Tania Saeed argues that the sudden transition of educational institutions into the online world ignores the reality of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on students and teachers. In Pakistan, the quality of education may deteriorate through online education considering that the issues such as power cuts and unequal access to internet remain unaddressed.
The response of higher educational institutions in their urgency to transition into the virtual world of teaching during the coronavirus pandemic on the basis of ensuring that ‘learning’ is not disrupted with the closure of colleges and universities till May 31 exposes the irrelevance of student and teacher experiences in the learning process. The emphasis is essentially on delivery – we need to deliver education to our students, fulfil the requirements of the academic year or semester so that the student does not lose out, thereby fulfilling our duties as providers of education.
What is completely lost in this scenario is the reality of a pandemic and its impact on the student and the teacher– not just the physical, emotional, or psychological trauma that comes from members of a family, or neighbours falling sick, but of livelihoods being disrupted as businesses close down, and workers across the country lose their jobs, theirs and their families only means of survival.
Students may be taking care of family members, living in precarious conditions, suffering from hunger or living in abusive homes, or even worried about loved ones working in hospitals and clinics. It is in this context that we want to ensure that ‘learning’ as delivered through our educational institutions is not disrupted, where students learn online, and teachers (who may be surviving in similar circumstances) transition into the virtual world for which they have limited training – all the while living through this pandemic.
In the past two weeks a lot has been written on both the need and the limitation of online/virtual/remote teaching in Pakistan. The uncertainty of this pandemic with no end in sight has resulted in educational institutions exploring alternative methods of education, where online teaching seems to be the most viable option. Universities, mostly private that are well resourced are already exploring innovative ways of delivering education during this pandemic.
Public sector universities are equally encouraging online classes to ensure the semester continues despite this disruption. The limitation that has rightly been highlighted is one of infrastructure: this ranges from internet access, as evident in the recent protests by students in Wana, to basic issue of electricity and power cuts; lack of trained teachers who themselves may struggle with access to the internet, and the danger of quality (already a problem in the education sector in Pakistan) further deteriorating through online education.
The examples shared under the campaign #BoycottOnlineClasses on social media by students and teachers shows the extent of the problem, where the rush in ensuring education is not disrupted seems to be at the expense of students and teachers, rather than for them. The fact that the government has given the option of closing universities till May 31 should be seen as an opportunity to develop a Plan B through collaboration with students and teachers, rather than forcing online education that further compromises quality.
The uncertainty of the pandemic has necessitated the need to consider alternative ways of education delivery, but these cannot be decided through a top-down bureaucratic mechanism when the most integral players in this system are the students and the teachers. Delivery of education is irrelevant if it does not ensure quality learning. In such a context, student unions, and teacher unions could have been a useful source of collaboration. However, organisations such as the Progressive Students Collective, and the Professors and Lecturers Association for different provinces can provide important points of correspondence.
The closure of educational institutions can be an opportunity for universities to evaluate the needs of their students, using empirical data from admission records, and consulting student and teacher organisations to explore the kind of obstacles that exist on the ground amongst their diverse student body and teachers, and the ways in which these obstacles can be overcome. All of this requires communication and collaboration with teachers and students.
Furthermore, examples of students mobilising and driving relief efforts in their communities have been widespread; this could provide an important point of introspection for educational institutions, where such acts of solidarity can become an important part of the learning curriculum that goes beyond a textbook and a classroom. Innovation during times of crisis in education is not just about technology in the way it is being approached right now, but also introspection related to knowledge, the relevance of the learning experience for the everyday realities of students and teachers. As we think of alternatives, we need to re-evaluate what we consider learning, especially during a pandemic where that textbook knowledge seems to be increasingly irrelevant.
There is the added importance of recognising gendered educational inequalities that exist within the household. The triple burden on women will be exacerbated for female teachers and students, where their access to teaching and learning will further be compromised as they take on the added responsibility of household and care work, while expecting to teach and attend classes at home.
Further problematic is the assumption that home life will be conducive to learning, overlooking the kind of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse that may exist inside homes, where for many students and teachers campuses were safer options than their homes.
Rushing into an online mode of teaching will most certainly exacerbate educational inequalities as they exist in Pakistan today. While it is important to recognise the uncertainty related to COVID-19 and the need for a Plan B in education if educational institutions remain closed, that Plan B can only be successful if the existing reality of students and teachers is taken into account. There is a need to recognise the physical, emotional and psychological toll of the existing pandemic on teachers and students. Disruption to ‘learning’ during a pandemic is only natural, but to force some form of artificial continuity in the name of ‘learning’ is nothing more than a façade if it does not take into account the students and teachers that are central to the education process.
If the rush towards online teaching is causing more stress and frustration for teachers and students during a pandemic, educational institutions, both public and private, must take the time given to them by the government that closed down universities till May 31 to better plan in collaboration with their teachers and students, instead of becoming a source of undue stress in the midst of a pandemic.
The writer is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at LUMS, a member of the Progressive Academics Collective (PAC), Lahore, and the co-author of “Youth and the National Narrative. Education, Terrorism and the Security State in Pakistan” (Bloomsbury, 2020).