As the educational institutes in Bhutan remain closed for classes, many have adopted the online teaching-learning through Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). The Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) has decided to provide a monthly stipend of Nu 2,500 per student towards data recharge so they can learn online.
The colleges already have in place the online infrastructure, like Moodle-based Learning management system and online Cloud file storage and sharing for dissemination. Some have embraced a wider range of tools from Google Apps for education, like Google Classroom and Meet or Zoom.
Royal Thimphu College (RTC) has also initiated several changes in its operations since 6 March after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Bhutan.
Dean of RTC, Shivaraj Bhattarai (PhD), RTC has had to re-look at the existing teaching-learning models and prepare for delivering education primarily via online means. One of the key assessments made by RTC, early on, was to recognize that the pandemic was likely to forever alter the landscape of higher education, and that it would be a long time for things to go back to ‘normal’ again. With this in mind, RTC decided to embrace online and remote learning options as an integral part of its approach, rather than as a stop-gap measure.
RTC is coordinating and providing support to 1,241 students (1,008 regular and 233 continuing education), both for their health and safety as well as for their education. RTC rolled out mobile data top-ups for all students to aid online learning.
Some of the key issues identified early on were enhancement of IT hardware and infrastructure to support the new avenues for online learning, finding and rolling out online platforms that are suitable for the Bhutanese context. RTC, like all others colleges, already has in place online infrastructure such as a Moodle-based Learning Management System (or “Virtual Learning Environment”) and online Cloud file storage, etc.
The mobile data top-ups for all students is an interim solution to help keep teaching-learning on track, since it was unfeasible for all of them to be able to access campus internet facilities. New channels for technical support to all students and faculty members have also been rolled out, including an IT Support Facebook page with support over messaging, a phone hotline, and a WhatsApp, said the Dean Shivaraj Bhattarai (PhD).
Training for 83 faculty members on effective delivery on the chosen platform was organized even during weekends. He also shared that a lot of students have provided positive feedback about their experience, so far, including their appreciation for providing the data packages and their desire to continue remaining engaged.
“It was actually very reassuring to see the high level of participation of the students, so far. They had to take responsibility for their own learning like never before, and it has been heartening that most of them are rising to this challenge. There have been difficulties, not just the initial Internet access challenges, but especially in keeping the teaching-learning organized for the students,” the Dean said.
He said the students might feel bombarded with many self-directed tasks to carry out such as readings, videos, exercises, assignments, etc., and some have found it so overwhelming that they lose sight of the main concepts they are expected to grasp. Hence, a key part of the refresher training for faculty members was emphasizing the importance of going beyond just posting materials for student consumption to actually providing detailed instruction on how to organize their learning in each topic, and making clear what learning outcomes they were expected to achieve.
Consequently, faculty members are now very engaged and constantly improving the quality of their online instruction. Many choose to work from home to ensure some distancing, but many still prefer to work from their workstations because of the more conducive working environment, the Dean said.
Some have also noted that despite not having to go daily to regularly scheduled in-person classes, the online-teaching learning is even harder work. There are many active teaching-learning engagements and assessments happening in the VLE, such as voice-over PowerPoint presentations, online discussion forums, assignment submissions, and even self-recorded student presentations. Several faculty members have started using Google Meet or Zoom to meet the students and engage them in discussions directly.
In terms of health and safety, the Dean said that RTC was fortunate to have a disaster management plan since last year, but has had to plan quickly on dealing with the present sudden closure.
According to the Dean, several initiatives were undertaken as basic precautions, starting with reinforcing proper hand-washing facilities on campus. Under the college’s disaster management plan, a hazard-hunting exercise resulted in 56 observations with recommended actions for follow up.
Sherubtse College is also reviewing and discussing with the head of the departments as how to go with the online teaching. Meantime, the college will officially start online classes from Monday under its timetable from 8 am till 8 pm.
President of Sherubtse College, Tshering Wangdi, said the lecturers will be teaching four groups of students in one hour. The college has more than 13 programs. The college is concerned that the Internet might get slower since large group of students will be learning online. Most of the faculty members will be using VLE and Zoom Studio for face-to-face consultation as well, said the Dean.
The college has asked the faculty to use any other means to teach because some of them have access to Google Apps. While the online classes have already started, the students earlier raised concerns over the high data charges. However, RUB has decided to give a monthly stipend of Nu 2,500 per student, mainly for date recharge. “The money should help them to get through,” said the President.
Some of the faculty members have already started their classes and the feedback is good. The lecturers and students are interacting, said the President.
The lecturers upload notes and reading material in VLE. There are 1,558 students and 13 programs in the Sherubtse College.
Similarly, the Dean of Gedu College said VLE was initiated a long time back in the college, and now it is being reinforced so that the lecturers and students can use it more effectively during such a pandemic.
He also said if the lecturers are not comfortable with VLE, they can explore other means like Google Classroom, etc., but for assessment and assignments, lecturers have to use VLE. Lecturers can also seek help from IT persons if they are not able to catch up with VLE.
He said the lecturers might not be able to facilitate a few of the students in remote places with no online network. So lecturers have asked the class representatives to inform them and also asked them to avail themselves of the online teaching whenever possible. Lecturers will also be in touch with them.
“There can be problems with smooth learning because the Internet might be clogged if all the students use the Internet at the same time. So, in order to avoid that, the college has prepared a timetable and lecturers will be teaching during specific time to the groups of students,” said the Dean.
Gedu College has around 1,568 students and 64 faculty members on campus.