Shift to online learning during pandemic raises serious class issues
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Some universities, mostly in the private sector, announced a week-long spring break in the middle of March while most public and private universities, colleges and schools were working on schedule to complete courses by the end of May or early June.
As the pandemic began to spread to every part of the country, the government of Pakistan announced first a four-week lockdown, and then extended it by three more weeks. All educational institutions were closed and classroom learning activities abruptly came to an end. Students were asked to pack up and go home, and the faculty and staff were told to go on a long furlough until called back in.
Nobody in Pakistan or anywhere else was prepared for such a shocking disruption to our lives, economies and educational systems.
As mysteries about COVID-19 abounded, there was no clarity about how and when we could resume normal life. For the past five months, the world has slowly adjusted to a new normal, cautiously opening economies, warning people about the dangers of the spread and working feverishly to develop a vaccine. We are nowhere close to getting one yet, and until that happens, we may not have a safe environment for education.
Educational institutions are very different places in the atmosphere-- the scale of human interaction, the sharing of spaces and duration from business centres. Universities, colleges and schools have thousands of students enrolled, and in many instances the classrooms, libraries and playgrounds are overcrowded.
Distance learning emerged as the only option in every institution throughout the world, where digital platforms and communication technologies happened to be easily accessible. Even now, it remains the only option; some countries are thinking about a hybrid schedule—students attending on alternate days, a thin staff presence and some courses to be delivered online.
Private educational institutions charging heavy fees were very quick to resume educational activities by offering lessons over video communication platform Zoom and similar services. Faculty members were required to go through training sessions over webinars to familiarise them to online teaching, its challenges and potential.
The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, a federal agency that funds universities and sets quality standards, sprung into action and began investing in resources for remote learning. It had already provided online access for tens of thousands of full-text journals, e-data banks and Learning Management Systems (LMS)—software that manages teaching resources where an instructor can place reading material, audio and video files and communicate with students.
The institutions that couldn’t buy expensive communication tools and packages relied on low technology devices. They recorded videos of lectures and sent them over to students over group emails or pasted them on LMS or institutional websites. Some instructors used Facebook and WhatsApp messaging services to post lecture videos and reading materials.
Most private institutions that are technologically better equipped than those in the public sectors completed their syllabi almost on time. However, given the size of the student body in public colleges and universities, and the meagre investment of resources, they have failed to resume teaching, and are waiting for a miracle to happen.
Unlike universities in the developed world, the transition to distance learning is partial, patchy and raises serious class issues in the case of Pakistan.
The wide disparity of incomes and inequality is best reflected in access to quality institutions in educational and health sectors in most of the developing world. By any standard or measurement, Pakistan is one of the world’s most unequal societies. While private colleges and universities are functioning, even offering summer courses, students of public institutions are left to wait for better times while suffering learning losses.
The government has taken a populist stance in promoting students to their next classes without any examinations in schools.
Indeed, it is a strange way of saving an academic year for these hundreds of thousands of students that come from the lower echelons of society. The troubling question is, how, with a stunted education, will they be able to compete with the graduates of private institutions in the marketplace of jobs and professions.
Even in resourceful private institutions, not all students have benefitted equally from new tools of teaching and learning. The urban-rural divide has been quite glaring in this respect.
Students in rural and remote areas encounter poor and intermittent accessibility to the Internet in their respective areas. Many of them are stressed out, anxious about grades and overworked to complete the requirements of their courses.
Students with large families from middle-class have not found this transition to remote learning easy, and have had to invest in more electronic gadgets at a time of unprecedented economic strain.
Sadly, broadband and Internet providers too have failed to catch up with rising user demand, which even in the best of individual circumstances makes online learning stressful.
Remote learning cannot be, and will never be, an alternative to the real experience of being on the campus of a college, school and university. But for that, we will have to wait for better times to come again.