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March 29, 2020

Educators divided over efficacy of internet as medium of instruction


March 29, 2020

Due to concerns for the safety of students amid the COVID-19 scare, the Sindh government ordered the closure of 45,447 public schools and 12,401 private educational institutions across the province.

This affected the studies of over five million pupils who would take their pre-matriculation, Secondary School Certificate (matriculation) and Higher Secondary School Certificate (intermediate) annual examinations soon after the schools would be allowed to reopen.

Barring a few leading educational institutions, none of the schools are capable of switching to the internet as a medium of instruction to complete their courses in order to prepare their students for the coming exams.

Moreover, a majority of the educational institutions don’t have websites from where parents and students can get the relevant news. They mostly have to rely on mostly incorrect information circulated through social media.

Filling the gaps

With the aim to fill these gaps and counter the misinformation being disseminated during these quite crucial circumstances, a group of friends engaged in different professions have been providing free online education under the name of ‘Off The School’.

Voluntarily supported by university pupils and educators, the online platform offers lectures on a range of topics, including those applicable to school and college syllabuses, and helps students prepare for their exams.

Besides providing sessions on general knowledge, the volunteers also upload videos to spread awareness about the coronavirus pandemic and to counter fake news being circulated through social media.

“We have taken this initiative because we feel that education has become too commercialised,” said Off The School spokesperson Omama Ansari. “Schools are charging exorbitant fees while the standard of learning is on a downward trajectory. We’re trying to fill the gaps by providing concept-based education to students of all ages in their native language.”

He said their online platform provides complete access to all the uploaded content without charging any fee, adding that their team promptly responds to all the queries of the students.

Ansari said their team believes that in this way students will be able to grasp the concept of a subject in a more effective way because, contrary to the traditional mode of instruction, they can easily watch the lectures again.

He said that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, internet as a medium of instruction has become all the more relevant, since students are at home now and missing out on their regular studies.

Ansari said the world is moving towards virtual academia, and they are playing their part in it. “We’re focused on engaging students and parents particularly during these three-month holidays, until schools reopen in June.”

He said their priorities these days include protecting students from getting infected and keeping them from leaving their homes by providing them with opportunities to learn remotely.

“It’s a fact that our platform isn’t accessible to everyone. But those who have access to the most common social media websites can easily benefit from our content.”

Another team member, Mubashir Sakhi, said: “Off The School came into being after the realisation of two things: making education accessible to people who can’t afford it, and giving back to society.”

He said the idea is to cover basic curricula with the correct concepts in order to help students perform well in their exams as well as to provide different skill development courses taught by those who know belong to those particular industries.

“When we say skill development, we mean communication skills, idea development, programming, media sciences — giving students a taste of different subjects so they can comprehend the different learning and career possibilities.”

On the subject of remote learning, he admitted that all private schools are not equipped with facilitating their students through distance learning, except for a few elite schools.

“Our target audience is not just the students who study at English-medium schools, but we also upload content in simple Urdu for those who lack computers or internet access in these special circumstances during the lockdown. They can get offline access to our content to prepare for their exams.”

Sakhi said they also provide distance education to students with disabilities and special needs, while parents who wish to send their children to preschools but can hardly manage the time to do so can also benefit from their content.

Unworthy successor

Admitting that the closure of educational institutions amid the coronavirus scare would affect students’ academic growth, some educators still believe remote learning could not replace traditional classrooms.

They said that understanding digital content and online courses needs proper guidance. Also, they added, access to learning material on the internet is not possible for everyone, especially for children from low-income families.

“Online schools and channels uploading digital content for students of different levels are likely to be more popular in the near future. But they still can’t replace traditional schools,” said Dr Kamal Haider, dean of education at the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science & Technology.

He, however, admitted that online platforms that create authentic digital content based on school courses can be the best models for those administrators of educational institutions who want to continue online because of the lockdown.

Now rises the question of how parents who do not have enough resources to send their children to traditional schools can benefit from the online education system. “The schools offering online courses are not for everyone. They are not accessible to low-income families,” said Advocate Rana Asif Habib, a children’s rights activist.

Online learning is especially unusual for those who can hardly manage to survive, as they not only lack access to the internet but also a computer, he added.

The distance learning mode of education has drawbacks for educators as well. Waris Husain, a teacher at a private school, said he is teaching around 60 students through remote conferencing software. “Some naughty children share the link to the online class with their friends, who then create a mess for me.”

He has learned how to make the kids leave the online class, though. “I’m not tech-savvy. But I’m now learning how to handle troublesome children in online classes by muting them.”

However, Noman Ansari of the Riphah International University’s mass communication department said that not all of his students have access to the facilities required for remote learning.

Sharing his experiences of online teaching, he said students with diverse socio-economic backgrounds belonging to different areas take classes at universities, adding that a number of them do not even have quality computers.

Ansari said that some students lack a good internet connection, while others do not have the required software or devices like a camera or a microphone. This is why a number of students have been missing online classes since the coronavirus crisis emerged, he added.

“From the teachers’ perspective, it’s very difficult to convey a message in a virtual setting as compared to interpersonal communication. Teachers normally read their students’ minds and facial expressions and then answer their questions, but such things can’t be done in distance education.”

He claimed that teaching practical subjects related to professional fields such as the media through the medium of the internet is also not a worthwhile endeavour. “No practical subject can be taught without the universities’ technological support for teachers and students. Thus, in the long run, it’s almost impossible to go with remote learning.”