Unable to ensure equal access to classes and materials for a diverse student body, several universities in Lahore are struggling with online readiness during Covid-19
When Pakistan entered a lockdown in the middle of March to control the spread of coronavirus, nearly all facets of society and economy came to a halt. Educational institutions were no exceptions. Today, even as several segments of the economy and society re-open or are on their way, educational institutions remain shut. The HEC and university administrations have passionately pushed for the continuation of educational activities online. And while online education has been a success in several countries, instituting online classes in Pakistan is a daunting task — considering that as per the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) only 36.86 percent of the population has broadband access.
To its credit, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) has remained proactive throughout this crisis; providing technical support to universities and churning out a series of policy guidelines pertaining to online education. These guidelines constitute 7 documents and are available on HEC’s website. However, the commission is chiefly an advisory body and enforcement is predominantly the prerogative of the universities. As a result, the higher education environment has presented an image of disarray with individual university administrations implementing ad hoc, incoherent and even whimsical policies.
In its Covid-19 policy guideline paper the HEC notes that many of these universities are at a level of online readiness which is “simply not good enough” and need to “raise their game immediately”. Students of various universities have been voicing their concerns regarding online classes for months. Many of these concerns were later included in HEC’s policy guidelines as “key obstacles” which universities were advised to address. But the situation on the ground remains dismal with many universities failing to “raise their game”.
Access and connectivity are core issues. Students from rural and peripheral areas of the country lack an adequate internet connection or even stable electricity supply, making attending online classes almost impossible. “I was forced to move to Muzaffarabad, the closest city to my village so that I could attend online classes at home,” says Harris, a Kashmiri student enrolled in Punjab University.
In his class alone, there are six other students he could name who are facing a similar situation. “We made several requests to the administration to look into the issue but to no avail. In the end our class got together and decided to boycott these sessions, I’ve been able to come home”. Harris’s classes remain suspended till date.
The HEC has advised that universities and degree awarding institutions (DAIs) set up help desks to facilitate students without access to internet facilities. Almost all universities in Lahore have failed to do so, pushing many of these students into desperation.
“FCCU administration assured us that they would send USB’s containing recorded lectures to students in peripheral areas. I waited for a month but none arrived. Since I did not want to lag behind, I decided to move back to Lahore in the middle of the lockdown” says a student from Wana. Since all university hostels are sealed, he is forced to share a single bedroom apartment away from home. “Students from our area staged several protests last month demanding internet from the government but nobody listened. Now, several other students from my area are planning on returning to Lahore after Eid,” he says.
“I was forced to move to Muzaffarabad, the closest city to my village so that I could attend online classes at home,” says Harris, a Kashmiri student enrolled in Punjab University.
Students privileged enough to have access to the internet are not faring so well either. According to the HEC’s “online readiness” guidelines universities are required to develop robust learning management systems to coordinate educational activities. Before authorizing an online course, a university must provide detailed information of the course to students “ahead of time” to help students make necessary arrangements. But many universities failed to even develop the learning management systems (LMS) required to disseminate this information, some universities fared even worse and could not even organize online lectures. “All our instructors did was to email us YouTube links once a week,” says Rae Ali while describing the state of online education at Punjab University’s Sociology Department before “classes” were finally suspended three week ago. “We were expected to review the material on our own and ‘self-learn’”, he says.
Bilal, who is pursuing a biotechnology degree at Punjab University, has had similar experiences. “Our department has been sending us WhatsApp voice notes in the name of practical training. I’ve sent my department several emails asking to at least send us videos. But to no avail. How am I supposed to prepare for practical exams via voice notes?” laments Bilal.
A key element of online education is effective faculty training. The HEC has openly admitted in its policy paper that this area demands “special attention”. But ground realities leave a lot to be desired. For instance, soon after the lockdown the GCU suspended educational activities till June1 to bolster their online readiness but have so far been unable to carry out an extensive faculty training programme. “There was only one training session during this time and I wouldn’t call it adequate” says an assistant professor at the Philosophy Department. “The young who are tech-savvy will figure things out on their own while the older generations will face severe difficulties”, he says.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what teachers are faced with: according to HEC, slightly under a quarter of all complaints received were by faculty members. “We suffer from the same level of abandonment as our students. I personally know of many contract faculty members who have issues with internet access or don’t have the required electronic devices to conduct lectures but the university doesn’t seem to care,” complains a lecturer at GCU’s History Department.
In addition to universities, several degree awarding institutions (DAIs) are also conducting classes online. “Many of these institutions don’t even have computer labs. Several female students who don’t even have access to WhatsApp. You can only imagine the level of digital training both the faculty and the student body have,” says Faiza, the vice president of Punjab Professors’ and Lecturers’ Association (PPLA). “Despite this the faculty is working very hard to ensure that we deliver something to our students,” she says.
Even the performance of private sector universities catering to the upper middle classes has been far from perfect. Students at a business school in Lahore have alleged that the institution has decided to conduct online exams through a faulty LM prone to crashing. On May 20, after a video of a dean rudely putting down a student’s concerns about online exams went viral, students spontaneously decided to make their concerns public; and within hours, a hashtag calling for a boycott was trending on Twitter.
Unsurprisingly, there is widespread discontent amongst students. Students from the tribes of erstwhile FATA to the suburbs of Lahore have decried online education in its current form. This only adds urgency to the need for universities/DAIs to ameliorate quality of education. As the “final assented version” of HEC’s Covid-19 policy paper warns “the problem is that continued poor quality of instruction and evaluation will force universities into canceling the semester, with both substantive and financial costs”.
The HEC has recently released two new policy guidance papers pertaining to assessment and grading of students. But since the exams are expected to be held later in June, the extent of implementation of these policies is yet to be seen.