IT is no secret that like the entire world, Pakistan was also taken aback with the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 and the reaction from various quarters that followed draw gloomy picture of where we stand. Clearly, our systems, including the education sector was not ready with backup plans in the form of alternatives that had to be adopted when measures such as lockdown were announced.
There is no denying the fact that there is massive demand for online educational systems and virtual learning models, especially after the outbreak of COVID-19, however¡ the options which surfaced, have made it clear that this learning curve is indeed way too steep and in order to overcome this challenge, there is a dire need for policy planners and practitioners to join forces for the ultimate benefit of the students/learners. For the higher education institutions (HEIs), it is perhaps an utmost obligation to consider and prioritize their students as regards to adoption or integration of any policy or practice for online teaching-learning.
Taking care of the interests of the students is not just their right but a legal responsibility of any educational institution and its faculty. So the steps being taken at this point in time by various higher education institutions are quite understandable. However, in the academic arena of a country like ours’ where quality of education is an area of concern in the normal course of life, a mix bag of online tools, software, applications and portals, is raising many eyebrows and that too not just of observers but surprisingly of the students, parents and teachers alike in form of complaints etc. In this situation the “quality and access” of internet has also been realized as an essential ingredient for accomplishment of online teaching-learning according to one survey conducted by the author. Considering the scale of the pandemic in both urban and rural settings, it was imperative to understand how the students of HEIs with different backgrounds are coping up with this situation.
A survey in one area carried out recently by author revealed that 44 percent students have no access of internet at home. On the other hand, almost 77 percent students use mobile data for internet connection whereas 62.6 percent students have no high speed internet services and in some areas majority never ever enrolled in any online courses. Keeping in view students’ preference on online teaching and learning, it is obligatory to explore this area from a research standpoint. In this regard, the author of the article conducted a research on this area as well. The findings of the survey reveal that students are facing many issues like unavailability of internet or slow internet, unaffordability of internet services, no availability of smart phone or laptop, no/poor network coverage at rural/far flung areas, electricity problem (load shedding),Lack of willingness/interest toward online learning , low quality of education, Problems in arrangements of resources due to lock down, Financial problems with students, No prior experience of taking online classes.
One student tole me”Madam ghar k lae pase nahe to internet k lae kahn se laen” another said Madam “have no separate room and laptop for attending online lecture or classes, that’s another “My father is a daily wager, and we are in a difficult situation because my father has been at home for the is at home from last 10 days, so I cannot afford mobile package”. As a nation we are facing critical situation with the epidemic of COVID-19 in all social paradigms including mainstream quality education system. The recent actions taken by HEC in the form of crackdown of numerous online education initiatives is a testament to the problems faced by scholars in these hard times, thus emphasizing the need to have a structured approach and a fully regulated & monitored system to facilitate not only the learning pathways of students from all backgrounds but also to assist the teachers & faculties in their service delivery.
There is a need of complete learning Management System LMS for HEIs as per the need of courses especially practical oriented courses with embedded simulations where required along with prescribed use of VR equipment for hands-on 3D practice. This also implies the development of standards, benchmarks and SOPs for such systems including the digitized assessment frameworks. The time is difficult, however this doesn’t mean that we do not have potential, in fact true empowerment of visionary and intellectuals minds on this front coupled with the right technological mix can pave a way forward that can make life easier for both the students and teachers. So, while the education is in quarantine, there is still hope and students should stay motivated and hopeful as in the times to come. HEIs will certainly be having a Plan-B, Plan-C and so on which will ultimately benefit all the stakeholders through technology.
—The writer is Former Vice Chancellor.