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Infrastructure and Community Development 30 April 2021

Boosting Education and Research during COVID-19

By Roshan RagelGuest Author
Mohammad TawritGuest Author

When COVID-19 struck in 2020 and higher education institutions closed, National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in Southeast Asia, instantly stepped up to ensure the continuity of education and research.

We want to shine the light on how NRENs via collaboration have risen to the COVID-19 challenge of and demonstrated their commitment and creativity in boosting education and research.

Through collaboration and solidarity, NRENs have been instrumental in the digital transformation of the higher education sector, and have ensured that those without connectivity are not left behind in their learning.

In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, like in many other countries, the closure of higher education institutions shifted class lectures and various academic and research activities online.

As soon as the University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh approved the conduct of online classes on 19 March 2020, the Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN) extended support to the government by releasing 5,000 Zoom licenses it obtained from [email protected] to all universities in the country free of charge, which was later extended to 7,500 licenses, courtesy of Nordic Gateway for Research & Education (NORDUnet), a collaboration between the National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) of the five Nordic countries: Denmark (DeiC), Iceland (RHnet), Norway (Uninett), Sweden (SUNET), and Finland (Funet), to meet the high demand. To support the use of Zoom and troubleshoot, BdREN operated a 24/7 Network Operations Center.

Similarly in Sri Lanka, the Lanka Education and Research Network (LEARN), with support from NORDUnet, provided Zoom licenses for free to all universities for online learning. In addition, LEARN offered a series of training on conducting online classes using Zoom. As a result, more than 90% of Sri Lankan universities shifted to online learning during closure. While pre-COVID, only 12% of public universities and 27% of private universities had adopted online learning.

In fact, pre-COVID, LEARN was struggling to justify its existence. “In the last few years, we had to defend the need for an organisation like LEARN and its role in the higher education sector. Some parties perceived us as another company set up to provide Internet access with an unclear agenda,” said Professor Priyantha Hewagamage, Director of the University of Colombo School of Computing. “Whenever we spoke about Zoom, everyone understood its importance, but no one wanted to use it since it was not compulsory. But, after 15 March 2020, LEARN’s Zoom deployment became the lifeline.” Zoom users on LEARN jumped ten-fold within a month after the closure of universities.

In Bangladesh, the number of Zoom accounts used also soared from a mere 200 in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic to over 5,500 in three months, and to over 7,000 in eight months. At its peak in June 2020, over 130,000 online classes were conducted by about 9,700 faculty members in 70 universities.

With this surge in demand, BdREN had to be creative in managing the accounts to ensure that all faculty members were able to conduct their online classes, webinars, and meetings. Instead of assigning a Zoom account to an individual, which did not maximize its usage, BdREN created a scheduling software application for faculty members to schedule their Zoom sessions. This allowed the creation of multiple classes across different time domains on a single licensed Zoom account.

Another challenge faced was the overloading of Zoom traffic at the NORDUnet Global Data Centre. LEARN came up with a solution to keep traffic local through an on-premise deployment that enabled online Zoom classes to run from the local data center. LEARN members chipped in by donating servers for this purpose, as it was impossible to procure new servers during the lockdown.

BdREN, and later the Nepal NREN, adopted the on-premise deployment to keep Zoom traffic local with technical support from LEARN, which has the added advantage of improved network performance for users, reduced latency, and reduced international transit costs. However, for BdREN, this meant the overloading of its local data center and the Internet exchange pointsBDIX and AIX, which required a number of rapid adjustments and upgrades to meet computing demands, such as changing the virtualization software and procuring server blades, and establishing dual connectivity with BDIX and upgrading the capacity of the link. Following the upgrades, BdREN was even able to extend support to the Nepal NREN by hosting the multimedia router servers of Zoom in its data center – a first-of-its-kind collaboration among NRENs.

In Sri Lanka, other services that LEARN initiated during lockdown include an eduID single sign-on system that allows faculty and students to access various education and research services and collaborate with other institutions, and eduroam, an international roaming service for users in research, higher education, and further education that allows all users with eduID, to access a global network of Wi-Fi hotspots for free, including 100 public Wi-Fi locations within Sri Lanka. EduID is a software that allows students a fast and secure way to get and confirm their identities. With the accelerated rate of digitalization in higher education, both BdREN and LEARN were aware that a substantial number of students would not be able to learn online because of the digital divide.

From a student survey conducted by the UGC of Bangladesh with support from BdREN, they found that 76% of the students were using mobile data to access online classes, and one of the major obstacles was the cost of mobile data. In response, BdREN negotiated hard with telecom operators to offer Zoom bandwidth from the BdREN platform for free or at a discounted rate. Teletalk, the public mobile operator, agreed to offer Zoom bandwidth used locally free of cost, while the other operators (Banglalink, Grameenphone and Robi) agreed to offer a 70% discount. In addition, the UGC provided over 40,000 students with interest-free loans to purchase suitable devices for online classes.

In Sri Lanka, the UGC of Sri Lanka sought approval from the president to allowlist the selected IPs on the LEARN network that were used to host the servers of the learning management systems, Zoom, and other educational services, and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission and Internet service providers have cooperated in providing free access since March 2020. A national survey showed that nearly 90% of university students in Sri Lanka have been able to learn online during the pandemic. This rate is comparable to developed countries like Japan.

BdREN and LEARN noted that they would not have been able to achieve these remarkable undertakings alone. The shared struggles and experiences faced during the pandemic has fostered solidarity and brought NRENs and the education and research communities closer together. NORDUnet offered additional Zoom licenses, NRENs shared innovative solutions and data center resources, Internet exchange points supported local traffic routing, telecom operators provided free or discounted data plans, and higher education institutions donated servers and provided leadership in the shift to online learning.

These inspirations from NRENs serve as a reminder that the pandemic could lead to conflict, mistrust, and inequality, but also to hope for the years ahead that is more collaborative, inclusive, and equal.

As higher education institutions reopen, online teaching and learning are likely to continue to play an important role in the form of a blended approach. A robust and resilient digital infrastructure is necessary to support the continued functioning of higher education and research, which is likely to be more frequently disrupted with crises like the COVID-19 pandemic in the future. Higher education institutions are also considering digitalizing other aspects of their system, such as admissions, examinations, and student welfare and support services. NRENs will continue to play a critical role in supporting digital transformation in the education and research communities.


Image of Daffodil International University in Ashulia, Bangladesh by The Milon via Unsplash

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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