While many public universities have given up on educating students online to minimize the learning loss from lockdowns, Punjab University has embraced online education with open arms. Ammar Sheikh talked to PU VC Niaz Ahmed to find out how PU was braving the coronavirus storm and how the oldest university in Pakistan switched to modern-day teaching.

 

he world as we knew it has come to a grinding stop. At least for now. There is no more of the routine we humans fondly called life. The horrid outbreak of COVID-19 has affected every nook and corner of the planet earth and the entire world population. Like all segments of the society, education has been affected by the pandemic, with the UN estimating the number of affected school children to be around 1.5 billion.To make up for the sudden halt in routine education activities, many schools, colleges and universities have resorted to online classes. And whether parents, students or teachers like it or not, online classes will continue for a while. 

 

The experience of online classes has been a much pleasant one for students of private universities, as these institutions have invested generously in putting in place learning management systems for their students. For these universities, switching to online mode of education was not much of a paradigm shift. However, the case has been quite the opposite in public sector universities. Although everyone joined the online education bandwagon in initial days, several public universities decided to stop their online classes following uproar by students. Even the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) intervened to reevaluate the capability and capacity of public varsities with respect to imparting online education. But despite the protests, Punjab University has continued with its online classes undeterred.

It was difficult to convince teachers to switch to online lectures as they had never done it, and also because it was unknown for how long such an arrangement would continue

In an exclusive conversation with Academia Magazine, PU Vice Chancellor Dr Niaz Ahmed explained why the varsity continued with online classes, how is the university managing such a large number of students, besides shedding light on the future of higher education in these changing times.

THE HARD DECISION

In a time of utter confusion and opposition from students, the decision to continue with online classes was certainly not an easy one. Prof Niaz said it was hard, especially hard to convince the faculty to conduct classes online as they were not trained to do so. “It was difficult to convince teachers to switch to online lectures and it was also unknown for how long such an arrangement would continue,” he said. 

Following a meeting with deans and heads of departments, the Punjab University administration decided to continue with online classes. The meeting discussed that because of the uncertain nature of the pandemic and the unknown length of the lockdown, it was best to continue online classes to engage students rather than waste valuable time.

Our IT department played a major role. We quickly got an initial set of staff trained. The idea was to have a resource in every department that could train and help other teachers get over the technological learning curve

The VC said time had proven that the decision was a good one. Asked about the motivation, Niaz said the biggest motivator was the academic year of students. “Students who were about to complete their degrees would have been the biggest losers, as prolonged closure of the varsity would have resulted in a wasted year and delayed completion of degrees.” The delays could have been detrimental to their job prospects, the seasoned academic added.The VC said the decision was a hard choice. “It was easier to sit at home and do nothing. Instead we went ahead and took this decision in the interest of students. My faculty would have got paid anyways as this is a public university. But we took it upon ourselves to not let the students suffer due to the lockdown.” He said Punjab University was the only varsity that was not charging any fee from students for online sessions.

GETTING TEACHERS ONBOARD

Speaking of the challenges, Prof Niaz said getting teachers onboard the idea of conducting classes online was the first, and the most daunting challenge. He said the next part was to actually get the teachers equipped to hold classes online.“Many of our teachers had never conducted classes online and were not up-to-date with the latest technology. For this, our IT department played a major role. We quickly got an initial set of staff trained, including teachers from various departments. The idea was to have a resource in every department that could train and help other teachers get over the technological learning curve,” the VC said.Prof Niaz said that this strategy worked and was the reason Punjab University, despite being the largest in the province, managed to conduct online classes continuously while many others abandoned ship after a few weeks. “Our teachers worked tirelessly, and every department is now holding classes online without fail,” he said.

FLEXIBILITY, COST AND STUDENTS’ PROBLEMS

But despite the VC’s praise for his faculty and administration, many students do not share his enthusiasm when it comes to online classes. Students of all universities, including those of PU, have numerous complaints about the quality, technical problems and the general lack of IT infrastructure to support large-scale endeavors such as getting internet services to such a large number of students in Pakistan.To a question about this matter, Prof Niaz said he was aware of these problems and another important part of the university’s strategy was to show as much flexibility as possible for students who faced genuine problems.

PU is aware of students’ problems and an important part of the university’s strategy is to show as much flexibility as possible for students who face genuine problems

“I have students from every part of the country and I know many do not even have internet service back home in their villages in the remotest part of the country. We have given thought to this and decided to not force those students to take online classes,” Niaz said, adding that those who were unable to take online classes could take additional courses in the summer without any extra fee and could take additional courses in the subsequent semesters to compensate for the lost time.He said the university had prioritized these students and all departments had been told to let students take the next semester and let them take the courses for the online semester one by one. He said that this ensured that they would not fall behind other students and could take the courses they missed later.

SILVER LINING 

The PU VC said online classes had a few very interesting benefits. He said, “If you asked me a week or two ago (before the lockdown) about the number of students that were present in classes, I would not have been able to answer that question.”But now, he knew exactly what percentage of students were attending classes, Niaz explained, saying the number showed a positive response from students.

He said that approximately 90 percent of students from all departments were taking online classes regularly. “I get the data every day telling me the detailed breakdown of student attendance for each and every department and this helps in taking decisions. I also know the teachers who are taking classes regularly and who are not,” Prof Niaz said.The VC said these insights had been extremely helpful and could even change the way universities managed classes in the future.

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

Asked about the future of education, Prof Niaz said an entirely new paradigm had showed academics new ways of looking at things, especially teaching and interacting with students. He said this would definitely bring about a change in the way universities operate.The VC said that online learning, on a smaller scale, might continue when lockdown ended and some departments had shown potential ways in which technology could be used. He said many departments undertook various initiatives, including a mental health helpline and short video series, an online kitchen/gardening series for the general public as well as scientific endeavors such as the COVID19 diagnosis lab.Prof Niaz was of the view that because of the lockdown, the higher education sector had to adopt technology and this had opened up many avenues that would change the higher education landscape in the years to come.

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