Virtual education degree programmes and e-learning universities tend to be perceived of lesser quality and validity as compared to classroom-taught programmes. However with the pandemic, both public and private universities have been mandated to move their courses/classes online as per the directive of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Over the last month, there have been a number of articles in newspapers concerning the shift to online teaching. Advocates of the online shift (mostly private institutions) have been congratulating themselves on the quick and smooth transition they have made. Others, including many student groups, have been resistant to the idea of e-learning. They claim that infrastructure, access to technology and connectivity are not set up to equitably meet the needs of students in Pakistan. However, there has been limited discussion on what e-learning conceptually requires and whether we, as a nation, have the pedagogical skills to provide online courses for degree programmes.
E-learning or Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT)?
We would argue, based on our experience, that what universities in Pakistan are doing during the current Covid-19 crisis is actually Emergency Remote Learning (ERT) and not e-learning. We believe that ERT is a practical, temporary or short-term shift of delivering education through a new modality because of a crisis with not much change in pedagogy, whereas online education requires careful deliberation. Without much preparedness and an urgency to facilitate teaching and learning as an emergency response, faculty have been struggling to make this transition and support students. Most have never taught online, but many have made a commendable effort to adapt to the circumstances based on trial and error. However this is a stop gap solution with a short-term vision, where faculty members are trying to replicate face-to-face instructions to live online sessions as a solution. In contrast, with e-learning it takes months to design, plan and execute a good quality online course for students, with specialised training and resources.
For online education, it is important to have institutional policies and frameworks for course design, minimum standards for teaching, alongside access to technology and student assessments. For this article we interviewed faculty members from various private universities in Karachi who have been teaching online for over a month. Most shared that their universities previously did not allow remote teaching of courses. As a result, many universities in Karachi do not have policies for online education and assessments that reflect best practices and support structures (except initial guidelines and handbooks for continuing the process of instruction). In absence of such structures, it is difficult to ensure transparent and standardised online teaching.
For implementing any remote education, access and familiarity with technology is key. Our interaction with faculty and students in Karachi found that apps like Zoom (paid and unpaid versions), Microsoft Teams, and Google Classrooms are the most frequently used platforms. Few universities are relying on unpaid versions of these platforms which restrict session timings and options of having a controlled online learning environment. The ability to shift to using technology is a challenge for many instructors, particularly those who have not relied on technology in the classroom before. Faculty and students we interviewed identify a lack of knowledge of appropriate tools and techniques suitable to respond to the need for virtual classrooms. This is particularly true of large class teaching formats. It is a steep learning curve, hence features of online platforms (such as small group discussion, online forum-based debates and reflection, and collaborative tasks) often remain underutilised to achieve the learning outcomes which can be a source of dissatisfaction for many.
Due to a lack of training in e-learning pedagogy and student preparedness to transition to new modes of learning, faculty members continue to face challenges such as a decrease in attendance, low participation and attention, disruptive behaviours and sometimes no acknowledgment of their instructions. Many students zone out during long non-interactive synchronous lectures or get frustrated with the constant connectivity issues. Familiarity with technology is not only a technical issue but also a teaching skills or study skills issue. One of the limitations for many private universities in Karachi has been that the orientation and training for this transition has been provided by IT departments who are not pedagogues.
An uncertain terrain for students
The student learning experience must be at the core of all pedagogy, hence it is imperative that their readiness in terms of access to technology, learning needs and digital literacy be facilitated. We spoke to undergraduate students across disciplines from various private universities in Karachi who shared their experience of the shift from remote to face-to-face learning. Although many were appreciative of the efforts of faculty to quickly transition to new modalities of teaching, they still shared numerous challenges. These include low bandwidth due to increased work from home policies, electricity issues, unavailability of personal desktop/laptop and personal delegated space for studying, stress, juggling between family life and education, physical and mental health issues, fear of being infected or having a loved on getting Covid-19; gender discrimination and domestic workload, and well as feeling of isolation from friends. For few students, online education has been an opportunity to think more carefully about their learning tasks – how they can pursue detailed projects and/or deeper research, and learn how to communicate their ideas better due to the time at hand.
Some families are facing financial hardship and concerns of how to find an internship/employment in the current context are ever present. Some fear that they may not be able to return to university next semester and wonder if they should take a semester off till in-class teaching resumes.
Embracing the idea of e-learning: the future of higher education
We believe given our experience that there is a need to draw on both classroom and virtual pedagogy to meet the learning accessibility needs of students. Even when lockdown is eased, there is a need for advocating for blended learning models (a mix of face to face and online) as there might be multiple lockdowns in the future.
Global research on e-learning demonstrates that effective student learning (including quality instruction) results from careful instructional design, planning and research. Therefore, moving away from one-time orientation and training sessions, faculty development at universities will have to focus on a well-crafted continuous programme for course design support, which is available before the next semester and continues as a regular feature throughout the year(s). Prioritising investment and resource allocation for instructional design expertise through creation of online education centers in universities, and hiring learning designers (responsible to integrate pedagogy with technology) to collaborate with faculty on course (re-)design, management and enhancement. Simultaneously a local research strategy and funding for e-learning also needs to be put into place by HEC, the findings of which can feed into constant improvement of curricula and pedagogy.
Students must be engaged in this process as their input is extremely valuable in tailoring instruction to meet their learning needs. Universities and faculty have shown resilience through the initial shift but now we need to account for student autonomy, choice and interest in course activities so student engagement can be ensured. Come august, when students will have their first day in universities on-line rather than on-campus, student orientation and support programmes should have a strong focus on digital, multimedia and information literacy, mental health and self-regulation as e-learning requires an ecosystem in which to function beyond the virtual classroom. Student intersectional considerations and sensitivities including but not limited to social group, gender, ethnic and other identities — such as age, disability, sexuality and geographical location should be at the heart of all course design. Rental service for students to acquire technology from university asset banks or partnering with financial institutions so students can either buy technology on installments or rent it, is essential along with reliable subsidised internet connectivity.
The success of online learning during and beyond the pandemic will be largely dependent on how universities will bring their focus back to learning design and research. This also requires an immediate change of perception that technology is just a prerequisite. Universities must acknowledge that the quality of their student’s learning experience needs to be a core consideration and that the actual drivers of teaching and learning are faculty members backed by a supportive administration and policy environment.