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Coping With Covid-19: Can Educational Challenges Be Seen As Opportunities?

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History will now be written with the reference to COVID-19, i.e. before the pandemic and after pandemic. It will lead to the need for massive cultural and social adaption. The current pandemic, with all its negative implications for the economy and educational system, also presents a massive opportunity for us to evolve our mode of instruction. In these challenging times, our teachers and student must adapt to an online mode of learning for near future. If we succeed to adapt to a remote mode of learning we can use the already existing infrastructure to transition into a blended mode of learning, where technology complements in-class instruction. This will then expand learning to places and peoples who might have not had it before.

Since March 2020 when the lock down was announced due to pandemic, if we were to analyze the situation of the country’s overall education system, in particular the public sector, three major conclusions could be drawn:
1. We were lacking in disaster management.
2. This forced educational leaders to look for alternative options.
3. The system is moving towards an educational paradigm shift.

The education system of Pakistan is comprised of 317,323 institutions accommodating 50,292,570 students and 1,836,584 teachers. The system is composed of 196,998 public institutions and 120,273 private institutions. Sector-wise enrollment details are quite alarming. The total enrollment at the pre-primary stage is 8.745 million. The public sector has an enrollment of4.532 million (52%), whereas the private sector has 4.212 million (48%) enrollment. The primary stage of education in Pakistan enrolls 18.751 million learners/students, out of which 11.461 million (61%) are in public sector and 7.290 million (39%) are in private sector. There are 6.445 million students enrolled in the middle-school stage i.e., they are studying in grades VI-VIII. Out of these 4.039 million (63%) are in public sector, whereas, 2.403 million (37%) are in the private sector. For the high school stage the total number of students is 3.437 million, of which 2.227 million (65%) is in public sector, whereas, 1.209 million (35%) are in the private sector. For the Higher Secondary / Inter Colleges the total number of students 1.697 million of which 1.325 million (78%) are in the public sector, whereas 0.372 million (22%) are in the private sector. However the total enrollment for Degree Colleges is 0.937 million. Out of these students at this stage of education, 0.808 million (86%) are completing their degrees from the public sector, whereas the rest of the 0.128 million (14%) students are in the private sector.

Finally, the most important sector of academic arena is that of Universities. There are a total of 163 universities providing their services in both the public and private sectors of education. Out of these universities 91 (56%) are working under the umbrella of the public sector, whereas 72 (44%) are in the private sector. The total enrollment in the universities, i.e., at post graduate stage, is 1.355 million. Out of this enrollment 1.141 million (84%) students are enrolled in public universities, whereas, 0.214 million (16%) students are studying in private universities.

While each level of education is facing great challenges, it is the higher education segment that may end up, by necessity, triggering a learning revolution.

The situation is alarming with the huge number of primary-, secondary- and tertiary-level students who are even not trained enough to handle the new online work and technologically savvy enough to navigate and use new online platforms. As the Universities are dealing with adult students’ population but only some universities already had well established online learning system i.e. Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) and Virtual University. They coped quite well with the pandemic situation, however. The other universities, besides the fact that they have huge IT departments, were never fully utilizing them – nor were the faculty trained to use them. Another significant hurdle was the unreliable access to internet, especially for students in remote areas.

The Pakistani education system lacked training and necessary infrastructure for online learning. So, overall the pandemic has shuttered the education of the country. This situation is generating a lot of serious questions, e.g. can traditional, campus-based universities adapt by choosing the right technologies and approaches for educating and engaging their students? The successes and failures that unfold should give us all a better grasp of what is possible. How can we train the existing faculty to work in blended learning mode? How can we make the best of the situation by optimum utilization of human and material resources?

This current situation is not just unique to Pakistan, but other third world countries in the region are in a similar boat. Some 1.5 billion students — close to 90% of all primary, secondary and tertiary learners in the world — are no longer able to physically go to school.

“The impact has been dramatic and transformative as educators scramble to put in place workable short-term solutions for remote teaching and learning, particularly in emerging markets, where students and schools face additional challenges related to financing and available infrastructure.”

(Salah-Eddine Kandri, Global Head of Education, 12 May 2020).

This situation requires the country to declare an educational emergency with a proactive role for teacher trainers and a move towards the best quality education through blended learning (a blend of online and classroom teaching). It requires capacity building of existing teacher trainers and massive scale online teacher training of public sector teachers. It must be recognized that the public sector education system has a huge teacher training setup; this presents a massive opportunity to finally fully utilize the teacher education system. In this educational emergency, teacher education must be prioritized. In the future this would also present an opportunity to use this system to train teachers in the countries surrounding Pakistan that lack this teacher training infrastructure. On the whole, this could be a hidden opportunity for us to first build our own capacity for remote learning and approach other countries through diplomatic channels to lend our services and in return bring in foreign exchange.

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