Education In A Pandemic: LITMUS Test For HEC And Universities
E Magazine Issue 14 May 2020

Education In A Pandemic: LITMUS Test For HEC And Universities

Education In A Pandemic: LITMUS Test For HEC

Online education facilities put in place by HEC and universities to minimize the effects of Coronavirus lockdowns have certainly drawn flak from students. But a contributor questions if it is alright to only blame HEC for the mismanagement that has come to the fore?

LETTER In these unprecedented times, it is not only our economy that is faltering, but the entire education process is also in shambles. All local and international examinations have been put on hold and uncertainty and confusion surrounds online classes arranged by higher education institutions (HEIs). Higher education has been, perhaps, the least discussed issue by successive governments and thus a comprehensive policy for it appears lacking. For many weeks in April, various hashtags trended on Twitter, like #WeRejectOnllineClasses #WeWantSemesterBreak and #HEC_StopOnlineClasses, which highlighted how effective the online education had been so far. Although it was a planned twitter campaign, issues students have been facing regarding online education are not absolutely wrong. Though it does beg a question: is only HEC solely responsible for enduring this reaction from university students? This pertinent issue needs to be examined from various angles for a better understanding. 

Readiness 

First, let’s consider how well–prepared the universities were. After the ratification of 18th Amendment, the subject of HEC was devolved to provinces. It would have been a beneficial idea had decided powers, functions and resources been smoothly shared with provinces right after the devolution. Consequently, Sindh and Punjab developed and strengthened their higher education commissions after 2012, but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa still only operates a department instead of commission to deal with higher education affairs. Balochistan continues to struggle with establishment of a commission for higher education due to inadequate human resources, therefore, it still works under the guidelines of federal HEC.

The primary aim of federal and provincial HECs was to shore up PhD numbers in Pakistan, with no solid plan for capacity building and infrastructure improvement in universities ever devised

The primary aim of federal and provincial HECs was to shore up PhD numbers in Pakistan, with no solid plan for capacity building and infrastructure improvement in universities ever devised by either HEC or universities themselves to cope with continued shifts in technology. The learning systems in most public universities are limited to human capital and faculty strength. On the other hand, private sector universities who sensed the shifts in trends and the need for incorporating technology in learning, devised effective learning systems to aid regular lectures and routine educational processes. Universities like LUMS, University of Lahore and Superior University Lahore have well established learning systems. With COVID-19 sending the world into a seizure, HEC directed universities to move to online classes during the lockdown. However, many universities – especially a majority in public sector in KP and Balochistan –have little or no capacity to cope with this sudden shift in learning mechanisms. For these universities, online classes is an alien idea and the administrations have little clue what to do next. 

Internet Connectivity

Secondly, the students’ reservations are not far from what is true. Although HEC notified online classes, it failed to take in to account that there are millions of students in remote areas of Pakistan that are deprived of internet. The online education is boon for those who have access to internet with good bandwidth, but all others are at a loss. Since online classes depend on internet, the uniformity in learning can’t be achieved in its absence. 

The current online assessment tools are infantile and online classes without assessment will be unproductive, if they go on for longer than a couple of months. Another challenge is sustaining privacy and security during online classes. Technology is vulnerable not only in Pakistan but around the world due to its misuse. Hacking of accounts and then posting inappropriate content is a challenge during online classes that immediately needs to be curbed.Many of the female students who take online classes complain about privacy breach and are reluctant to take these lectures. Until a convenient, uniform and safe learning system is not introduced by universities and HECs, online education won’t yield its benefits. 

Although HEC notified online classes, it failed to take in to account that there are millions of students in remote areas of Pakistan that are deprived of internet

Third, there are few reservations from students that beg government’s attention. It is imperative to know that providing internet facility to all areas of Pakistan is not a jurisdiction of HEC, federal or provincial. It is a mammoth task that can only be undertaken by the government in collaboration with PTA. It is sad to note that many parts of Balochistan, former FATA, Gilgit Baltistan and Hunza have been kept deprived of internet facility since long. How could students of these areas be proponents of online education when they don’t have internet facility? This lockdown is an impetus for government to introduce and revive internet facilities in remote areas as soon as possible.

In these uncertain times, all stake holders – students, HECs, universities and government – must coordinate with each other to reach a constructive solution. However, greater responsibility is on the government and HECs. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Federal and provincial HECs must be on the same page and a uniform response should come out to collective problems. As HEC has already directed universities to test and update their capabilities of providing online education through Learning Management System (LMS), it is also obligatory for the government to provide internet data on cheap rates to all the university students.

Many of the female students who take online classes complain about privacy breach and are reluctant to continue

This is a litmus test for HECs and universities to envision innovative teaching pedagogies and learning systems for the future. HECs need to push universities to upgrade the teaching systems for digital classrooms are not a thing of fiction any longer. Pakistan has enormous tele-density that can be used to fulfill the demands of online learning. This lockdown has exposed many universities that do not have effective online learning systems and are simply too archaic to survive the modern race for education.

But what we should now focus on is not blame, but the way forward. How can things be improved? How can internet be made more accessible? What if this lockdown goes beyond May 31? These are the queries we should be looking to answer and must prepare ourselves for the wost. Every cloud has a silver lining and let us consider online classes as a trial for our frail system. It is an opportunity to correct years of wrong and move to better modes of educating our students. Let’s give it a chance.


The writer is a lecturer and researcher at a private sector university based in Lahore. He also writes for many local and international newspapers on education, health and social issues. He can be reached at iamsohaib22@gmail.com

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