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March 28, 2020

Lack of capacity renders varsities of Sindh unable to provide e-learning


March 28, 2020

To facilitate learning and research in this digital age, the federal government has been spending billions of rupees to ensure the availability of computers and digital resources for students and researchers through two major programmes — the Prime Minister Laptop Scheme and the Smart Education of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan.

However, similar steps have not been taken on the provincial level as many public sector varsities in Sindh have not been able to use online platforms to augment their academic programmes.

The need for online programmes of varsities is being felt highly these days as Pakistan and several other countries have shut the educational institutions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Sindh was the first province of the country where the schools, colleges and universities were closed in the wake of the emerging COVID-19 cases in the country. Initially, the educational institutions were ordered shut for two days after the first coronavirus case was revealed in the province last month. However, the holidays were then extended to 14 days and finally the Sindh government declared summer vacations until June 1.

This unexpected and sudden closure of schools, colleges and varsities affected the annual examinations schedule, spring semester admissions, research projects and all the academic activities. The only way to keep the academic activities continue in this situation is the use of online classes, which many parts of the world have adopted after the coronavirus pandemic.

However, many public sector varsities in Sindh seem to have no capacity to ensure distance learning for the completion of the current semester’s courses. It is also not the case that there was no other example of a varsity in Pakistan using internet to provide education as two state-run varsities — the Virtual University of Pakistan and the Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) — have been doing so for quite many years.

HEC’s Smart Education

The Smart Education project was started by the HEC in 2015 to provide a blanket WiFi coverage on the campuses to assist the educators and students through the information and communication technology (ICT).

“Following this transformational approach, the next natural step is the introduction of smart classrooms at each university. The strategy is about engaging the digital generation, improving individualised learning opportunities, sparking innovation in learning, enhancing teachers’ digital pedagogy and getting the best from the ICT investments,” reads the introductory note of the Smart Education project.

It further states that the ultimate objective of all such initiatives is the “transformation towards smart Universities”.

No capacity

In contrast to the HEC’s vision, the public sector varsities in Sindh reflect a completely different picture.

At present, around 25 state-run varsities and degree awarding institutes are functioning across the province. To find out whether they offer online classes and use e-learning modes, The News called 10 such varsities of the province — almost all of which were found to be not only lacking smart classrooms, but also having no capacity to hold off-campus activities in case of any emergency or to facilitate distance learning.

The 10 varsities contacted by The News included the University of Karachi, University of Sindh, NED University of Engineering & Technology, Sindh Agriculture University Tando Jam, Mehran University of Engineering and Technology Jamshoro, Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto University Shaheed Benazirabad, Dawood University of Engineering Technology, Benazir Bhutto Shaheed University Lyari and Sindh Madressatul Islam University.

Apart from the Shaheed Benazir Bhutto University in Shaheed Benazirabad that plans to hold online classes starting April 6, the spokespersons of the rest of the varsities said they had no plans to move to online classes.

Smart universities

Under the Smart Education project, the HEC intended to form smart varsities. The HEC had initiated the University Smart project with approved allocations of Rs2.4 billion. It is supposed to be completed in 2024 after eight years.

According to the available record, the first phase of the project, which was for the deployment of main equipment, was to be completed in 2019. To trace the progress of the project, The News sent a questionnaire to Waseem Khaliqdad, the media deputy director of the HEC, but no answer was received till the filing of this story.

However, the commission did issue a progress statement last year that read: “So far, a total of 63 universities have been facilitated with a blanket Wi-Fi connectivity. This has been done with the fulfillment of all legal, codal, and procedural formalities for contracts and payments. Any delays in the execution result in the imposition of financial penalties on the providers as per contract.”

Viewpoint of academics

In this digital era, almost all students have smartphones and teachers can easily work from home. Even a common person can operate some free online platforms such as Google classroom, live Facebook streaming, YouTube channel, and other video conferencing websites including WebEx, Zoom and Skype, said Dr Fatima Dar of the Iqra University.

She said after the outbreak of COVID-19, academics and students around the world also faced the challenge of how to keep the on-campus activities continue. However, a prompt response was observed when most of the varsities adopted various online modes.

The e-learning and use of latest technology might not be as effective when compared to traditional teaching methods; however, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the academics and students to experience teaching and learning outside the traditional set-up, Dr Fatima remarked, adding that the varsities would have to accept the importance of e-learning during harsh situations.

She said the closure of educational institutions provided the opportunity to bridge the gap between on-campus education and the digital world. She added that the online education had brought new solutions to the problems of education.

Contrary to this, Associate Professor Arfana Mallah of the University of Sindh said the government had declared the current holidays as summer vacations and classes at the varsities would be conducted in June. “In the present situation, everyone is under psychological pressure. Thus, expecting online classes from faculties is totally unreasonable.”

She, however, maintained that many varsities had well-equipped laboratories that could conduct medical tests so instead of holding online classes at this time, the varsity administrators and researchers should offer their services to government to help fight COVID-19.

Distance education models

On March 24, the ministry of federal education from its official Twitter handle tweeted that Shafqat Mahmood, the federal minister for education, professional training, national history and heritage, chaired a meeting with senior officials of the ministry to take progress update on the launch of a dedicated national broadcast channel for education that would serve as an alternative content delivery platform during the coronavirus outbreak.

However, the Virtual University established in 2002 and AIOU founded in 1974 are already offering distance learning across the country. The latter is more traditional compared to the former which uses the latest technology to provide educational services.

These varsities run five television channels and one radio station that cover even those far-flung areas of the country where internet had still not reached. Last year in April, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority formally awarded a licence to the AIOU.

They both are recognised varsities and their regional campuses are being used as facilitation centres in which their officials arrange practical training, workshops, seminars and examinations.

Managing lapsed period

Referring to the HEC guidelines, Assistant Prof Dr Irfan Aziz of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology pointed out that the required course load for a full-time undergraduate is minimum of 15 credit hours per semester while a graduate student normally enrols for 9 to 12 credit hours in a regular semester.

Therefore, the varsities can manage the lapsed time after resuming their classes in June, he said. “In case a university is closed due to unusual circumstances, special classes must be arranged, converting the weekends or holidays to working days to cover the lapsed period,” reads the HEC document for the implementation of a uniform semester system.