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Covid, education and inertia

Pakistan’s education system has long been reluctant to adopt technology but the pandemic left no choice but to adapt

By Muttahir Ahmed Khan |
PUBLISHED November 21, 2021
KARACHI:

Although we cannot deny the fact that nothing lasts forever except change or the change has to take its course whether we embrace it or not, it is also an irrefutable veracity that people and societies are hardly willing to accept the change because it pulls them out of their comfort zone and status-quo, especially at the initial stages of adaptability process.

Both naturally and historically speaking, all crises and calamities bring forth certain opportunities with them that have to be explored and extracted by the crown of the creatures. So, the outburst of the Covid-19, along with all its sequential phenomena including lockdowns, is not an exception, in this regard, and has paved the way for new opportunities and advancements, particularly in the realm of education and technology. For the last many years, our educationists and policymakers had been vehemently endeavouring to introduce and promote Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) in the classrooms in state-owned education institutions, but all their efforts proved futile as major resistance was demonstrated by teachers who were not only untrained, in this regard, but also unwilling to be trained .

Assistant Professor Fazal Ali Butt, a faculty member at Islamia College, Karachi, asserts, “It was a blessing in disguise. In normal conditions, we might not have been thinking about using technology for teaching but this pandemic has given us an opportunity to experience it sooner than we thought. It was a wonderful experience. Had Pakistani teachers, students and education institutions given it due consideration, it had potential in it to involve the entire nation into the learning and teaching environment. But I'd call it a bad luck that neither teachers and educational institutions nor students realised its potential and utilised it.”

“They apparently failed discouraging the use of technology, returned to the out dated traditional classroom learning and teaching environment just because they are used to it. The same old history - when Muslims refused to utilize the printing press - repeated once again. They will regret it the same way as they regret the refusal to printing press: saying if only we didn't reject the press then, we'd have been up to par with the Europe,” he added.

Butt is right on target in analysing the orthodox thinking patterns of the typical Eastern common rut that does not wish to change its collective behaviour. Even in the contemporary era when the first world has revolutionised its primary education sector, the use of smartboards and multimedia projectors is a dream for most of the university students in public sector universities in our part of the world. So, the lockdowns and the altered teaching practices were nothing less than a bolt from the blue for certain institutions’ management and teaching staff. However, this push or the forced jump was, decidedly, a leap towards the breakthrough and a blessing in disguise for it turned the decades-long stubbornness of the conventional teachers and students into urge for learning to exist with a ‘new normal’ paradigm, within weeks.

As necessity is the mother of invention, we witnessed, during the last two years, a radical progress in the realm of manufacturing and designing education-related technology and online-teaching-and-conference programs and software. I have come across a number of teachers and students who were, initially, dead against the use of technology in teaching, but after experiencing a forced exposure to the new world of facilitating and vibrating tools and equipment, have become very happy and enthusiastic to use the blessings of technology.

Kinza Ahmed Khan, a student of Pharm D at the University of the Central Punjab, Lahore, opines that a “major blessing of the online classes is that it has liberated both teachers and the students from the imprisonment of time and space because this system helps students to join sessions from any nook and corner of the world. It is exclusively helpful in regard to running a smooth flow of the national and international conferences, seminars and lectures that may be attended by and conveyed to a more wide-ranging network of teachers, speakers, experts and the learners beyond any cavil of geographical boundaries.”

“Moreover, online tutorial sessions can comfortably be recorded, archived, and shared for future references. This allows students to access the learning material at a time of their comfort and convenience. Besides, they can download the material for coping with the missing links and revising purposes. Thus, learning has become an easily available privilege for the scholars and learners hailing from even the most backward countryside of the globe,” she said.

The above-mentioned reflection and experience of Kinza drives us further to think of a major leap towards greatly decreased cost of globally supported students-exchange programs amongst the universities. It is a dream of nearly every blooming student to study abroad to feel and experience the diversity and variety of the teachers and their methodologies, but the high expenditures of travelling and lodging had made it nearly impossible for more than 70-80% of the students to go abroad. However, we cannot set aside a very significant point summarily, here, and that is traveling to different regions, getting mixed-up with the people from different socio-cultural backgrounds, experiencing a new aura and ambiance of a different campus, and gaining the first-hand experience of the masses while living amongst them is a major part of the exchange programs and learning abroad. Moreover, every learner is not computer-friendly or feels comfortable while communicating and be communicated through a device or gadget.

Moreover, the concept of university education or higher learning is not confined only to listening to the close-ended lectures or watching topic-specific slides and videos, but it covers the delicate responsibilities like personality grooming, character building, social training and, above all, professional development. Such practices demand socialisation, participation in extra-curricular activities and experiencing the university environment as a growing up citizen of the society. So, online education will further alienate an individual learner, in particular, and our youth, in general, that is already addicted to the gadgets and deprived of social activities.

Shanzay Abbasi, a student of BSCS at Mohammad Ali Jinnah University, Karachi, shares her experience saying, “Online learning has been an interesting experience for both teachers and students. Even though it was provided as an alternative to on-campus classes, we can’t really say that it can ever replace the in-class education system. It came with cons just like everything does. Not everybody has access to internet. Moreover, power failures add more issues to the matter. Constant connectivity issues and sound and visibility concerns disturb concentration. Real-time interaction with the students is also not possible as they can’t ask questions in between lectures most of the time, hence, the topic isn’t clear to most of them if their questions are being left unanswered. Exams can’t be taken properly, some students use unfair means to solve their exams. Adding more to that, some people charge for solving others’ exams sheets too. It basically concludes how unfair online exams can be to everyone who tries to play fair.”

Abbassi has touched the bleeding wound of our education sector and socio-cultural depravity by highlighting the big vacuum in our already loosely-woven texture of examination system. Only parents can play their role, in this regard, by keeping an eye on their children during their quizzes, assignments and examinations, but, the point, here, is that most of the parents are totally unaware of the unlimited access and unleashed powers of technology.

Sudden transfer to the online system also added worries to the lives of the parents of the students as well because managing the provision of concerning gadgets and equipment for online classes is an economical issue too. Mohammad Javed, a shopkeeper and a parent of two university students, shares his complaints saying, “only paying for education and sending children to the campuses was enough a hassle for us. Now, we need to be present for online classes as well and make them sit in front of laptops, computers or mobile devices for the sake of gaining education no matter how the circumstances are going on. We cannot observe whether they are really studying in a class or enjoying gossips in a friends’ circle. Therefore, I can conclude that online teaching is more of a problem than a solution to making teaching easy.” Besides, parents are not advanced enough to pay attention to the topics being taught on screens to check the concentration and even the involvement of the student. Most parents aren’t familiar with tools being used in online teaching too which adds more problems to the existing ones.

Rimsha Ahmed Khan, currently doing her BS in Computer Science from COMSATS University, Lahore, relates her views saying, “Initially, all of a sudden shifting on online teaching mode and use of various Technologies like MS Teams, Google meet, zoom cloud meeting etc for online classes startled us for we were not prepared for that. So, there were lots of issues and we have not had a good experience with it at all and it is difficult to all of us to manage this procedure. As initially, we were using MS teams for online classes, this was not satisfactory move and, due to debugs, mostly teams were hanged. However, with the passage of time, google meet and google classroom proved to be very helpful for us and tackled all the issues we had, hitherto, been facing. I learned a lot, got a new experience and found it helpful, but I must say it cannot beat the rhythm and spirit of actual classes. 90 per cent of the students are not attending their classes and this very fact lead to poor understanding of their knowledge and skills.”

“Online courses cannot cope with the thousands of students who simultaneously try to join discussions. Furthermore, online learning can be difficult, if it is applied to and tried on the disciplines that involve more practice and less theory. In my viewpoint, online learning should be seen as a complement and extension of classical forms of learning. Not even the best online course can fully replace the personal contact with a teacher, or the human relationships that develop in a group. So, on-campus classes can't be replaced with online learning. I am totally against online classes and teaching mode as it is not helpful and wastage of time,” she said.

Khan was vehemently critical about the online teaching system, despite being a student of BS. Computer Sciences and this very notion is definitely thought-provoking and whistleblowing. There are certain responses and reactions from the parents, teachers, students and the civil society members that can be attributed to the notion that it is only because of little familiarisation with the technology and natural adherence to comfort zone and status-quo, yet, there do exist some genuine and serious reservations in this regard.

Concluding our proposition, we can safely resolve to continue with the technology-based or, at least, technology-supported methodologies and systems of teaching and learning because the tempestuous tides of the change and innovations will wash away all the conformism and orthodoxies of clinging to the past, sooner or later. However, the need of the hour is to plan a course of action after profound contemplation and to chalk out appropriate strategies to gain maximum advantage out of the subject system and reducing its harmful effects to the minimum. We must not forget the golden words of legendary Greek philosopher Aristotle who says that “man is a social animal”. So, whatsoever drifts us away from the socialisation and community-based learnings, practices, activities and customs, will drag us towards a world of insensitive and emotionless robots or savage animals.

(The writer is an educationist, author and analyst, can be reached at [email protected])