The pandemic that has spread like wildfire across the globe has left more than 1.5 billion students in schools, colleges and universities out of classrooms, putting their short- and long-term prospects at stake. Sameen Motahhir details how we can limit the loss of learning for the country’s future generations and get COV-ED in Pakistan right.

Part 1

Taking Stock

What is one of the greatest problems facing a university student? 

How on earth do you study and maintain your sanity and feel like you have accomplished something? This is one of the tribulations that has now begin to surface among higher education students in Lahore. When COVID-19 hit Wuhan, it was considered a Chinese problem. When it hit New York, it was a political tit for tat and a host of conspiracy theories erupted. When it hit Lahore, it was an issue that we could handle because we had better immunity, the summer months would kill it off, and even if the poor got it- we had enough population. In all of these contemplation, no one thought how the economy would suffer, the education systems would be rattled and sanity of the ordinary man would teeter. Today, we live in an uncertain world and our kids will suffer the most, as the lives that they are in the process of building have been put on hold.

Administrative bodies responsible for creating an alternative to face-to-face lecture system have failed to respond to the crisis. Instead, they are and have been waiting for the end of the lockdown even though the possibility of an indefinite extension looms on the horizon.

In fact, a university student faces the greatest tragedy; he/she is on the cusp of becoming part of the workforce and a bread winner for the family, but has now lost precious time and potential income. The administrative bodies responsible for creating an alternative to the face-to-face lecture system have failed to respond to the crisis. Instead they are and have been waiting for the end of the lockdown even though the possibility of an indefinite extension looms on the horizon.

Lost Opportunity 

The sad part is that this situation of uncertainty could have been easily prevented as Pakistan is flush with IT professionals and education experts. But no one took a stand to do the right thing. Those that did raise their hand to offer support were too close to the bottom rung of the administrative ladder, and the ones at the top whose opinion mattered, they being masters at administrating nothingness, decided to do nothing and just wait. With signatures on change.org piling up and students in outlying regions giving up, the university semester has truly gone bust for now.But the fact is that expecting administrations to work is like expecting Trump to revert to Islam. It is possible but extremely improbable- and so we wait for Godot.Sitting idle is not correct, either you look at it ethically or through the lens of Islam. So of the many solutions I propose, some are

  • Actually- creating committees in all public universities to engage IT and education faculties into creating websites that are solely meant for lectures and resources.
  • Federal education ministries must fund mobile internet vans that create mobile hotspots for areas where there are mosques. Mosques have large open spaces that can house students with smartphones and laptops.
  • Libraries should provide desktop computers and free internet access to every student with a student ID card. Libraries should have 24 hours service. These should be funded by the provincial governments.
  • Empty buildings or workplaces that have closed down can house students and free Wi-Fi and desktops can be provided – of course with the limits of social distancing.

The actual format of the lectures and the staff training has not yet begun in any of the universities that I know in Lahore. In fact, I have heard stories from my students who have complained constantly about the problems faced by their siblings in other the universities regarding the preposterous demands that faculty have for students and admin have for faculty. This attitude breeds frustration and has now caused many students to run anti-online-classes campaigns. The administrators need to listen, because if they do not, they are looking at a failed education system where the degrees awarded will be worthless globally.

Part 2

Faculty

As days go by, the university undergraduate student faces a growing dilemma. Does he carry on this spring semester inundated with online teaching sessions conducted by untrained faculty members – who spend more time either clicking the wrong buttons in a Zoom classroom or muting themselves out – or lay back and hope that by fall, things turn to normal.The possibility of the outbreak lasting until December is real. There is no certainty that it will, but the probability that it might is alarming. What this really means is that online course delivery is here to stay.Therefore, for the faculty blindly feeling their way around the ‘online-ishness’ of it all, it is imperative that they master delivering courses in a virtual setting, know the ins and outs of classroom hacking, are vigilant when students are present and absent simultaneously and then deliver lectures that are interesting, non-drowsy, interactive and inspiring. But this is asking too much, too soon. 

Get ‘Em Trained 

With the administrations stealthily sliding away into the shadows, it is clear that for the most part untrained faculties are left to their own devices, in some cases literally. This is the first problem that has to be tackled. Training of faculty members of all institutions and creating a platform for them where they can learn, ask questions, raise issues that they are facing continuously has to be set-up immediately. At the time of writing this article, there has been no move to create any such platform nationwide. 

Online faculty training should take two aspects into consideration- how to teach and what it is that can be taught

Online faculty training should take two aspects into consideration- how to teach and what it is that can be taught- which essentially means re-designing the course content and then delivering it in a compelling manner. This entails paying attention not only to the platforms that host virtual classrooms but the quality of the courses that are being delivered. In addition to ethical issues such as creating secure and comfortable environments in a virtual setting (for both genders), the dissemination of copyrighted materials, the respect for others and the instructor, faculty have to be given strict guidelines ensuring that the quality of the course that they are delivering is not substandard.

In order to tackle the quality of online course delivery, there must be teams put in place to audit all courses, which include instructional designers, digital humanists and online developers. Of course, audit committees cannot be made and no accountability can be enforced if there is no training and faculty support to begin with. It is patently clear that administrations have a lot of work to do and very little time to get this right. Thankfully, COVID-19 is a global issue and our administrative authorities can emulate and then tailor-make their educational design strategies – if they want to that is.

Students

For the students, it is a difficult ask. The large-scale lockdown’s effect on a young individual has never been fully documented and these are really unprecedented times. The emotional and physical restraint that the youth all over the world are facing will have an unprecedented toll. What is vital is addressing the issue by inspiring and motivating them during the semester. Online competitions and university support communities could be set up so that students have a way to voice their opinion and feel that they too are being heard.Communication is key at a time like this. In order to listen to students’ problems, a Google Discussion Board called The Den was created in March at ITU.

The university undergraduate student faces a growing dilemma. Does he carry on this spring semester inundated with online teaching sessions conducted by untrained faculty members or lay back and hope that by fall, things turn to normal.

Students were asked their opinions on a variety of issues and many were upfront about a number of problems, such as mobile-load cards, non-interactivity of recorded lectures and wastage of time. The Den became (and still is) an invaluable research tool as well as the basis on which I designed an educational assessment tool. This educational tool was aligned with two other tools based on the Medici Effect, and converted into a competition that was launched two days ago. Competitions, blogs, discussion boards and other virtual ways to maintain communication among students is important and the way forward in keeping students engaged. At the end of the day, students are children, and the faculty grown adults responsible both academically and morally to teach and support these children through these difficult and unprecedented times. 

Part 3
Addendum

With students struggling with online classes and internet accessibility, it is absolutely imperative that administrations both at the provincial and federal levels find a permanent solution within the limitations. Covid 19 In Pakistan: What Is, And What Should Be There will be no need of additional funding if we carefully sit and think about smartly using the infrastructure we already have in place.Just like other cities of the world, our city has various buildings, halls, hospitals, hostels and hotels that city administrations can turn into educational hubs and training centers in a way that allows social distancing measures to be implemented with ease.But of all these places, one stands out as the most advantageous for educational activity and social distancing.

The Mosque. One of the advantages of cities like Lahore is the many mosques that decorate its skyline.Mosques are infrastructures that are built upon large areas, have spacious prayer halls and open courtyards, meaning they are the perfect settings for creating safe and hygienic sanctuaries for students who have limited internet access. If the state and federal authorities enable mosques to have internet with good bandwidth, students can be accommodated in large numbers (whilst incorporating social distancing practices) and can come together to have online sessions with their institutions. The implications of transforming the mosque into an internet-enabled educational hub for students is essentially groundbreaking. 

For faculty this is also a novel opportunity to mentor students who happen to live nearby but are not from their universities. This cross-pollination of knowledge is advantageous and will help students acquire knowledge, rather than simply posit it in their short-term memories for they will have access to professors and mentors from other higher educational institutions. COV-Ed In Pakistan: What Is, And What Should Be This idea, that is briefly outlined here, is cutting-edge and archaic at the same time. The House of Wisdom existed centuries ago. It was conceptually founded on the notion that the coming together – the Medici effect – of all different strands of knowledge could be housed under an Islamic banner. Today, if we transform our mosques as places of safety and sanctuary for our students, we will ensure not only that they have access to the education that they need, but also that they are embraced by the House of God. 

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