Online education: the new abnormal

Over the last one and half years of rollercoaster, one has seen education in Pakistan going downhill.

M Zeb Khan July 30, 2021
The writer is a PhD in Administrative Sciences and associated with SZABIST, Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

Some universities around the globe had put in place strategic plans to capitalise on ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and make a gradual shift to online education prior to the Covid-19. Back then, it was planned to capture the untapped remote markets by following the first-mover strategy. But now it has become a new fad thanks to the pandemic and breakthrough innovations in the IoTs (internet of things). This, however, is not a panacea that one can advise for any disease to anyone!

Does this paradigmatic shift bode well for education or otherwise in countries like Pakistan is a question that policymakers and academicians need to ponder over from all aspects of learning. Over the last one and half years of rollercoaster (going online and offline), one has seen education in Pakistan going downhill. Barring a few exceptions, most academic institutions had no IT infrastructure in place to tackle the mounting challenge of online admissions, teaching, and examination. Nor were the faculty and staff trained to understand, let alone address, the new problems.

Most educational institutions took the easy path of doing nothing until it became an issue of survival for them to do something (that too was some sort of window dressing and maintaining the façade). Students, imprisoned at home, were advised to stay tuned to an online platform with no system for checking their identity, ensuring their active participation, and giving them opportunity to make smooth psychological transition. It was mostly a unilateral delivery of content that made students uninterested at best and resentful at worst.

The quality of voice happened to be so poor that most students would prefer surfing the net (Facebook being a good pastime place) to deciphering distorted sounds. Besides this, students belonging to rural areas had connectivity issues and many of them did not have the necessary gadgets for online education. In some cases, students had to travel long distances to come to main cities for taking exams. The hassle and fatigue, in turn, proved taxing on their academic performance.

Despite every attempt by some institutions, cheating permeated even more in online examinations. It was a heyday for free riders and duffer students. With no physical supervision, one can turn to Google and other search engines for help to answer any conceptual/technical question. To avoid being caught by Turnitin (a software used to detect plagiarism), some over-smart students would turn in handwritten WORD/PDF documents/images besides doing translation/retranslation of the stuff got from online sources. Verbal exams met similar fate with no objective criteria to evaluate one’s knowledge of all key areas of a subject.

Socialisation, one of the core objectives of education, happened to be an orphan with no institution doing anything for personality grooming of students during the Covid crisis. On-campus interaction of students creates opportunities for debate/discussion on social/political issues, cultural awareness, and critical thinking. Online interaction, limited by time and cultural inhibitions, makes it difficult to acquire interpersonal skills and develop critical thinking abilities. School-going children, in particular, remained dormant with no interest in outdoor activities.

This new ‘abnormal’, however, was a blessing in disguise for many individuals and academic institutions. Private institutions, without paying salaries and other expenditure, charged full tuition fee from students for poor quality recorded lectures and PowerPoint slides. Those in the government institutions, on the other hand, had no motivation to even try some form of online education. They offered the usual excuse of unavailability of funds and infrastructure.

The challenge for educationists has always been addressing the questions of what to teach and how to teach to produce graduates who, besides knowing more and better than those who have no chance of going through any formal education, are better citizens. Online education, the one we observed during the pandemic, has fallen short on all counts and should not be allowed to become a substitute for on-campus education. It should be a stand-by option available for abnormal situations with all its essential elements in place before full-scale implementation.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 30th, 2021.

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