When the first few cases of coronavirus started coming in the month of February, we heard the clarion calls for a lockdown to contain the virus. During this, the education sector grappled with the difficult situation keeping the students engaged if the schools closed, especially around examination time. According to UNESCO, nationwide closures have impacted 89 per cent of the world’s student population. On the spur of the moment, nothing made more sense than to close down and switch to or adopt e-learning or online learning on a war footing. And, by March 21st, all schools closed down in Sindh, with managements figuring out what to do next.
Some high-end private schools quickly switched to online learning as they had been experimenting with it for a while. Case in point, Masuma’s younger daughter is in class 3 and goes to an upbeat private school. The school had invested in online learning for some time. They had created separate log-ins for parents and students to reach a dashboard through their email accounts. “There were videos and games from YouTube that my daughter watched and did every day. She was also given homework regularly which she had to turn in, in a span of two days. There are younger children in my family who are also taking classes on the Zoom app,” tells Masuma.
The school that Huma’s daughter goes to has gone one step ahead. It has a parent portal where parents can log into and have a look at children’s homework and results. “Students can also log in through their role numbers and receive homework and grades. The teachers kept my daughter engaged by sending out links of various apps and games,” informs Huma.
While such schools didn’t have to worry too much, some less privileged schools – catering to middle and lower middle class – struggled the most as they were caught unaware in such unexpected state of events. Though the VARK (Visual Audio Reading/writing Kinaesthetic) models were being practiced in some schools - having set up audio-visual rooms in schools for e-learning - the challenge was distant learning for which online learning was the best way to impart education.
School managements that were proactive and invested, seemed to find a way in this lockdown. Hina Arshad, principal of a trust school - catering to children from middle to lower class - hired a few teachers recently who were trained in e-learning. Showing good foresight, Hina and her team had already started working on developing content for e-learning purposes for the students. However, there are challenges that await once schools open, tentatively by May 31st, as the management has to carry out a survey to know how many students actually have access to smartphones, tablets, computers with internet. “Many students may not have a good internet connection in their area or no internet access at all. Coronavirus made us realise that we have to swiftly think of administering innovative learning practices, especially for younger children in KG, Class 1 and 2,” says Hina.
Acknowledging the digital divide in the country, Hassan Bin Rizwan, CEO of software company SABAQ, believes this divide can be bridged. “There are 78 million smartphone users in Pakistan. While, primary grade students usually don’t have access to such devices, it is important that parents responsibly share their devices with their children. It will help them access learning opportunities. The COVID crisis has suddenly made people realise that e-learning technology and solutions can already be used in different settings. This realisation will help many Pakistani parents and schools adopt new ways of learning. I think the one positive thing that will come out of this crisis is a radical shift in accepting and adopting e-learning.”
Hassan’s company has created an Android-based learning app ‘Muse’ for primary grades with over 1,500 digital resources for Math, Science, English, and Urdu. Designed to make learning fun and engaging, Muse has animated story-based video lessons, e-books, interactive quizzes and learning games. Their content is tailored to the local context and available in three languages: English, Urdu and Sindhi. Almost 120,000 students are using Muse in over 1,000 schools across Pakistan; and the federal government is working on circulating the app for lower primary section students. Schools like The Citizens Foundation have also collaborated with the government to record stories and yoga classes for young children. Isfandyar Inayat, General Manager, Strategic Partnerships and Community Outreach at TCF, shares, “Digital and online learning is taking place in elite schools but for children studying in middle, lower middle- and low-income class attending low budget private schools, online learning is far-fetched. We are looking at a timeframe as to how long this period will last. Our contingency plans will be based on this. For little kids, teachers at TCF have been using the app Muse.”
To make the content more accessible, Hassan elucidates, “To ensure the provision of learning resources to all students during COVID-19, we have provided our Muse lessons to the federal government free-of-charge to be aired on national television very soon. We are also working with the Sindh Government to devise ways to make our app available for free to their schools over the next few months. Similarly, we are also in conversation with the Punjab Government about using our lessons.”
While digital learning is considered to be the future, for some teachers, online learning is a hard pitch to endeavour. Deena Ansari is a senior teacher at an elite private school, and specialist in dealing with learning disabilities especially for students of age 5 onwards. Deena believes in traditional classroom learning but gave digital tutoring a go. “It has been a trial and error post 19th March. I tried conducting classes through various apps, but most did not work for me. I decided to have one-on-one classes as I found it very difficult to give individual attention. So, it’s one hour with a child and then the other, but it takes more time. I also face difficulty in tactile learning and explaining spellings rules. Besides, in a normal class I usually carry out 5 activities, but in case of e-learning, I am able to carry out a maximum of 3 activities. If I had 5 children in a group for an hour or so, I now have to spread it out to almost 5 hours.”
The traditional way of classroom setting is irreplaceable but in the time of a pandemic, digital learning is the need of the hour. However, does this mean that the traditional classroom learning will become redundant? Not at all. “No technology can ever replace a great teacher. A great teacher brings a human element and connection to the classroom that is vital for the process of teaching and learning. However, not all students are lucky enough to have great teachers and not all schools have great teachers. However, we believe that technology can fill in these gaps and give access to those who do not have one,” concludes Hassan.