Online education navigates uncharted territory

HEC discusses possibility of suspending online classes in varsities that lack proper Learning Management Systems


Safdar Rizvi April 16, 2020
PHOTO: ONLINE

KARACHI: The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) has failed to provide a clear strategy or uniform policy regarding online classes to public and private universities across the country, which has created confusion among university administrations, teachers, and students alike.

Recently, the HEC is in the process of deciding that only those universities will be allowed to hold online classes which have Learning Management Systems in place. For such universities, the ongoing semester – which had to be disrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown – will continue per schedule through online sessions.

Since some universities will conduct online classes, the HEC is also considering to suspend the prevalent Grade Point Average (GPA) system – a process used to indicate how well or how high a student has scored in their courses on average. What’s more, the decision to introduce a direct pass-fail grading system is also on the cards.

The recent discussions were made during a two-day private and public universities' meeting chaired by the Higher Education Commission Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri. The meeting was convened after students from various universities across Pakistan took to the Prime Minister’s Citizen Portal and started lodging complaints regarding online classes and how they had been imposed on students without a Learning Management System in place.

On the first day of the meeting, vice-chancellors (VCs) of those universities that had started online classes were invited, while on the second day, the meeting was attended by vice-chancellors of universities that could not initiate online sessions.

Sources say that vice-chancellors representing 154 private and public universities from across the country attended the second day's meeting.

One of the VCs, who attended the meeting, said that the sudden decisions show how the HEC has not practically chosen a uniform policy for universities across the country.

“When the universities will reopen in June, some of them will proceed with their semesters or academic sessions where they had ended their online classes during the lockdown,” he said. “On the other hand, most universities will have to restart their academic session from the point when campus-based classes were suspended.”

He said that the move will also affect the admission process in many educational institutions.

Temporary decisions

Speaking to The Express Tribune, Chairman HEC Dr Tariq Banuri said that the decision to suspend the GPA system is temporary.

“The HEC has directed the vice-chancellors of different universities to conduct online classes only if their students and teachers are already familiar with virtual education – how the university's online system works, the faculty members know how to teach a course online, and the students can access the course materials,” he said. “Universities that had no prior arrangements for virtual classes, but they had to initiate them on an ad hoc basis, have been directed to halt online sessions.” He added that the problems will hopefully be resolved by May 31.

Referring to the temporary suspension of the GPA system, Dr Banuri clarified that the matter has been only been discussed and no formal decisions have been taken yet.

“[Once universities are on the same page], we will consider all possible options and will be able to make a formal decision by next week. Nothing can be said at the moment,” he explained.

Sources also revealed that during the meeting, when the matter of continuing or suspending online classes was being discussed in detail, the VC of a university in Punjab pointed out that his institution has already started online classes. Upon hearing that, Dr Banuri expressed his disapproval, stating that the university should not have started online sessions without having a proper Learning Management System in place.

Complaints from students

Per sources, numerous complaints about online classes, especially those lodged by students and teachers, were also reviewed during the meeting and the HEC acknowledged the problems. As a result, it was unanimously agreed that conducting online classes requires universities to compromise on the quality of education.

Dr Banuri said that most of the universities do not have well-trained Information & Technology (IT) teams and in the absence of a learning management system, students’ attendance is neither monitored nor the performances of teachers are improving.

“Some universities have exempted students from the required attendance because of the online classes which is why students are not taking things seriously,” he said. “Students from other provinces and northern areas studying in the universities of Sindh and Punjab have returned home due to the break. Their areas do not have good internet access,” Dr Banuri pointed out.

New plans

The VC of Sindh University Jamshoro, Dr Fateh Muhammad Burfat, who attended the meeting, said that two plans, A and B, have been finalised during the meeting.

“According to Plan A, approximately 40% of the marks will be evaluated as mid-term based on the semester classes and online assignments given to students for approximately two months before the lockdown, while the remaining 60% will be awarded once the classes recommence in June,” Dr Burfat said. “As for Plan B, if the lockdown is continued after May, it would be mandatory for universities to complete the semester online.”

The VC of another university, who requested anonymity, said that during the meeting, the HEC chairman was under pressure because so many students have lodged complaints on the Prime Minister's Portal.

“On the other hand, there are a plethora of complaints about the quality of online classes on social media, and many students are directly tagging the HEC on Twitter, which has highlighted the matter,” he said.

Ongoing problems

Citing objections received from students, an HEC official said that many universities were just giving credits to students without actually holding the classes properly.

“Some students pointed out that there was no activity in online classes, adding that they did not pay hefty semester fees to receive 'substandard' distant learning,” the official, who preferred not to be named, said.

He added that students have to deal with electricity load-shedding and poor internet connectivity, and some of them do not even have laptops at home. Meanwhile, teachers do not know how to retain their pupils’ interests and attention during online sessions.

“Most students believe that teachers have been instructed to take online classes without any prior training, which is causing more problems. On the other hand, many teachers have complained that the attitude and behaviour of students about online classes are childish and unhealthy, which is why there has been no progress,” the HEC official said.

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