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Caught off guard: Novel coronavirus disrupts academic session in Sindh

Public, private universities seem to be lacking plan of action to complete semester

Sarah B Haider/safdar Rizvi March 16, 2020
KARACHI: With 53 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pakistan, and the fear of a possible widespread outbreak, it is not just the health sector that is wrestling with the situation. The events seem to have caught academic institutions off guard, jeopardising the ongoing semester.

With an abrupt shutdown until May 31, both public and private academic institutions across the province are struggling with Plan B.

In an attempt to learn about the contingency plans, The Express Tribune contacted several higher education institutions. While some universities claimed they were all set to roll out course material virtually, most are still experimenting with online tools - casting a cloud of doubt over semester deadlines. Meanwhile, a growing number of public universities said conducting online classes was not possible for them because of their weak IT infrastructure.

Pakistan confirms 20 COVID-19 cases in a day

Virtual sessions - are they helping?

While many institutions have already started conducting online classes, others have not been able to do so despite making tall claims. Even in universities where virtual sessions have begun, students report that they have been facing technical issues.

At Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST), the administration claims their online infrastructure is ready to deliver online lectures. Varsity vice president Dr Arshad Saleem said, “SZABIST has the required infrastructure to conduct online classes and, to that end, we have directed the deans and departmental chairs  to go ahead with the plan so the academic session is not disrupted.”

However, H*, a student from SZABIST who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that no virtual classes have been carried out. “We have been sitting idle at home since the shutdown began.”

The Academic Leadership Team (ALT) at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi also claimed that a system for delivering online lectures is underway, adding that the institution has also conducted training sessions for faculty. The ALT team added that IBA would relax the attendance policy, while midterm exams would not be conducted.

Students at IBA, however, said that despite a notification, not all the teachers have started delivering lectures online. Some students have also reported technical issues with the arrangement.

“My university has started online classes via Microsoft Team but we are facing several problems,” a student from IBA said. “The video quality is poor, the voice is sometimes inaudible, the screen lags due to which students are unable to keep up with the instructor, and high traffic causes the website to freeze. Moreover, asking questions is a hassle as many students raise questions simultaneously and voice quality is disrupted.”

Commenting on the issue, a faculty member at IBA, who also preferred to stay anonymous, said that even though instructions had been laid out for faculty members to conduct online classes, there is still a lot of confusion among teachers.

A member of the faculty at Habib University, meanwhile, mentioned that the university has explored a wide range of online tools to prepare for the recent extension.

“Our university has already commenced online sessions through Microsoft Team and this system has been uniformly adopted across the campus,” one student from Habib University, who chose not to be named, confirmed. “So far, everything has been going on smoothly and we have not faced any problems.”

Iqra University vice-chancellor Dr Waseem Qazi said, “We had already been preparing for virtual or online classes before this situation occurred, hence, the faculty at Iqra University is already trained to deliver lectures online.”

A faculty member at Iqra University also established that all preparations have been done to deliver lectures virtually. “We will fulfil our promise and complete credit hours for all the courses by conducting makeup classes and will complete the semester per schedule.”

Will extra classes be beneficial?

While the IBA and other private institutions have decided to go ahead with online classes, several public sector varsities have ruled out the option, saying that it is impossible for them to carry out virtual classes due to high enrollment.

University of Karachi (KU) vice-chancellor Professor Khalid Iraqi stated that at the biggest varsity in Sindh, with nearly 45,000 students enrolled in both the morning and evening programmes across 54 departments and research centres, delivering online lectures was out of the question.

“It is neither possible to conduct online classes for thousands of students of all the departments nor does the university have the IT infrastructure to support such an idea,” said Dr Iraqi. “When the varsity reopens, the government should allow us to keep the varsity open on weekends after the break so that extra classes are conducted for the timely completion of the academic session.”

Meanwhile, Professor Tariq Rafi, the vice-chancellor of Jinnah Sindh Medical University - the second-biggest medical school in Karachi - shared that nearly 2,000 students were enrolled in their MBBS and BDS programmes combined.

“The varsity lacks the infrastructure for conducting online classes. Moreover, taking such steps in the field of medical studies is also difficult because of the practicalities involved, due to which the academic session and examinations might be delayed,” he said.

The vice-chancellor of the NED University of Engineering and Technology, Prof Sarosh Hashmat Lodi, said that the varsity had a vast student body with over 10,000 students. Hence, he maintained, it would be impossible for them introduce a new system overnight and conduct online classes.

Even though extra classes seem to be a viable option for public universities, students are still worried.

Areeb Anjum, a third-year undergraduate student at KU, said that both students and teachers were confused about the completion of syllabus with additional sessions. “The decision to conduct extra classes shows that no matter what happens, there is no modern approach to educate students if they have to be [quarantined] at home,” Anjum said. “Secondly, [being science students] we have lengthy syllabuses along with practical work, so I think the teachers will have to cut the syllabus short because it would be very difficult to wrap up the semester even with extra classes.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2020.


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