EducationVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 16

Education and our fight against coronavirus

Mohammad Ali Khawaja, an O-Level student, was directed to get ready for becoming part of the Home Learning Plan (HLP) of the school system the day the Pakistani government announced the detection of the first coronavirus patient in the country. Keeping in view the expected closure of educational institutions in the country, he was asked to install software, developed by the school administration to help the students participate in lectures, to be delivered by their teachers from homes.

A detailed schedule and a set of comprehensive instructions were issued for the student, their parents and teachers. According to the school administration, all classes in all grades and in all subjects had been set up on the Phoenix Classroom platform. The teaching staff would be actively online and available to the students as per their usual timetable from 8am until 2:15pm every day. The students would be able to communicate with their teachers via the “Chatter box” in the “Phoenix classroom” and official email addresses. The announcement said the teachers would be following the regular school timetable and set work via the platform.

The students were advised to connect to the subject in the classroom app during their lesson time as per their school timetable. An interactive session would be conducted through “Microsoft Team.” The students would be expected to return completed classwork to the teachers by the deadline set by them. The students would be tested online to measure their progress from time to time. The students were required to log in at least 5 minutes before each session. Attendance would be marked for each session. Classes would start at 8am. So on and so forth.

In the detailed instructions, even parents were advised about their children’s study from home. They were requested to set aside a quiet and clear learning space for their children. They should have all required resources accessible such as Post-It, index cards, notebooks, writing tools, etc, the device or laptop charged to avoid disruption in learning, avoid clutter and keep the learning surfaces safe and sanitized. Most importantly, it should be a space where parents/caretakers are present and able to monitor their children’s learning.

This is the story of a student studying at a reputable private school system in Lahore. But what about those large number of students who are studying at government schools, colleges or universities, or low-fee private institutions. How are they going to spend the unexpected vacation from schools? Nobody knows for how long the holidays would continue at public sector educational institutions.

Dr. Ayesha Razzaque, an educationist, says she has been hearing about an education emergency in Pakistan for at least a decade. “We have seen various awareness campaigns, development projects, pilot projects leveraging ed-tech and e-learning. There have been extensive discussions about the adoption of technology to reach out to more children with the limited resources we have. But what’s the ground situation is anybody’s guess,” she tells Cutting Edge.

Dr. Ayesha, a PhD in Education from Michigan State University, the USA, says she has been in the education sector for over a decade, “but if you ask me to identify any e-learning project that has been attempted at scale, I could not name anything substantial”.

She says that with the emergence of the pandemic COVID-19, the country seems abuzz with a flurry of overdue announcements from various government departments – ordering the suspension of PSL matches, closing schools, universities, large gatherings, and other measures. The Higher Education Commission has given faculty a two-week period to adapt to their courses for online delivery. The notice is silent what resources the HEC was providing to the universities for the purpose. Given that many universities do not even have a basic Learning Management System (LMS) in place, it remains to be seen how successful Pakistani universities will be in the endeavour.

Besides the equipment, gadgets and the expertise to use them, there are some others factors which play a crucial role in adoption of distance learning at public sector universities in the country. Dr. Fouzia Naz, chairperson of Dr. Feroze Ahmed Institute of Mass Communication, University of Karachi, says a large majority of the faculty is ill-prepared to adopt the e-learning system. “We don’t have enough facilities and required system even at my own department, though all faculty members are ready to deliver lectures from home,” she tells Cutting Edge.

The media department chief says that at least 40 per cent students don’t have equipment to attend the lectures from their homes. She believes Pakistan’s challenges to adoption of e-learning at mass scale are a lot more basic. For a start, any e-learning solution will assume that every student at least: a) owns a computer; and b) has a broadband Internet connection. But only private schools catering to the upper middle class can make such assumptions, she adds.

Dr. Ayesha Razzaque regrets that even in year 2020, 25 years after the Internet came to Pakistan, those are two awfully big assumptions to make for most Pakistanis. And so it seems that, unfortunately, Covid-19 will force our schools to short change students on their education this year.

The crisis is gigantic and prevalent almost across the world. Unesco announced recently that more than 850 million young people, or about half the world’s student population, are barred from their campuses because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Calling it an “unprecedented challenge,” Unesco said schools had been closed in 102 countries, with partial closures in 11 more – with more closures to come. “Over 850 million children and youth — roughly half of the world’s student population – had to stay away from schools and universities,” the UN educational organisation said in a statement.

“This represents more than a doubling in four days in the number of learners prohibited from going to educational institutions,” it added. The scale and speed of the school and university closures represents an unprecedented challenge for the education sector. The countries worldwide are rushing to fill the void by offering real-time video classes and other high-tech solutions. Some countries are offering classes over television or radio. The organisation said it was holding regular virtual meetings with education ministers around the world to find the best solutions and determine priorities. “The current situation imposes immense challenges for countries to be able to provide uninterrupted learning for all children and youth in an equitable manner,” it said.

However, it seems, the authorities in Pakistan are least bothered about finding a solution to the crisis. On March 25, an official at the School Education Department told Cutting Edge that schools in the province may remain closed for a longer period, even till May 31, 2020, if the coronavirus issue was not resolved.

However, Punjab Schools Minister Dr Murad Raas said no final decision had been made in that regard thus far. But he too has no solution in sight to save students precious time by launching some learning from home programme. He said the government was seriously considering utilising summer vacation for academic activities to meet the requirement of the academic calendar and to cover up the academic loss of students.