As schools and universities across the world remain deserted due to the spread of Coronavirus, providing and seeking education has become a major challenge. As the first world moves on to online education to minimize loss of learning, education has become a key concern for countries like Pakistan, who lack both the infrastructure and expertise to impart learning online.

ccording to UNESCO, 99.9 percent of the world’s student population is currently affected by school, college and university closure due to the spread of Coronavirus. Many countries, including Pakistan, suspended academic activities to enable norms of social distancing, keeping students safe and helping their governments flatten the disease transmission curve. In Pakistan, an estimated 1,878,101 students at the tertiary level are affected by closure of institutions and it will not be until the fall of this year when the academic sessions are expected to resume, Moving Higher Education Online: A Challenge Or Opportunity? that too, if things keep well. As the virus began taking hold of Pakistani population, the governments at both federal and provincial levels acted quickly to shut down schools, colleges and universities, even religious madrassas.

The Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training began working on various initiatives to provide education through alternative means. In this regard, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the first ever teleschool in the country in the second week of April, developed to impart education to students in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.The provincial education departments, under directives issued by the federal education ministry, ordered educational institutions to move classes online, reschedule examinations and assist the students until the COVID19 crisis persisted. It was a similar case with higher education institutions, which were asked to switch to online mode of education to ensure that students did not miss out on learning.Besides education,Moving Higher Education Online: A Challenge Or Opportunity? all other administrative engagements were ordered to be moved online, including fee collection. And while it is quite an easy task to pass orders, implementing them, or getting them implemented, is a different ball game all together.

Almost There

With COVID-19 disrupting the very essence of what we used to call normal, all segments of the global society, including the education sector, rushed to find a way around the effects of the pandemic and continue with their services.Universities across Pakistan were quick to toe the government’s line by announcing an immediate switch to online classes, only to find out that they really did not have the capacity to sustain online education. On its part, the government also did not realize how internet connectivity would come into play in the process of online education, but it did realize it soon after.

Universities across Pakistan were quick to announce a switch to online classes, but soon found that they didn’t have the capacity to sustain online education

With students scattered across parts of the country, even in areas where not even mobile coverage is available, online education soon became a challenge for hundreds of thousands of pupils. Within days, the social media in Pakistan was rife with criticism from students of policies put in place by the government, HEC and the universities. Many students called for a complete boycott of online classes, raised concerns about connectivity issues that hindered their participation in online lectures. They also complained about unfair treatment of students living in hostels by university administrations and also highlighted other financial dilemmas. Most of the students who raised the concerns belonged to areas like FATA and Gilgit Baltistan. 

 

Teacher Troubles 

But the resistance to online classes has not come from students alone. Thousands of teachers across Pakistan, who usually deem them just turning up in classroom as their ultimate service to the profession, found themselves in no man’s land. First, it was the mode of imparting education that required upskilling, something most faculty members did not want. And second, scrutiny an accountability is a fairly easy job in an online environment, which naturally made the lecturers and professors very apprehensive.

Criticism of online education has also come from a sizable number of change-wary teachers

Teaching in Pakistan is usually practiced in a relatively ancient style, so teachers found it really challenging to conduct their lectures online. Most had to first learn the basics of the digital world, understand software that enabled online lectures and then give out those lectures in a completely unknown setting. Only a handful of teachers with prior knowledge of conducting online lectures found the hidden convenience in adjusting with the new approach of teaching.

 

Online Readiness:

With its plans to offer unhindered online education falling flat much before expected, the Higher Education Commission and Ministry of Federal Education pushed authoritative bodies to devise a proper policy for conducting online classes. After the due assessment of the problems that hindered an effective online learning plan, HEC issued a policy guideline to universities under which the universities were required to conduct classes online during the COVID-19 crisis. As per the HEC policy paper, “HEC will use the concept of ‘online readiness’. While quality standards apply across the entire spectrum of courses, a set of targeted requirements has been devised solely to cover the particular challenges and opportunities of online education. These standards cover 8 major areas, namely the university, the course, the faculty, the library, the technology, the examination, the laboratory, and the student.”

The government also did not realize how internet connectivity would come into play in the process of delivering education online

The comprehensive policy guidance note released by the HEC meant that the universities shall be required to meet the set standards of the policy in order to launch online classes. In short, the policy guidance note states that a university should guarantee the availability of the Learning Management System (LMS), have a trained faculty for conducting online classes, course readiness regarding the online mode of learning, availability of the course material, technical readiness that is the platform through which classes would be arranged and finally, the students’ readiness to learn online. HEC also said it was considering launching student-friendly mobile data packages to facilitate the connectivity to the internet. 

 

A Challenge Or Opportunity

But the challenge to ensure access of internet in areas such as FATA needs much more than providing student-friendly internet packages. In a country where access to internet is 36.8 %, imparting higher education online is limited to the number of students who can participate. In its annual report, the Economist Intelligence Unit has placed Pakistan at 76th out of 100 countries in terms of availability, affordability and people’s ability to use the web.While the government and universities must fulfill their responsibility, the question of awareness about digital ethics remains a concern. It is important for those participating in online learning to understand that the ethics applied in a physical classroom also apply during online learning.However, on the brighter side of things, Pakistan’s higher education may finally see a digital revolution. If the concerns of the students are addressed now, the issue of connectivity is resolved and universities sustain their online programs, the concept of distant learning in Pakistan may become a new norm.

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