Volume 2, No. 11, November 2020
Editor: Rashed Rahman
After 9/11, the Covid-19 pandemic is a major cataclysmic event post-World War II, which has affected all walks of life – governments, businesses, economies, trade, commerce, banking, medicine, sports, entertainment and education. Like the rest, the educational system has also been adversely affected.
As of today, the pandemic is raging throughout the world and resulting in physical isolation and social distancing as preventive measures. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed had lately advised relaxing of complete national lockdown with partial opening of businesses and normal life while taking due precautions. Intermittently, closure and opening is going on in the so-called ‘smart lockdown’ strategy as the pandemic continues to claim lives.
In contrast to other domains of life, for educational institutions and universities the lockdown is persisting in Pakistan. This is because social distancing is difficult and prolonged confinement in classrooms is not possible. Moreover, the angst over the spread of the disease is existential and so the date for the opening of educational institutions continues to be pushed further ahead. When the virus will subside is not certain but the educated guess is that it might stay till the end of 2010. Even if a vaccine is discovered, it will take months in coming to the market.
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan had to order e-learning classes to start immediately in a bid to save the Spring 2020 semester of students. Many universities have therefore pedagogically started experimenting with e-classes. As the transition from conventional live-in classes to the digital system takes place, there is bound to be a process of trial and error. Some have negatively commented that technology cannot jump easily and solve problems, given Pakistan’s uneven level of development and lack of infrastructure. On the other hand, the
protagonists positively claim that any new technology brings some challenges and opportunities, asserting that growing pains for the end-user are inevitable, but when procedures are streamlined and refined, the impediments can be minimised.
That Pakistani universities and higher learning institutions should be soon switching over to digital technology mode is the compelling need of the circumstances. In this regard, HEC has issued guidelines to devise syllabi and courses, craft lesson plans, attendance rules, examinations and a grading system.
This decision would not have taken place were it not for the sudden eruption of Covid-19, resulting in the prolonged closure of universities. In fact the onset and persistence of the virus has only catalysed the switch over to e-learning. Even if Covid-19 had not come about, e-learning was needed.
As for the reluctance to embrace new technology, one remembers that when computers were introduced in the late 1980s-early 1990s, there was some resistance from those who were used to typewriters. But once computer learning and practices took place and its advantages were realised, it became the new norm. Likewise, the debate on e-learning has started with pros and cons.
On balance, however, there are many benefits of e-learning such as economy, time, ease, accessibility and wider dissemination. Notwithstanding the obvious benefits there are yet some challenges that have to be addressed. These are particularly relevant in the case of developing countries such as Pakistan. In this regard, HEC’s guidelines to devise syllabi and courses, craft lesson plans, attendance rules, examinations and a grading system can be briefly described thus:
Infrastructural issues: critics point out that the digital divide in technology cannot be easily circumvented. Technology creates and exacerbates the divide and leads to a sense of deprivation
and depression amongst the less privileged students. Accordingly, the HEC has issued LMS guidelines in order to improve syllabi courses, craft lesson plans, attendance rules, examination and grading system. Computer literacy and facilities, especially in far-flung and rural areas of the country are problematic as lack of internet connection, speed, repair or maintenance work act as hindrances. There is a wide digital divide between urban and rural areas and in certain underdeveloped regions like southern Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and FATA. Besides, poor households, lack of independence (and physical space) from family members pose frequent distractions.
Reliance on technology: this is related to the infrastructural issue. Technology is a big support in online learning at learning venues. Whereas the institution of university/college/school can provide technical facilities, infrastructure and basics of attendance through physical presence in online mode, if students miss crucial assignments they are counted as absent. Working under the rubric of technology mandates operating within the confines of network adapters, electricity, computers, servers, software, web browsers, routers, modems and more. If any one of these systems fails to deliver, the connection becomes compromised, resulting in loss of time.
Since many teachers are utilising Zoom calls and other video tools to conduct teaching and learning, the students can benefit from noise-cancelling headphones that allow them to focus on instruction. Moreover, headphones spare others, including house members, from having to block out the noise from instructional videos or video chats. Technology is after all only an aid and facilitator to achieve the desired ends. E-learning with manifest benefits of flexibility, lesser cost, easier learning and wider dissemination offers benefits for students and teachers alike. For students, lectures can be replayed and re-read before examinations. For teachers, delivering quality recorded lectures can derive financial benefits too, as in foreign universities.
Designation of work areas: lack of proper work areas can be a major hurdle in remote teaching and distance learning. For this, organising learning space is paramount in ensuring continuity in learning now that usual classroom studies and structures may not exist. Students need designated quiet places to focus, read and work on assignments. The environment, if not conducive to concentration, can render one dysfunctional and prove a wastage of time. If teachers and students sit and focus for an extended period of time, they need to be provided a comfortable space that is free from all distractions. Therefore it is important that each student has/her own private workspace, equipped with comfortable seating, a laptop or other device, and necessary materials. While students can gain more knowledge, teachers also can get more time and latitude to work and do their own research. Further, by devising specialised lectures on topics of interest, they can offer useful webinars.
Organization and administration: a major hurdle to remote e-teaching is maintaining an efficient and flexible organisation. It should come as no surprise that organising the learning space is paramount to ensuring continuity of learning, now that usual classroom routines and structures are no longer available. Students need to have a designated quiet place to focus, read, correspond and create. Besides teaching, some administrative work has to be attended to. Amongst other challenges are maintaining proper files, sending reading material to students in time, regular checking of assignments, keeping latest marks list and progress reports, adhering to deadlines, sending reminders, and responding to queries of students.
To be sure, academic assessment of students is relatively better in live-teaching conditions where they are continuously observed. But these issues can be overcome with regular assignments and tests.
Experience has shown that generally students in conventional classes are lax in meeting deadlines. In e-learning some marks may be allocated for discipline, regularity and conduct. The nominated class coordinator can help the teacher in administrative matters. Anti-plagiarism protocols have to be tightened as it was a bane even in the normal class milieu. Absenteeism can be prevented and presence ensured by enforcing digital attendance, and setting a minimum number of attended lectures for final examinations. Through standard operating procedures (SOPs), internet discipline has to be professionalised and fine-tuned.
Avoiding distractions: working from home can be both rewarding and sometimes a drudgery. This is true in real-life vocations as well as in educational settings. However, many advantages accrue if the home work area is conducive to study. When getting on-line education at home, the work area becomes a ‘campus’. Whether hooked up to free Wi-Fi or working in a room at home, the area is turned into a ‘virtual campus’.
Self-discipline and focus: along with computer equipment, a reliable internet connection and digital savvy, self-discipline and motivation are a top priority. Generally in our educational system, self-motivation, rigour, discipline and a quest for learning are lacking for multiple reasons. Moreover, students are burdened if they are studying part-time and working and have conflicts in their learning styles. Simply put, some may have a difficult time applying a personal learning style to the new virtual environment since they have spent most of their educational life in the physical setting of classrooms. Online learning can get acclimated easily for some, while for others, it may take more time. This depends on each student’s educational background, learning style and temperament. Yet new learning skill sets are needed.
Overcoming lack of social interaction: human beings are by nature social animals that need connectivity, bonding and interdependence. Online learning can have some negative social aspects, however. Within the layouts of most degree programmes there are lesser opportunities for social interaction with peers and teachers. When teachers become invisible, the students cannot gauge the teacher’s feelings and emotions and vice versa. Teachers are not only purveyors of knowledge but also moral and role models by setting examples. Furthermore, e-learning can sometimes be stressful with constant exposure to a screen and sitting in cramped positions.
On the other hand, in-person teaching and the university milieu encourage richer interaction with teachers, peers and seniors from different backgrounds. Co-education is an educative experience in fostering gender sensitivity, social mannerisms, and healthy competition. Teacher-student relationships, peer contact and the role of teachers as guides and role setters are also useful for professional development. Positive psychology posits that Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and Emotional Quotient (EQ) are both necessary ingredients for success in professional and non-professional life. ‘Social meetings’ outside the digital classroom can be arranged as they are relaxing and therapeutic. Fortunately, these days many websites are offering excellent stress-reduction techniques to improve mental health, work and productivity.
Bureaucratic hurdles: like other national institutions, bureaucracy tends to be non-cooperative and obstructive in implementing any new initiatives. These can be mitigated by an effective head
of institution selected on merit and competence. A core committee of academicians can assist the head in checkmating bureaucratic hurdles.
Conclusion: there is no gainsaying that the above limitations are real, hence digital learning is going to be a steep learning curve. Admittedly, for certain science subjects e-learning poses special challenges as well as for students with disabilities. The HEC, on its part, is trying hard to solve the issue of provision of computers, do capacity-building, and effect continuous improvement in SOPs. With these efforts the obstacles can be mitigated, if not totally eliminated. After all we are facing a ‘new normal’ in the educational world and need ‘disruptive innovation’. E-learning has been adopted in many countries and in some institutions in Pakistan. As in other fields, the education system is being modernised through technology, trained teachers, computer savvy, a creative curriculum and better grading system. Nevertheless, as in the traditional system, adherence to discipline is no substitute for the quest for knowledge and learning. Student and teacher motivation and zest for learning are a sine qua non for learning and in extending the frontiers of knowledge.
The writer is former adviser, COMSATS Institute of Information and Technology, Islamabad, ex-President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute, Head Department of International Relations, National University of Modern Languages Islamabad, and, until recently, Visiting Faculty, Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University.