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Access to the internet, access to the world: students’ experiences of online learning in Bangladesh during Covid-19

Web Foundation · August 19, 2021

Ayana Matsuda is a student at the University of Edinburgh who conducted a work placement at the Alliance for Affordable Internet during 2021. During her placement, she interviewed several students and experts to understand how internet access affects students’ learning experience during the Covid-19 pandemic. This blog, originally posted on A4AI.org, is a summary of her reflections from her research.


During Covid-19, educational institutions shifted to virtual learning to maintain access to education while also preventing the virus’s transmission. At the peak of school closures, about 1.5 billion students were impacted. However, at least two-thirds of students are disconnected from the internet at home, which means not everyone can access online classes equally. Furthermore, it is not simply a question of whether or not students have an internet connection. Even individuals who may be considered connected have had problems, demonstrating the gap between being online and having meaningful connectivity.

Uncontrollable environment

I spoke with university students studying in Dhaka, Bangladesh, about their experiences during the school closures. Anik is a final year student who should have entered his postgraduate degree by now. In March 2020, after his university and student hall in Dhaka closed, he returned to his hometown and took online classes from there. He expressed his experience as follows:

“Sometimes I missed the class because, [for] the entire duration of class, many times [I was] disconnected. So it is very painful to me… most of them [my friends] are having problems…They had to go outside to find cellular network and to attend the class. Several of them don’t even have any [devices to join the classes]. They use a smaller version of Nokia [feature phones, which cannot run online meeting apps].”

The area of his hometown is not covered by service providers that offer fixed broadband internet to households. As a result, he had to attend online classes via his smartphone’s mobile network. However, he was unable to get a stable connection at his home due to insufficient mobile network coverage in his neighbourhood. Every time he had class, he had to walk two kilometres to acquire a relatively stable network in an open space outdoors. He also stated that a smartphone is not affordable and accessible to everyone in Bangladesh, especially for low- and middle-income households.

Suma, a third-year student at a university in Dhaka, joined online classes from her hometown. As of 2021, her village has finally started to be covered by a 4G network. While 95% of Bangladesh’s population is covered by 4G mobile network, 53% of the mobile users are still using 2G and 3G. She described the disparities that exist between urban and rural areas:

“[A classmate] was facing severe problem[s] and [during the] rainy season, he has to attend classroom with umbrella, because there is no internet speed [in] his room. I would say this is the curse for rural people nowadays [in] this era of [the] internet.

Many students are required to extend their school year as they are unable to complete their coursework and take their final exams. The lack of connectivity, according to Suma, is one of the reasons why schools are unable to administer final exams online. To make online exams possible and equitable, schools must ensure that all students have a consistent internet connection.

Gender norms

In addition to financial barriers, there is a gender gap in smartphone ownership, particularly in rural areas. Anik explained to me:

“I see in my village, most of young boys have cell phone, but most of girls don’t have cell phones they own. They can use cell phone from their parents or brothers, [but] they [do] no[t have their] own device.”

Unmarried women owning cell phones can create an impression of participating in socially unacceptable behaviour such as premarital dating. A large number of studies illustrate that socio-cultural norms affect the rate of device ownership and internet access for girls not only in Bangladesh, but all over the world. The digital gender gap is one of the main issues Bangladesh has been tackling through projects like its Women Innovation Camps.

Learning without the right technology

The premise of online classes is that students have a device with a screen and a network connection that allows them to participate in online classes from their homes. Despite this, some students have experienced geographic, financial, and socio-cultural challenges. Furthermore, even students in urban areas who have a device and fixed broadband internet can experience difficulties in online class. Several students mentioned that teachers experienced issues with network quality and technical difficulties, which could lead to students’ lack of attention and concentration in class.

Another obstacle was brought to light by Liza. She usually used her laptop and broadband internet to join online classes, but her electricity was unstable. According to the World Bank, electricity is accessible for more than 90% of the population in Bangladesh. However, students say that power outages are common in rural areas due to the shortage of supply or natural disasters such as severe rain and storms. Many students were affected by power outages and load shedding, which made it difficult for them to participate in live online classes.

“Even in Dhaka, electricity doesn’t go for a lot of times, but in my district sometimes it happens that it’s not present for the whole day. So I can’t charge [my] laptop, I can’t charge my mobile phone…a mobile phone can run up to 12 hours without charging. But it’s not possible for a laptop. It’s hardly 3 to 4 hours, it’s no more than that.”

Liza described it as “a nightmare” because power outages occurred frequently when she needed to be online for her studies. Despite having a reliable internet connection, she was often unable to connect to the class due to the lack of electricity.

Connected, but at what cost?

Students who took online classes on their smartphones had to pay a high price to stay connected. Attending online classes uses more bandwidth than browsing websites or sending SMS messages since they transmit live audio and video. This can add extra financial pressure amid the pandemic. Ismail, who lives in Dhaka, explains why online classes are not suitable for the cost of mobile service in Bangladesh:

“I have mine [fixed broadband network] in our room, but it’s hard to get in rural area and in village. So, most of them [my classmates in rural areas] get access to internet using their SIM card. They have to buy data, then attend online classes. The price of data is too high in our country. Mostly, they have to pay around $1 to buy 1GB of data. …to attend our three or four online classes every day, …it’s not possible for everyone to afford such [costs].”

In Bangladesh, the government has been working with stakeholders to reduce the cost of internet access. In fact, Bangladesh meets the ‘1 for 2 target’ that measures the affordability of internet access in a country. However, online classes have significantly increased the amount of data students have to consume. Students who had a fixed broadband subscription with unlimited access at home were able to make the switch, but those who did not had to purchase and keep renewing their SIM cards, which have limited data, to meet the demand. For many students, whose families have been financially impacted by the pandemic, this was not an option. In response to this situation, Bangladeshi school authorities and universities have taken steps such as offering financial aid for the purchase of mobile data as well as loans for students to purchase devices to participate in online classes.

Suggestion

There is more that policymakers and others can do to improve the situation. Possible solutions include:

  • Students need better access to infrastructure that allows them to have a stable internet connection. This includes electricity supply. Consideration should be given to not only the availability of the infrastructure but also the quality that can meet the growing demand for high bandwidth internet traffic.
  • To make education accessible to all, educational approaches should take into account each student’s socio-cultural and socioeconomic circumstances, as it is not just a matter of technical availability of internet access for students to attend classes.
  • The cost structure of mobile internet access should be addressed to support students who do not have unlimited access to the internet.
  • Proactive support is needed for students from the government, educational institutions, and private companies to ensure each student has access to quality education.

The text of this blog post is that of the author, and the views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent the views of the World Wide Web Foundation, the Alliance for Affordable Internet, or its members.


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