Faarid Ahmad and Yusra Ahmad had just turned on their laptops to attend their online lectures in the study room when their mother called him from the kitchen. She wanted him to go to his Khala’s house and bring her home on a bike, as she was alone and wanted to visit them. With a little protest, ninth-grader Faarid shut down his computer and left for bringing Khala home. As soon as he reached home, another “emergency” was waiting for him: the kitchen energy saver had fused due to power fluctuation and he had to go to an electric store to buy a new bulb and then fix it. All the activity took more than an hour of Faarid before he could return to his online classes and listen to his teachers’ lectures by logging on to his school website.
Yusra, a tenth class student, too was not lucky enough to complete her first 40-minute lecture. As soon as Khala reached home, she asked Yusra to accompany her to the tailor’s shop, as she was to pick her shalwar-kameez from there. She could not wait for Yusra to complete her lecture as she had to return home before her husband came back from his office. Yusra’s mother and sister believed she could delay her lectures, as “those were not going anywhere from the school website.”
Faarid, meanwhile, could not stop himself from watching a T20 match of the Pakistan Super League-2020, leaving his lectures halfway. On objection from his mother, he repeated the sentence he had just heard from her (“Lectures kaheen bhagay naheen ja rahay”). Such situations and scenes are not peculiar to the family alone since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country and consequent closure of educational institutions in March-April last year. As the siblings were students at a relatively “good” private school, the management had made arrangements for uploading all subjects’ lectures to its website on a regular basis. However, there were hardly one or two days a week when the two were able to attend their all online classes. They would mostly skip the online tests, for one reason or the other. They had reasons in abundance for not taking classes regularly, or skipping the online tests, if ever questioned by their mother: there were guests at home; UPS had lost its backup due to the whole day power shutdown; the Internet was malfunctioning, hence no connectivity to the school website; father or mother had sent them to the marketplace, or some relatives’ home, etc.
With such an attitude towards online classes, there should be no surprise if students return to schools totally blank or with very poor learning after the country overcomes the pandemic, says Irfan Saleem, a senior teacher at the Government Higher Secondary School, Mozang, Lahore.
A few months back, a World Bank report had suggested that learning poverty in the country would go up to 79% as a result of schools closure due to the pandemic. In the absence of an online studies culture in the country, claims the senior teacher, learning poverty among students of public sector schools had already gone beyond the WB estimated rate of 79%. More than 90% primary class students returning to schools after the first COVID-19 wave had forgotten almost everything they learnt as regular students, as no facility or environment was available to them for online classes at their homes, recalls Irfan Saleem.
Bashir Ahmad Chaudhry, a retired high school headmaster, paints even a bleaker picture of the expected outcome of the online studies. He says that the ground situation was portrayed by the Annual Status of Education Report 2018, [ASER-2018], which said that almost 50% of Pakistani students enrolled in grade 5 could not perform arithmetic and reading tasks set for the second grade. The poor learning outcomes were not just limited to the public schools but also low-cost private schools. As a result, many students were years behind the appropriate learning level for their age group and had weak foundational concepts.
It was the learning situation of students who used to sit in their classes regularly and learn their lessons from their teachers, the educationist tells Cutting Edge at his residence on Raiwind Road, Lahore. What results you would expect from students if they are asked to take online classes and learn their lessons on their own, asks Bashir Chaudhry.
The educationist, who served various schools in different capacities for almost 40 years before his retirement, claims that almost 90% students of the public sector schools attend their classes attentively and learn their lessons only because of fear of corporal punishment. How would they take their online classes on their own and learn their lessons at homes, asks the teacher. He believes that without bringing a 180 degree change in the thinking of parents, teachers and students about education and learning, or revolutionising the education sector in other words, no good results could be expected from the new online system.
Dr. M Ilyas Wali, President of the Punjab Private Schools Association (PPSA), believes only students could not be blamed if learning standards decline during online classes. “We, as a society, lack an environment that could support learning through the online education system. When our children sit in a separate room and log on to their school websites or other such systems, parents must understand it fully they are talking their classes. Any disruption by them would not only shatter their concentration but also result in poor learning at the end of the day,” he tells Cutting Edge by telephone. “Every member of the family would have to be conscious that students must not be disturbed when they are taking lessons or tests online. They must be considered in a classroom, until they complete their lessons online,” stresses the educationist. Developing a conducive environment and culture in all houses could produce the desired results, believes Dr Wali.
Karachi-based Marium Asad, a business developer with a primary focus on education, says that in the post-pandemic world, technology is directly contributing to and changing the traditional approach to learning, which was limited mostly to classrooms. She believes e-learning may solve a lot of literacy and learning problems, especially when it comes to setting a standard of education in the country.
For the purpose, she tells Cutting Edge by telephone, schools should have adequate infrastructure to support e-learning. But, she regrets, many school owners are reluctant to shift as they feel like it is a hassle or that it may waste their time. She witnessed that resistance firsthand, from school owners and teachers alike. Teachers, especially in second tier schools, saw the ed-tech solutions as their replacement, instead of seeing them as resources they could use to enhance their teaching experience. No matter how apt a digital solution is, if those who need to apply it to classrooms are reluctant, even appropriate infrastructure will not make up for it, she explains.