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Sunday October 24, 2021

Poor signals

April 21, 2020

The Higher Education Commission has quickly switched to online learning for the millions of students enrolled at private and public-sector universities around the country. On paper, this seems like a sensible plan given the Covid-19 pandemic and the havoc it has caused around the world, forcing places of work, universities, colleges and businesses to shut down. However, it has become obvious during the first month or so of the online system going into effect that a very large number of students are simply not able to keep up with classes. These include the many who have no access to high-speed internet, those who live in areas of the country including parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan where wi-fi services are virtually non-existent and also the many who suffer from the periodic power shutdowns that have already begun with the arrival of the first signs of summer. Students have complained that when power disappears at random intervals, they are forced to switch to their mobile phones and data services, sometimes ripping through thousands of rupees within an hour.

It should be noted that like their peers in urban centres who are better equipped for online learning, these students are expected to pay full fees for their semesters. HEC Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri has said that his organisation is attempting to find solutions but has suggested that pupils who cannot manage with the online learning simply drop their semester. This of course would set them back by huge steps in their process of learning and delay them from obtaining the degrees they need to move on with lives.

We need a less callous approach. Not every student in the country has the same facilities, and there are many who do not own laptops or computers. Without university computer labs, they cannot be expected to deal with lessons and then exams from their underdeveloped home areas. This has also exposed development in the country and the dichotomy within it. And it is not a problem restricted to Pakistan. Students are also deprived of the facilities and opportunities that come with study on an organised, well-equipped campus. The problem is an enormous one. Educators fear it could spill over beyond the summer break and at least for Pakistani students we hope the HEC will find some means to allow them to continue their education even when they are not equipped with the same level of technology as their peers.