Why Online Classes Experiment Backfired In Pakistan: A Personal Experience

Why Online Classes Experiment Backfired In Pakistan: A Personal Experience
Dr Ejaz Hussain is a professor and in this article, he's sharing the first-hand experience of online learning in Pakistan and explaining why the experiment hasn't been a success.

Coronavirus (Covid-19) has impacted almost everything under the sun, and that too on a global scale. Indeed, the pandemic has wreaked havoc with the health and education sector worldwide. Educationally, schools, colleges, and universities are forced to halt conventional means of communication such as face-to-face classes in a real-time setting and find alternate solutions. For the last four months or so, educational institutions in Pakistan, especially universities, both public and private, are trying to act unconventionally by going ‘online’ with the sole focus on online teaching. Did our schools, colleges, and universities have any experience of online teaching before? Are the educational institutions equipped with relevant technology? Are the faculty and students familiar with the required technological tools such as Learning Management System (LMS) which often is backed by a particular IT brand such as Blackboard? Do we have sustained internet connectivity along with an uninterrupted power supply? As instructors, are we aware of the technological and cultural implications of e-learning? And, very importantly, can online learning replace offline/conventional modes of communication and dissemination? This article attempts to address these questions from a practical perspective for the author shares first-hand insights.

To start with, let’s be very clear on the fact that in our country − and, broadly, the region − education has been conceptualized and operationalized conventionally. Educational (textbook) boards and University Grant Commission (UGC) were set up to prepare and execute educational policy onto an educational entity, i.e. college/university, that existed spatiotemporally. Hence, education bureaucracy, which works at the district-to-federal level, was created to oversee the functioning of schools, colleges, and universities throughout the country. This conventional system stays intact though with minor modification in the post-Musharraf period. President General Pervez Musharraf, in his desire to modernize Pakistan, allowed for the proliferation of (private) schools, colleges, and universities. To guide and monitor, for example, the universities, the UGC was renamed as the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in 2002. The same year, most of the ‘new’ universities, both public and private, were chartered by either the federal or provincial governments. Despite opening up of the so-called ‘one-house-based’ universities − mostly in the private sector − the HEC could not propose and ensure ‘online’ teaching with the only exception of the Virtual University. At the Faculty Retreat at FC College, Lahore, some years ago where the author was part of the event, the major component that missed the otherwise useful exercise was related to online teaching.

Similarly, I am not aware of any other university in our country that trained its faculty in online teaching. Though some universities trained their faculties in handling LMS, even that was limited to uploading attendance only; moreover, the students, in most cases, were never made part of LMS training. Here, it is pertinent to state the fact that the LMS contained technological tools where online classes could have been conducted, at least, on a trial basis. Unfortunately, this was never practiced and the primary reason was the lack of institutional focus on the part of the HEC and the ministry of education at the federal and provincial levels. Besides, the university leadership, overall, lacked in vision too; it failed to encourage the faculty to use LMS optimally.

Now in the context of Covid-19, from schools to universities, every educational institution is instructed by the relevant education body to go online. Indeed, the HEC, in the immediate lockdown period, instructed the universities to assess their ‘technological’ capacity and determine whether online teaching could be conducted or not. Several universities, which lacked basic capacity, i.e. functional LMS, opted to freeze the spring semester. On the other hand, a good number of universities decided to choose the online option, believing that they had the prerequisite technology. Nonetheless, at the operational level, most of these universities initially faced technological issues ranging from the collapse of LMS to unfamiliarity with ‘free’ options such as zoom and/or google classroom. Therefore, in certain cases, faculty members, without prior training, had to upload the content such as recorded lectures on one platform, i.e. university-based LMS, and post-LMS collapse (s)he had to reload the same to another platform, i.e. google classroom. In the transition process, the faculty members would have to consume extra time, resources (i.e. internet costs that universities do not pay for), and extra energy.

Once the transitional phase was over in the initial one to three weeks, another problem that most of the ‘online’ universities faced was related to internet access and connectivity. Since in each case, a section of students hailed from the remote areas, i.e. Gilgit-Baltistan and the ex-FATA districts, with low internet access/connectivity due to weak signals/phone connection and load shedding. Most of the universities, which initially decided to opt for ‘live lectures’, opted for ‘pre-recorded’ lectures so that students could access without time constraints. This seemed like a workable strategy but even this raised further questions. For example, lots of students, mostly from far-flung areas, complained that they failed to download video content due to heavy file size. Thus, in remedial terms, (compressed) audio files were uploaded. Interestingly, to compress files, the faculty had to search for (free) online tools − another time-consuming element. Tragically, however, in most of the cases known to this author, the students, despite reminders, did not bother to go online, download and use the pre-recorded content. This is very perturbing. This and more such issues and insights will be discussed in the next article.

The writer has a PhD in civil-military relations from Heidelberg University. He is DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and taches at Iqra University, Islamabad. @ejazbhatty