Not a casual joyride
Hassaan Bin Zubair
Pakistan has observed a steady hike in the spread of Covid-19, which continues till this day. To halt the spread of the killer virus, a two-week closure of schools and universities in Balochistan and two-day closure of educational institutions in Sindh was announced. Afterwards, amidst the fast spread of coronavirus the federal government announced that educational institutions across Pakistan will remain closed till July 15. That’s when the Higher Education Commission (HEC) sprang into action and issued guidelines for colleges and universities whereby it advised universities to look for other solutions. The HEC recommended that universities should shift to online learning. Universities were given the choice to declare the lockdown period as summer vacations. However, if the lockdowns due to coronavirus continue beyond July, universities must begin online classes and remote learning activities for students. With these instructions, the HEC also announced that technologically equipped universities can begin remote learning as soon as they are ready, whereas other universities should prepare themselves and their teachers, and also develop paraphernalia for remote learning.
During the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, the dispensation of formal education is something that must not be halted. Higher education, in particular, can instil in our youth the responsibility to play their decisive role in bringing Pakistan out of this hard-hitting situation. Realizing this need, the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the regulatory body of universities, immediately issued guidelines whereby it exhorted universities to move on to online education while taking into account their respective capacities and available infrastructure.
The six prerequisites for launching online classes by any university were: availability of the Learning Management System (LMS), trained faculty for online teaching, course readiness concerning the online mode of learning, availability of course material on the web, technological readiness, i.e. the platform through which the classes can be arranged, and last but not least, students’ readiness to learn online.
To resolve the technical issues in far-flung areas of the country, options like arranging unified online teaching platform for universities, negotiating Taleem bundles, development of lectures in blended modes and establishing student facilitation committees were considered. The HEC also directed that if institutions remain closed beyond July, the universities must continue online education and adapt to the admissions process.
The HEC issued guidelines for universities to conduct remote learning and formed a technical support committee to aid them in switching to remote learning. It also established a national knowledge bank that institutions can access for teaching material including curricula, textbooks, and links to digital libraries, lesson plans, video lectures, presentations, exam questions, and quizzes. The commission also announced that a list of recommended online tutorials on skills and competencies required for good quality online education will be made available for teachers across the country.
However, despite all these initiatives, online learning is rather a new concept in Pakistan and it may face many challenges in the near future. To analyze these challenges, the first step is to factor in all the stakeholders—students, faculty, education institutions, regulatory bodies, and the government. The challenges being faced by all of them collectively are multi-faceted and can be broadly classified as societal, technical and regulatory. Most of the challenges are related to our behaviours and societal limitations.
To begin with, the lack of acceptance for online education by students and the general suspicion of elders about using gadgets for education and learning purposes seem uncalled for. Similarly, lack of individual space at homes in joint family systems—for families where parents and children both need to work and study from home respectively—and the unfriendly atmosphere is a serious challenge.
Moreover, our non-disciplined lifestyle and lack of focus during e-learning further alienates the students from taking online classes. While the less attention span for online learning is a reality, people’s shyness from e-learning and being camera consciousness are also practical issues being faced by students as well as teachers.
Another important challenge is the lack of tolerance towards technical issues and expressing rage on frequent connectivity disruption, interruptions, etc. The lack of awareness about digital learning ethics has worsened the situation.
Students criticized the moves in the wake of the issues stemming from quality of signals as well connectivity issues in many areas but just like any other transformation, developing the capacity of the institutions will take time. As the end of the pandemic is still not in sight, the motive is to save the education cycle from any disruption and this transition is worth struggling. Necessary steps are also being taken by the HEC to address the quality-related concerns during the online classes. (Recently, the Tele School channel was launched by Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, to keep the students associated with their education through dedicated lectures for students of class I to XII. This initiative involved a lot of effort and must be appreciated as it will have far-reaching effects in the times to come for the education of our young students.)
Soon after some digitally-advanced universities began offering online classes, students started voicing concerns about online education, availability of internet, and fee structures. Many students also submitted complaints to their respective university administration and the HEC. They demanded that the remote learning initiative should be halted and a semester break should be announced until the Covid-19 situation improves. They expressed anxiety about a flawed grading systems and classes that required practical work. Another concern raised by students was that the fees charged by most universities remained the same even though none of the on-campus facilities were being used and they weren’t even getting the quality of education they get while attending classes physically.
The list of technical challenges is not long enough, yet the first issue is the unavailability of the internet in remote areas which makes the students living in these areas unable to benefit from online education. The bandwidth limitations across the country, with only a few exceptions, when combined with the increased usage burden on feeble internet infrastructure, add to the misery of the students. Another challenge is the expensive high-speed internet and a set of challenges pertains to the government and the regulatory authorities. As the primary responsibility of ensuring quality education is on the shoulders of the government, the absence of a predefined policy for online learning is its fault. Perplexingly, the government and regulatory bodies do not seem to be on the same page. For instance, the government has issued a notification for the closure of universities while the regulatory body is encouraging online classes. This dilemma is causing immense trouble for the students at large. The dearth of clarity and paucity of reliable data for effective and timely policy decisions are a few more challenges that should be looked into for the future.
As every cloud has a silver lining, it is high time the government explored opportunities in these challenging times. For a paradigm shift—from traditional teaching towards inclusively effective and equitable e-learning—some of the recommendations include the development of a standard and comprehensive policy for e-learning with the consensus of all the stakeholders. The equitable provision of technical resources, including computers, high-speed internet facility, and online teaching platforms to students as well as the faculties of all universities is imperative to ensuring online learning. Moreover, asynchronous learning modes based on smaller duration lectures with offline viewing facilities, discussion forums and a redefined assessment method based on cognitive learning are the need of the hour. Last but not the least, the training and skills enhancement of the faculty is pivotal as they are the ones to steer this online education. Otherwise, a simple compromise, delay, or disruption in education can put the careers of future generations at risk.