“When you think of children laughing,
The whole world seems suddenly lit up …
Let us give them all the happiness, and let us hope that when they grow up, they will have a better world to live in than we have had, and the stars will be kinder to them than they have been to us.”
- Faiz Ahmed Faiz
As almost 188 countries chose to prioritise the health and safety of every child, there are now more than 1.6 billion children around the world who are out of school currently due to Covid pandemic. In Pakistan, that number comes close to 28 million (not counting the 25 million children that were already out of school). An unprecedented call of action that set off a series of sort of expected reactions. Would my child be left behind academically? Am I as a parent doing enough? And then came a plethora of options of online learning; from YouTube channels to Google classrooms, children were encouraged to be with their friends and teachers virtually till the return of normalcy. If anything, the inability to tackle it tactfully has created more issues than solve it at the moment.
Let parents assume the role of teachers
Dr Shehzad Jeeva, Director of Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB) and Chairman of Inter Board Committee of Chairman (IBCC), recently stressed that in the current situation, it’s best if the parents stick to teaching the basics – language, numeracy, and scientific skills. They should encourage their children to read, which would be sufficient for the time. At least one of the parents is working from home these days. And when parents feel the stress or are under peer pressure from other mothers or fathers regarding their child’s progress, they’ll involuntarily but inevitably make their children indifferent to learning. Don’t confuse your kid with loads of materials. Now that things have changed, these attitudes need to change as well.
Engage them slowly and cautiously
The situation is as unfamiliar to the children as it is to their guardians. For one, the adults have to get accustomed to the fact that their young ones don’t know how to operate a computer and it’s very likely that after the initial excitement has died down, they are going to feel overwhelmed by the experience. Most of these online sessions are one not interactive and children naturally feel frustrated and more confused when they cannot talk to their teacher properly. Also, it’s not just the technology; the online resources are not based on our national curriculum and their level of difficulty and relevance might confuse the child. In short, they need help. Take it slowly until they learn the norms of learning online.
Besides, parents need to go through these online resources themselves before they provide it to their children. The validity and reliability of the e-learning materials is still not proven as they are mostly based on foreign curriculum. Sabaq Foundation, for example, is doing a good job; Wajahat Academy is another online platform; Quaid Say Baatein by Daniyal Noorani is excellent resource material focusing on character building, instilling positive civic values and critical thinking abilities in children. All of them are good initiatives, but a lot more needs to be done to get the desired engagement. For starters, the government has to invest in infrastructure to provide internet connectivity throughout the country because even the 70 percent of the ‘privileged’ class have multiple tiers and have trouble accessing this content.
Once we move beyond the infrastructure, how parents interact with their child is crucial at this stage because there are numerous predators surfing online at any given point in time. So one should encourage e-learning but one should also be careful of the kind of content being consumed.
Talk about privileges
We cannot deny that the pandemic only confirmed the glaring class differences that exists in our society. 30 percent of the students are currently enrolled in the private sector whereas 70 percent are in the public sector. It’s impossible to provide online resources to the 70 percent. One of the main reasons 25 million children are out of school is poverty; secondly, there is a huge dropout rate from primary to secondary to middle school as there are not enough schools to accommodate this number of students! How can a student studying in a public sector school afford a working device, which costs quite a hefty amount, and then other resources like electricity and a good internet connection to learn online during COVID-19 challenge? In fact, there are multiple tiers even in the private sector. Besides, this is just supposing that one device per household would suffice. What if a child breaks that device? What if there are more than one users – more than one child and/or working parent? What if all the children have a lecture-based online learning class to attend; one would have to assume then that each child has his/her own room to avoid distraction. The difference in quality of education, too, which was, and still is being provided to these students has to be sorted out at the system level if it is to be provided to all and not just the elite in a fair and transparent manner.
And about reinventing the wheel
One of the best things of virtual learning is it breaks down the lobbying of educational institutes worldwide. Teachers who have previously been doing their best to hide what happens in the classroom are now trying their best to hide what goes on the internet. They can try their best to keep access to their lectures secure, but at the end they have to share the video link with their students and one would never know exactly how many people are viewing that individual smartphone, tablet, laptop or computer.
So, for the benefit of all, Pervez Hoodhbhoy, renowned nuclear physicist, recently proposed developing a central online repository. That is, every university and college, whether it’s private or government, should have a repository managed by the university/college itself where every teacher is required to upload his or her teaching materials. And that it should be freely accessible not just to the students of the particular university/college but anyone, anywhere. Let the learner decide which professor is teaching the desired course in a manner they find suitable, to be able to click on that professor’s folder and find their lectures, book recommendations for the course and so on, all neatly sorted out for him or her. However, with our existing pool of varied instructors actually threatening students to not show/discuss their online assignments to/with anyone, he himself admitted it was going to be a difficult task and requested HEC to act responsibly.
He further added that since there are too many fields and an insufficient number of people in each field capable of judging the quality standard, it’s practical to use the best teaching material available in the world, to adopt and adapt it for use in Pakistan. There are terrific repositories like Coursera and edX where some of the courses are free and some are paid. What colleges and universities can do is hire teachers who have passed the course from one of these places and then use the same resource to teach in class along with other supplementary material. Also, a lot of teachers have completed their Bachelors or Masters and they don’t have experience of classroom teaching or knowledge of child psychology; they require training. Like any other student, a teacher also needs that push in the right direction from the administrators to improve education standards in Pakistan. If the current situation doesn’t lead to a better outcome then it remains a crisis and not an opportunity to reinvent education as we know it.
The future of digital education
On April 14, Teleschool, a new educational television channel aiming to curb the effects of academic disruption in Pakistan, formally began its transmission after it was inaugurated a day before. PTV broadcast programmes for Grades 1-12 from 8am to 6pm daily. Given the channel would be available on satellite, terrestrial, and cable networks, the Prime Minister, during the launching ceremony, said that this initiative would help government reach remote areas, which did not have access to education facilities. He also said that adult literacy could be promoted through the project. Local EdTech companies, including Sabaq, MUSE, Taleemabad and Knowledge Platform, developed course contents, and Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad offered editing support.
While the government initiative of TeleSchool is a good one, the ministry has to admit that the population of Pakistan needs a huge amount of resources, more than what’s available at the moment, to accommodate all children. Before this disease took over, a majority of schools was placing 35-40 students in a classroom that had a capacity of 15-20 students. It’s unclear what the educational institutes would do in near future, caught between trying to recover the money they invest and following SOPs such as maintaining a distance of six feet at least until this whole pandemic is over. What would happen to the students who don’t get a seat in the new system?
Plus, the aspect of online learning is actually good, but only when dealt with in moderation. Because children need that social development which they can only grasp at school, they need to experience working with other kids, learning with other kids, in addition to a structure-based education and a certificate to verify that. One can sift through lectures and assignments online – although its efficiency is questionable as well – nevertheless several studies have emphasised the depressing effect too much social media and virtual relationships can have on human beings, and that would still be an issue to resolve.
Who will bring the change?
All of us should somehow find a way to fix the system. If we continue to be selfish and continue to think of the benefit of a select few, our future generations will suffer. Pakistan is a very youthful country: its median age at the moment is 23 years. In 2050, the median age would be 28 years, which is still young! If we are able to provide good education, these students can become a good source to improve Pakistan’s economic situation. There are enormous opportunities for exploring online education as the future means of educating children, but only if it’s more reasonably priced could a greater percentage of parents have the means to provide it to their children.