Distance Education or ‘Distant’ Education? e-Learning Revolution and Pakistan’s Under Preparedness
Coronavirus pandemic could be an opportunity in disguise for e-learning revolution in Pakistan. Last few weeks have witnessed global disruption of modern life caused by the outbreak of fatal coronavirus or COVID-19. The pandemic had ramifications on social, political, and economic landscape of the world as it led to unprecedented measures like reinstatement of borders in borderless regions, halt of the aviation industry around the globe, imposition of lockdown in various parts, and closure of educational institutes worldwide. Pakistan, in the same vein, has been grasped by the epidemic, and activities in the education sector – among others – have been adversely affected. Schools and colleges were preparing children for final examinations, while universities were undergoing spring term when they had to shut down abruptly without any definitive timeline.
Considering the potential risks associated with the impact of the virus, admittedly, the circumstances warranted a novel and expeditious response. Ultimately, like everywhere else in the world, educational institutions in Pakistan also responded to the crisis by veering towards virtual learning as digital technology is deemed a flawless solution to all problems. However, the execution of digital literacy in true sense is an uphill task, and in Pakistan the recent attempt was initiated without adequate preparation.
Majority of students from rural and semi-urban areas choose to study in larger metropolises to fulfill their educational aspirations as cities offer better infrastructure and growth potential. The fact is that there is a yawning chasm between appropriate technological infrastructure to conduct virtual lectures between different areas. Amidst crisis, bulk of students are forced to return to their native towns where they face problems of unfettered access to internet.
Problems of digital literacy poses an additional challenge to overcome if students must gain maximum advantage of virtual-learning resources. Attending online classes might not be feasible for advanced complex courses and subjects that have practical exercises or laboratory components. This issue remains to be addressed. Furthermore, it is unfair to presuppose that every learner is cognizant of navigating new software. Likewise, face-to-face communication and peer support are vital components for learning as they enable a sense of community and interactivity in learning. There must be mechanisms to integrate these features through digital means.
One problem peculiar to all countries in the global South is scourge of inequality and its various manifestations in wealth, opportunities or social disparities between urban and rural areas. The education sector in Pakistan is no exception to these differences. It is uncorroborated to expect technology to bridge it overnight. Despite the fact that access to technology may appear to be same to everyone, it has also led to an increased digital divide because ability and the will to use technology for productive means is not the same across the board. Though it could be a great opportunity for a system that struggles to provide uniform and quality education.
Even if these complications are resolved new challenges come into play. The assumption that every instructor can proficiently deliver online lectures effectively is inaccurate. Blended-learning has different approaches than traditional learning and requires specialized training. Since classes are mainly held in a conventional settings, faculty members who have no prior experience with online teaching may not be able to instruct effectively.
Another common obstacle faced by teachers universally across all disciplines is to keep students motivated and engaged. Digital interaction, in this regard, poses a huge challenge as students often tend to think that online classes requires minimal cognitive commitment. Hence, even before the commencement of a course, students may already feel inert. Moreover, in the absence of a head-on contact, instructors might not be able to apprehend nonverbal behaviour from students who may perhaps be unresponsive or disengaged in participation. On the other hand, it may also hinder instructors from expressing their state of mind or demonstrate enthusiasm.
As someone having first-hand experience with educational technology, I appreciate the move towards virtual learning. However, meticulous preparation, planning and capacity development as per the socio-economic dynamics of each region must have been taken into consideration. Nevertheless, this crisis can also be a window of opportunity that could potentially usher a new age of e-learning in Pakistan if adequate policies are formulated and substantial investment is made in the educational sector.