost. Otherwise, the government would have to develop the model from scratch.

Lessons from India

In India, there is a wide variety of edtech companies delivering content and providing services to classrooms. Next Education India is a leading support product for private schools that provides 360 solutions (hardware and software) for K-12. EduComp is another initiative that has been working on literacy and numeracy solutions for over two decades and has partnered with 14 state governments. It is present in 10,700 schools across India.

Another solution is Schoolnet India, which is used in over 100,000 smart schools. With this product, teachers use a device to facilitate group learning. Teachers experience faster coverage of their syllabus. The tool also gives conceptual clarity to students through multimedia learning. It is designed to be moved for usage in multiple classrooms.

Bangladesh currently does not have similar examples. There are valid reasons to consider procurement of educational services and content from private providers. Private companies typically have specialised knowhow in developing educational materials. Private providers may also deliver services more efficiently than the government. It’s important for Bangladeshi policy-makers to carefully evaluate the true cost-effectiveness of public–private partnerships for blended learning.

Recommendations

Bangladesh’s challenges in upgrading the education system to be future-ready can be addressed only with stakeholder collaboration. Policy-makers can consider the following:

  • Update the Education Policy to guide the work of the relevant institutions (education directorates, boards, academies, commissions and bureaus). Blended learning and technology must be clearly prescribed, with a roadmap for infrastructural development (labs and connectivity) and teacher training.
  • Deliver a detailed budget as part of the policy for it to be effective.
  • Commit to growing partnerships between the public education system, the private sector and civil society. This should include a clear procurement system, fellowships, scholarships, internships and competitions.
  • Engage private companies to provide services and content to the public education system.
  • Invest in teacher training in technology use and adaptability (growth mindset). Create national blended learning seminars for educators and a system of rewards for innovation in the classroom.

Conclusion

Bangladesh is at a pivotal moment because a new curriculum promises a complete revamp of its education system. The country still has a digital divide and a quality learning problem, however. Blended learning is foundational to addressing this. A collaborative and goal-oriented approach must be taken to ensure that classroom blended learning closes the digital divide. This massive undertaking must be guided by an up-to-date Educational Policy. Public–private partnerships can advance a ‘quality education for all’ agenda.

The country can learn from successful implementations in comparator countries. It should also embrace the potential of private providers. With such a smart policy approach, Bangladesh can propel its education system through a competitive world. This policy will equip learners with the necessary skills to contribute to the nation’s growth momentum.

 

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Chanchal Khan is Honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He is an academic. He was the founding Director of the Development Studies programme at the University of Melbourne. He was a development consultant at ADB, the World Bank, UNDP, AusAID, DFID, USAID and the EU. He is the author of COVID-19 Facts, Factoids and Conspiracies (2022). He pursued his doctoral studies in Public Policy at Washington University.
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Shamsul Haque is a specialist in education management information systems (EMIS). He is an ICT expert. He was an education consultant at ADB, the World Bank and the EU. He specialises in online learning platforms, digital content, teacher support systems, learning management systems and hybrid learning. He pursued his graduate studies in computer science and applied physics.
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Zareen Mahmud Hosein is Founder of HerStory Foundation and CholPori. She is a social entrepreneur and a chartered accountant. She is a founding partner at Snehasish Mahmud & Co., a national committee member of Aga Khan Foundation Bangladesh and a Governing Board member of Sajida Foundation. She was supervising analyst at the New York City Mayor’s Budget Office, a senior associate at KPMG and a consultant at UNCDF. She is an Acumen Fellow. She received the Inspiring Women Award from Women in Leadership and a Women of Excellence Award from Women Economic Forum. She pursued her graduate studies in Public Finance at New York University.