Pakistan has observed a steady hike in the spread of Covid-19, which gained speed after the first case in the country was reported on February 26. This was followed by a two-week closure of schools and universities in Balochistan and two-day closure of educational institutions in Sindh.
On March 15, it developed into a countrywide ban on the opening of any educational institution to prevent the spread of the virus and protect students, teachers, and other staff. The masses were asked to self-isolate and avoid leaving homes.
According to a meeting conducted by National Coordination Council (NCC), the ban was originally supposed to last until April 5; however, on March 27, the federal government announced that all educational institutions across Pakistan will remain closed until May 31.
Extending from a couple of weeks to a few months – specifically the last few months of the academic year 2019-2020 – this announcement caused panic and worry among stakeholders.
That’s when HEC sprang to action and issued guidelines for colleges and universities. While most schools announced this quarantine period as part of the yearly summer break, hoping to reopen during the summer months, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) advised universities to look for other solutions.
HEC recommends a shift
The HEC recommended that universities should shift toward online learning as the uncertainty regarding prolonged quarantine periods across the country continues. Universities have been given the choice to declare this period as summer vacation until May 31. However, if the lockdowns due to coronavirus continue beyond May, 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 can prepare themselves, their teachers, and develop required materials for remote learning.
Addressing the obscurity of the situation, it was explained that if institutions are allowed to open in June, they can continue the academic year as usual. If institutions remain closed beyond June, then they must continue online education and adapt to the admissions process.
Another hurdle in the admissions process is the delay in board examinations. In that case, the HEC guided the universities to accept students on conditional admission basis and said that the guidelines for their confirmed admission would be issued later.
MIT Technology Review Pakistan asked various stakeholders about the hurdles of remote learning and uncovered multiple perspectives and novel predicaments that surround students and educators alike.
The HEC issued guidelines for universities to conduct remote learning and formed a technical support committee to aid universities in switching to remote learning as well as a national knowledge bank that institutions can access for teaching material including curriculums, textbooks, 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.
The commission also established multiple committees to help universities with technological support, access to software, and creation of content for the remote-learning classes. It also provided free access to Microsoft Teams software to all public sector universities and encouraged them to train their faculty to use the best practices regarding remote learning.
According to experts, even if teachers are introduced to new technology they often don’t incorporate it in their classes. It is best, to begin with, small steps and easy transformations in the education system. However, the current situation provides them with little choice. Most teachers have access to at least one device like a laptop, or a smartphone and they should use it.
Naushad Ullah Baig, who works with student affairs at the Hunza campus of the Karakoram International University (KIU) informed that many students in Gilgit Baltistan don’t have access to the internet, a computer or smartphones and they get completely cut off from the university. If the situation continues and there is no improvement in internet access, the only way their time can be saved is through the distribution of printed materials, which poses its own difficulties.
Hurdles in remote learning
Soon after some digitally advanced universities began offering online classes, students started voicing concerns about online education, availability of internet, and fee structures. In the first week of April, the hashtag #WeRejectOnlineClasses started trending on Twitter as students tweeted and retweeted about the injustices of online education.
Many students allegedly also submitted complaints to their respective university administrations 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 anxieties about already flawed grading systems and classes that required practical work.
Another concern raised by many students was that the fees charged by most universities remained the same even though none of the facilities on campus were being used and they weren’t even getting the desired quality of education.
Some students and teachers took the other side of the argument and supported the switch toward remote learning. Many educators were disappointed by the negative reaction of students and believe that as we face this pandemic, there are more urgent matters that should be prioritized over these demands. They said that even though the system is flawed, it can be improved by working together.
Nazir Ahmed, Chairman of the Zoology Department at Government Postgraduate Jehanzeb College in Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa expressed his concerns about the lack of internet connectivity and capacity-building of the faculty. However, he maintained that it was high time Pakistan caught up with the rest of the world and implemented remote learning systems to deal with the lockdowns.
Quality and effectiveness of education
After receiving complaints from students across the country regarding the quality and effectiveness of distance learning education provided by their universities, the HEC asked institutions to submit detailed information including video lectures, lesson plans, reading materials, and real-time data on curriculum, exams, and quizzes.
HEC Chairman Tariq Banuri announced that the commission will keep a check on all universities offering online education, the quality of their curriculum, and the digital preparedness of teachers. The institutions that are not following the recommended standards must halt their online activities until they can improve.
A student from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Punjab University said that even though the online lectures, delivered through video-conferencing apps, are not the most effective method of learning, “at least our time is not being wasted and we can graduate on time.” Students from various universities expressed that some of the courses they were taking could not be taught online, as they didn’t have the equipment or environment necessary.
A fine arts student from the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering & Management Sciences (BUITEMS) said that most of her courses like print-making, painting, and drawing from real life cannot be taught effectively through online classes. A mass communications student from Gilgit said that her courses in media and radio production required access to equipment that she doesn’t have access to in her city.
Educational technology expert Maida Ali explained that there are many variables that can influence the quality and effectiveness of remote learning. One of the factors is the technological competence of teachers and their willingness to use new technology. However, students who are the most important stakeholders of the education system, also need to realize the gravity of the situation and the fact that teachers have had to switch their entire curriculum to online learning in a short time, which can be nerve-wracking for anyone. She said that, at the moment, even if remote learning isn’t as effective as face-to-face classes, “I am really hoping that it would be a stepping stone for us, where we can learn from our mistakes and make online learning necessary in some parts of our programs.”
Social distancing and lack of motivation
Many students expressed a lack of motivation as they tried to continue their studies from home and complained that they are being assigned more work than they can manage. A student from the Social and Cultural Studies Department at Punjab University said that online classes were not providing satisfactory results as the classroom environment is missing and more time is wasted. “In a class that lasts one and a half hours, we only talk about the study content for 10-15 minutes.” She said that since more than half of the students weren’t attending the classes, she and her classmates did not feel motivated to attend them either.
Maida Ali claimed that teachers need to understand that online or remote learning is conducted differently than regular face-to-face learning. They need to design class activities keeping in mind that students are at home, in their comfort-zones, and surrounded by their families. “The workload needs to be tailored according to the needs of students in order to motivate them”.
She also advised teachers to be thoughtful, passionate, and empathetic in this difficult time, as the social interaction that students used to have on campus was an external motivator. While it is difficult to provide that level of interaction in online classes, teachers can cut down the curriculum or be sensitive towards the situation that some students are in.
A young lecturer from the Government College University (GCU) in Lahore underlines a generation gap at the institutions as well. “We are in a global pandemic. We are all stuck at home. Universities cannot expect students to show the same enthusiasm in quarantine,” she said adding that the students are also part of a generation that commonly suffers from anxiety, depression, and a lack of mental well-being which can get worse in a quarantine situation. “Many teachers are ‘dinosaurs’ and they don’t understand these things. They think the students are just enjoying vacations at home and don’t take their stress into account,” she added.
A student from Punjab University said that the teachers have been working tirelessly to help the students shift towards a new model of learning, but some students are making it harder by displaying a non-serious behavior. She said that the same students who misbehave, start singing, or make strange noises to disrupt online lectures, later make vlogs saying that they do not understand the material in online classes.
Daniyal Danish, a student at Umair Basha Institute of Information Technology, Karachi University said that most teachers at his university do not want to take the initiative for online classes. Due to the ongoing situation, his degree has already been delayed and will keep getting delayed the more time his university takes to begin distance learning programs. “All universities that have started online classes had to spend a period of time adjusting to the online system before it started benefitting them. So the longer we begin, the longer it will take us to make sense of it.”
Internet connectivity, especially in remote areas has been one of the most prominent issues in the shift to remote learning for most universities. Lack of internet access or low-speed internet means that universities cannot effectively reach their students and conducting classes in real-time through video-conferencing becomes impossible.
Government authorities like the HEC and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) also asked internet service providers to release low-budget and high-speed packages for students experiencing issues with the access to or expenses of the internet.
The GCU lecturer explained that she thought the idea of online classes was “ridiculous” because most students belonged to remote areas in Pakistan where electricity is not even available. Since they could only use mobile data to connect with classmates, she tried Zoom, WhatsApp, and even the Live feature on Instagram, but nothing worked. The students were unable to join the classes due to a lack of internet connectivity. After facing similar difficulties in all classes, the university decided to shut down remote learning until further notice and announced summer vacations until May 31.
“The situation is very challenging for students in Gilgit Baltistan because we only get electricity for 4-5 hours,” said Elizah Khan, a mass communication student in Gilgit. She hasn’t been able to take a single class because the internet is restricted and the speed is not enough to enable video-conferencing with her instructors and classmates. Uploading finished assignments becomes a hassle with low-speed internet as well.
Most students claim that recorded lectures and instructions uploaded on the internet are much easier to access than online classes in real-time. The latter is not only restricted with timings but also requires high-speed internet. On the other hand, if lectures are pre-recorded and assignments or projects are assigned, they can be downloaded from the internet at any time and shared through print copies or USBs. They do not remain dependent on internet connectivity.
Dr. Amjad Ali, Assistant Professor at Karakoram International University (KIU), said that if students could get access to the internet, their time would not be wasted and they can learn something while they are at home. According to Dr. Ali, people in Gilgit Baltistan do not have widespread Internet access, which is why online classes might be confusing at first but they can quickly become comfortable with it once the internet is made available. He said that real-time online classes can be more effective, but viewing the lack of internet infrastructure in Gilgit-Baltistan, uploading study materials is a better option. He also said that KIU has been talking with internet providers to ensure access for the students in case the lockdowns continue during summers.
Many universities including Punjab University (PU) and Karakoram International University (KIU) are aware of the difficulties being faced by their students in remote areas. They have asked students to fill out surveys to determine how many of them have internet access and its quality. Some private and government universities have allowed students to receive a grade “I” (for incomplete) which can later be changed as the student finishes their coursework when institutions are re-opened. However, most students in remote areas remain dissatisfied with the situation.
The future of online education and remote learning in Pakistan remains ambiguous. While students and teachers are perplexed with the current situation, they must look for solutions to these hurdles. They believe that even if universities started online learning systems on a trial basis right now, they could improve with time and use it in future emergency situations.