Shifting to Full Online Teaching: The ULAB Experience

On 16 March 2020, amidst fears related to the coronavirus outbreak, the Bangladesh government issued a directive decreeing all educational institutions under the Ministry of Education to close from 18 to 31 March. Later, in the wake of an increasing number of deaths and confirmed infections, the Ministry of Education extended the school closure – first from 31 March to 9 April and again from 9 to 25 April. To minimize possible academic losses, the University Grants Commission (UGC) declared on 23 March that all universities introduce online education to run academic activities. It likewise suggested use of the Zoom Application, which can be accessed under the license of the Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN).

In light of all these directives, the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) authorities officially announced on March 16 the shift to online learning. At this time, the university was in the first half of the term with the mid-term period scheduled to take place in the last week of March. The authorities also instructed faculty to give assignments, written take home exams and viva voce exams in lieu of synchronous online written examinations. The authorities had to think of online teaching and assessment strategies given the levels of Internet accessibility of its students.  Based on a recent survey administered by the university’s Student Affairs Office (SAO), 60 percent of the students had reliable Internet access, 30 percent had intermittent Internet access, and 10 percent had no Internet access. The students without Internet access could not participate in the online sessions and therefore, special policies needed to be formulated and executed once the lockdown is lifted.  For now, the university needed to focus on students falling in the first two levels.

It should be noted that based on a Quacquarelli Symonds Limited (QS) survey conducted among 16,000 students and 400 university administrators, 54 percent of university respondents have shifted to online teaching and 63 percent of student respondents expected their universities to move towards teaching online. The data were gathered from February to March 2020. ULAB is only one of the several universities that have shifted to full online teaching due to the pandemic. Most ULAB students likewise expected the university to move to full online teaching.

ULAB Profile.  As of Spring Semester 2020, the university has 4,477 undergraduate and 662 graduate students. It has four schools – School of Business, School of Arts and Humanities, School of Social Science and School of Engineering. The university has 187 full-time and 155 part-time faculty members. More than one-third of its full-time faculty have doctorate degrees.

ULAB is a private liberal arts-based University located in Dhanmondi, Dhaka City. Founded in February 2002, it was granted permission to open from the UGC in November 2003, pursuant to the Private University Act 1992. ULAB was formally launched at a ceremony on 1 October 2004. ULAB believes in developing young minds to their fullest potential through the free and creative pursuit of knowledge. It is firmly committed to helping young men and women to become responsible and caring citizens of their nations and the world. ULAB fulfils these aims by adopting an array of traditional and innovative academic and extracurricular programs, and by bringing to its students the best that has been thought and accomplished in the arts and sciences throughout the world.

Foundations in Online Teaching.  ULAB authorities started floating the idea of the learning management system, or LMS, Moodle, during the Spring Semester of 2014. Moodle is a free and open-source learning platform designed to provide educators, administrators and learners with a single robust, secure and integrated system to create personalized learning environments. It is used for blended learning, distance education, flipped classroom and other e-learning projects worldwide.

After obtaining approval from the ULAB Syndicate, the late Prof. Brian Shoesmith (then Dean for Academic Development) announced in February 2015 the official adoption of the Moodle Learning Management System. Training, however, had begun from Spring 2014 with those faculty members who were interested and willing to experiment. Prof. Shoesmith assigned Arifa Ghani Rahman, currently Associate Professor of English and Humanities at ULAB, to conduct the training as she had many years of experience in teaching online. Prof. Shoesmith made it clear, when Moodle was officially adopted, that the platform would serve as an additional support to teaching and “not as a replacement for classroom teaching.” The system has since been used as a supplement to teaching where teachers can upload helpful or additional course materials, distribute and collect assignments, record grades, take attendance, chat with the students, and so on.

Official completion certificates in Moodle training were given to faculty members from April 2015. By February 2016, around 90 percent of the faculty had been trained in Moodle. As shown in a survey on Faculty Usage of Moodle, many teachers had made use of the system to complement their physical classroom teaching. However, they found it more convenient to communicate with students using other online platforms such as Facebook messenger or groups when off-campus.

In September 2018, ULAB formed an Online Education Study Group to recommend measures on how to move forward with online teaching and learning at the university. The group suggested the following strategic directions:

  • Assess the impact of online education practiced at ULAB and in other universities;
  • Prioritize online education strategies that build upon the strength of a liberal arts university;
  • Limit online education engagements to those instances that yield clear benefits to students and relevant stakeholders; and
  • Undertake broad consultation with faculty regarding online learning strategies.

Given these, various departments and centers in the university have made inroads in conducting online learning. Much of these have been instrumental in facilitating the shift from face-to-face classroom to online class teaching during this time of the pandemic. However, the familiarity with an online LMS among faculty and students could be considered the most important factor in facilitating this shift.

Inclusion of Other Learning Platforms. ULAB authorities have specified Moodle as its main online learning platform. However, to complement Moodle, authorities encouraged faculty to utilize other online platforms to facilitate teacher-student interactions. The goal of this directive was to prioritize the delivery of the course content, rather than focus on the platform used. For video conferencing, the faculty has utilized Zoom, Google Meet, and Google Hangouts. For speedy communication with students, faculty use WhatsApp and Facebook groups or Messenger. For students with intermittent access to Internet, faculty have uploaded documents and other materials to Moodle, and to Google Docs, Facebook groups, or sent them via email. Some faculty have recorded their synchronous lectures and uploaded them to the course-related Facebook private group so that students who could not login for any reason could view them later.

Collaboration with Coursera.  Back in 2018, the MBA Program Director Asif Uddin Ahmed, in his Integrated Marketing Communication course (MKT505), asked his students to register for a course offered jointly by and Curtin University of Australia called “Digital Branding and Engagement.” The course was free unless the students wanted a certificate from Curtin University. Finishing this course carried 20 percent of the assessment grade in the course MKT505. At the end of the course, sent the result directly to the teacher.

From the success of this initiative, Asif wanted to make available to ULAB students more online courses. In April 2020, he announced that Coursera has agreed to offer more than 4,600 courses for 1,000 ULABians for free for the next six months.  Coursera is an American online learning platform founded in 2012 by Stanford Professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller that offers massive open online courses, specializations and degrees. The agreement with Coursera is beneficial not only to business students but to all ULAB students and faculty, especially for those who want to learn more during the lockdown.

Conducting Webinars.  In 2018, the Center for Enterprise and Society (CES) and EMBA Program Director Sajid Amit initiated a partnership with the Startup Dhaka Online School (rechristened as “Upskill”). The partnership allowed CES/EMBA program to acquire experience and capability in developing online learning content.  With this experience, the EMBA program facilitated two webinars. The first webinar was conducted via Zoom on 5 April. Facilitated by Sajid, it covered the COVID-19 situation in the country and how to cope with it professionally and mentally. The second webinar, also held via Zoom on 13 April, was entitled “Impact of COVID-19 on Startups of Bangladesh.” The following panelists participated: Tina Jabeen (ICT Division, GoB), Fahim Ahmed (Pathao), Maksudul Islam (Shohoz) and Rubaiyath Sarwar (Innovision Consulting).

The Media Studies and Journalism Department conducted the following webinars during the lockdown period:

  • PR Project Planning and Implementation. 2 April. Iffat Nowrin Mallik (Instructor)
  • Basic and Advanced Cinematography. 21 March. Asraful Alam Rubel (Instructor)
  • Basic Learning of Adobe Premiere Pro. 19 March. Ishtiaq Ahmad (Instructor)
  • Covering Live Events. 2 April. Manwar Hossain (Instructor)

Two more webinars are planned this month. School of Engineering Assistant Professor, Dr. Nafees Mansoor will conduct on 23 April a tech talk on “The Art of Clean Code.” Media Studies Senior Lecturer Muhammad Aminuzzaman, together with Instructor Mohammed Mozammel Huq Tetu, will hold via Zoom a Basic Photography course on 17 and 18 April.

e-Learning Faculty Facebook Group. During the lockdown, a Facebook group called eLearning Experience of ULAB Faculty was established to serve as a platform where faculty can exchange notes regarding online teaching and learning. In this group, faculty narrate their experiences in transiting to online teaching. They also present their practices with regard to student management, assessment, pedagogy, course syllabi writing, online learning platforms, cyber security and other concerns.  In a sense, the platform is a community of practice. So far, 74 full time faculty (from the four schools and General Education Department) have joined the group.

Online Class Accomplishments and Further Improvements.  The University has achieved great success in transiting online. Based on the 10 April Institutional Quality Assurance Cell (IQAC) Report, there were a total of 520 required midterm exams across the various academic departments. Of these, 99.6 percent were completed. Moreover, there were a total of 2,799 required online classes. Of these, 83.7 percent were held. The University authorities have declared 13 April as the last day of classes for Spring 2020.

Since this is the first time the University has conducted full online teaching, it needs to gather data in order to examine ways for improvement in the future. Herein, the university has adopted three strategies.

First, through the SAO, it is gathering initial feedback from students regarding the conduct of their online courses.

Second, through the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), it is surveying its faculty regarding their physical wellness, psychological wellness, financial wellness, online class response, and support needed to improve online class response.

Third, the IQAC has requested students to complete their course and teacher evaluations online through the University Resource Management System or URMS.  Every term, faculty are evaluated in terms of subject matter knowledge, teaching pedagogy, learning assessment, professional behavior and student development.  Courses are investigated in terms of content/organization, learning environment, learning resources, teacher contribution and student contribution.

From the results of these feedback systems, ULAB’s practices relating to online teaching and learning will improve in the future.