Written by Mehru Ahmed

The advent of online schooling and E-learning during the COVID-19 pandemic

In these times of the COVID-19 pandemic, many aspects of our lives have shifted from reality to virtual mediums. While most of these transitions were successful, one, in particular, lagged behind tremendously, that of the education sector, which faces great challenges, especially in Pakistan. 

The initial suggestion for in-person schooling to be substituted with online school or e-Learning was proposed in 2020, during the first wave of the Coronavirus. Since the COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected reality, people and governments were not ready to cope with the challenges it presented. The virus became a hurdle for the graduation of the batch of 2020 in both schools and universities, who were working on completing their courses and appearing for their final exams. After months of online preparation through Youtube videos, website resources, and  virtual classes, these exams were then canceled and the students were graded on their prior academic performances.

Due to a lack of examination or testing results, there was no evidence which indicated that online learning was effective. However, of the many benefits of online learning such as staying in the safety of one’s home and having access to lessons that would otherwise have been missed, it was assumed that e-Learning was a saving grace in difficult times. Thus, the decision was made to continue with virtual learning in the coming academic year, which was eventually supported by the Education Ministry and the HEC (Higher Education Commission) as the step forward in the future of Pakistani education while COVID-19 is still a threat. During this period, new ideas, methods, and applications such as Zoom and Google Meet stepped up to cater to distance learning with larger classroom needs and people became hopeful for the students of 2021. 

Lack of access and connectivity limits students from online learning

While the focus was kept on the technicalities of educational boards and the fluctuating activity of COVID-19, the on-ground realities for thousands of students were not given much consideration. Slowly but surely, social media became a voice for the forgotten students belonging to rural areas or lower-income backgrounds who had been fending for themselves during these trying times.

While those belonging to the middle and upper classes were able to adjust and somewhat thrive in the virtual classrooms, others were finding themselves locked out because of a lack of access to necessary resources. Those with existing financial constraints or new financial struggles due to their breadwinner’s unemployment could not afford internet connections, gadgets, or even institution fees. Others who lived far away from urban settings were forced to either commute to nearby towns or cities with their needed resources or to find ways to make do with their cell phones and 3G connections.

It is important to note that between the main few developed cities (Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta) and the rest of Pakistan, there is a steep gap of resources, both basic and technological in nature. As a result, those who were able to use cell phones did not have strong telecommunication network signals available in their areas, and those who had the internet or gadgets did not have the electricity to use them. As the visible hurdles became harder and the solutions remained few, the masses began to recognize the signs of Pakistan’s deep digital divide.

Painting the picture of the digital divide in Pakistan

The digital divide is the gap of technological resources available or accessible between different areas of a geographical setting, meaning one part of a country may have better access than the other. This is a common sight in Pakistan, which has arguably improved over the years. The overall population does have a lower ownership percentage of technology such as computers/laptops, smart televisions, and tablets, but the smartphone has so far had a reach of up to 50% of our population.

This situation can be better understood when we observe the market and the products available. For products other than smartphones, such as computers, laptops, tablets, etc, there are a select number of brands or companies available in the market, and most, if not all, are expensive with price ranges that are out of the reach of anyone below the socio-economic middle class. However, when we look at smartphones, there is a great diversity of products, brands, makes and models, features, and of course, prices. When there is such a variety, there is a greater chance of the product reaching a higher number of interested users.

Additionally, one impressive bit of progress made by Pakistan is the rate of telecommunication brands, specifically those catering to cell phone data, as the relatively inexpensive prices (compared to global rates) allow more low-income users to join these networks, who would otherwise be unable to afford WiFi or broadband connections. So when we look at the bigger picture there are improvements being made on a larger scale and initiatives made on smaller community levels to tackle the gap. One example of the latter part is internet cafes and ‘gaming zones’ established in low economic or technologically-poorer areas. These hubs allow the public to have reasonable internet access at a quarter of the price they would pay for their personal setups and allow the masses to indulge in a world that they are isolated from. 

How Pakistan can make online education more accessible for all

The overall state of online education has improved over time, albeit sluggishly. The problems that students face have either been ignored or poorly addressed by institutions and have proven to be great challenges for the Education Ministry and HEC. While it is impossible to change the personal resources available to every student, there can still be holistic solutions that the administrative parties can propose, which can help students.

For instance, although supporting internet cafes would have been a possible way of helping students during these times, these setups do not come under the umbrella of ‘necessities’ which were allowed to remain open during lockdowns. A small change may be giving importance to such establishments as times have changed and technology has become a vital part of our daily lives. Additionally, as people in villages took responsibility for the children around them and shared their resources, the government can similarly help distribute needed paraphernalia or open e-Learning hubs in locations that do not have other possible ways of building such connections.

A similar project was previously undertaken by Microsoft and The Citizens Foundation (TCF) who collaborated to bring technology-based education to underdeveloped areas. There are existing blueprints for programs that have been piloted successfully and can be of use at this time. Government appeals and initiatives are arguably our best bet because of the authority the body holds. Take for example how President Dr. Arif Alvi was able to improve internet provision at the time of the first wave by directing the authorities in charge to cooperate. Other steps taken by the government include the introduction of a dedicated TV learning channel and radio school to reach the masses. These were progressive steps taken towards ensuring that the opportunity for education reaches all, and should now go towards a  sustainable solution. However, these solutions do not improve the current state of online education for students.

Stakeholders’ cooperation essential to ensuring quality online education

In order to directly improve the state of e-Learning, both in terms of access and quality, there has to be a willingness to do so by the main stakeholders. Educational institutions must make providing accessible education a top priority and reduce the discrimination towards children from rural or lower-income backgrounds. Asking for a large number of tuition fees with yearly increments, not providing financial support during these times, and making unreasonable demands such as forcing students to drop courses if they are unable to join online lectures, are all examples of the insensitivity that exists towards the students from their administration.

A lack of regulation over school/university policies coupled with giving a certain level of autonomy to private institutions is costing children their futures, and being swept under the rug by authorities. It should be the responsibility of institutions to provide relief to students in a way that genuinely aids them. They can learn from the examples present around the world;  relief in the form of tuition cuts, 1% increment rates, increased financial aid, and scholarship programs, to help decrease the financial burden of parents, breadwinners, or independently earning students.

As for improving the quality of education, they could make cushions for their students by reshaping their online systems or platforms. Pre-recorded lectures followed up by Q/A sessions should be preferred over having live sessions to ensure the maximum number of students are able to access them whenever they have the resources to do so. The workload should be decreased to only that which is necessary, rather than piling up work in order to ensure student ‘engagement’ with course material. Moreover, course material and resources should be innovated to suit unsupervised learning, rather than providing material previously used in in-person learning sessions. All possible changes which cater to student needs should be made to ensure academic success in such stressful times.

As COVID-19 tightens its hold on Pakistan in its third wave, authorities should prepare themselves to tackle challenges and help their struggling students because e-Learning may stay longer than everyone once expected. There are thousands of futures at stake if corrective measures, innovations, and adjustments are not made. It is increasingly becoming evident that the student body is gradually reaching its breaking point, with the added stress of their poor academic progress on top of the impact of COVID-19 in their lives. In order to ensure a successful future for all children of Pakistan across the board it is necessary that the government and educational institutions work together. They must take notice of the existing and emerging issues, and finally implement measures that are quick, effective, and most importantly, inclusive.

References

  1. https://www.parhlo.com/rural-areas-students-protest-online-classes/
  2. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200713-the-coronavirus-effect-on-pakistans-digital-divide
  3. https://interactions.acm.org/blog/view/covid-19-education-and-challenges-for-learning-technology-adoption-in-pakis