We need to explore policy alternatives for the welfare of our students and forthcoming generations
Educational institutions are expected to reopen from June 1 this year, after advanced ‘summer’ vacations. They have been in a forced recess, missing their calendar dates for classes, exams, results and new admissions. Meanwhile, being confined to their homes to keep the social distance for more than three months may have changed attitudes, temperament and approaches of the students towards themselves and others.
Hence, a psycho-social analysis is direly needed. More importantly they will be required on their return to their respective institutions to adjust to new methods adopted by the staff, teachers and fellow students to abide by social-distancing standards. Here are a few proposals for changes in methods of teaching, class environment, development of perceptions, precautions, and the difference between online and in-person education during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is a need for organising focus group discussions at institutional level to review options for precautionary measures. These should include teachers, staff, administrators, deans and vice chancellors. The post- vacation (June 1) education routines should be thoroughly discussed. Institutes of Education and Research related with educational policy making mechanism may be able to draw some protocols related with safety and security of social distancing. Since, in current crisis, most of the staff is working from home, they may not be in a position to develop required procedures.
The standard rule for the pandemic is to keep a six-feet distance between individuals - and in case of educational institutions, between desks. Given our crowded classes in public sector schools, colleges and universities, this is far from possible.
First of all, the pace of the spread of the virus must be kept in view. If it is still rising, opening the educational institutions will be disastrous. Hence, online education platforms using Skype, Zoom, etc may be the only option. If the virus is in recession, shortening the contact hours might suffice.
Long duration classes will be risky. Shorter classes may be manageable and controllable. Shorter classes will mean that students will be free before lunch which they may enjoy at home. Students would be urged to leave for their homes forthwith and not assemble on campuses.
Second, there is a need for enhanced hygiene practices like wearing of masks and gloves during their stay on campuses, hand washing and physical distancing. Disinfecting desk surfaces is the responsibility of the administration. After every class, the support staff may clean the classroom with disinfectants. Students may also be sensitized to keep cleaning-wipes for their own hygiene as well as disinfecting their own desks.
The pick-and-drop time always causes congestion. This should be avoided. Also, the pick and drop vehicles should be parked away from main building. Crowding can ruin all efforts for social distancing.
Hands-on classes and lab-work are not safe in the current situation. Similarly, field-work must be replaced by written assignments or online interviews. Classes should consist basically of guidance rather than regular teaching. Class hours should be curtailed and students encouraged to write assignments submitted via email (or traditional mail). In the worst case scenario, their grades may be based on their performance in such assignments and home work.
It is high time for the Higher Education Commission, Islamabad (HEC) and the Higher Education Department (HED) at respective provincial levels to convene a grand online meeting to rewrite educational policy and practice guidelines for the new circumstances.
I understand that the HEC has already outlined a plan of online teaching after summer vacations. However, we need to keep in view substantial disparities between the majority low-income and well-off students. They may belong to geographically remote areas like the newly merged districts (ex FATA) Chitral, Kohistan, Dir, Karak and various Bandas in the KP; village in the Punjab; goaths in Sindh and deras in Baluchistan where access to internet may be limited or lacking. Thus, online teaching will not benefit the students uniformly. The closure of educational institutions and online teaching shall thus widen the disparities.
Recently, I was talking to an eminent sociologist of South Asia, Dr Shahid Perwez regarding this write-up. He opined that knowledge may be transmitted via books, as well as online lectures. However, a teacher builds perception of students in the class through his presence.
We aim to produce balanced human beings in the class; not some robots with an artificial intelligence. Hence, online education is not a long-term option.
We are passing though interesting times. In extra-ordinary circumstances, we need to take extra-ordinary measures. The current academic year is going to be a victim of Covid-19. Therefore, parts of curricula, not covered this year, should be taken up over the next year.
The pandemic crisis has highlighted the importance of internet access as a key to learning and education. It makes social distancing easy.
However, as mentioned above, there are geographical areas that lack the facility. Equitable internet access is vital to having an educated and well-read Pakistan. It’s high time for the Ministry of Science and Technology to provide uninterrupted internet facility to entire Pakistan.
Covid-19 has left us all in a state of shock. We need to explore alternative policies for the welfare of our students and forthcoming generations. Have all the answers anytime soon. However, there are some points to ponder.