Living with Covid-19

Online education presents serious challenges in assessment

Over the past two weeks, I have randomly visited websites of public sector entities to get an idea of how, if at all, they are readying themselves to live with and beyond the Covid-19 challenge to deliver their services online.

The involuntary outcome of the ongoing pandemic has squeezed into months what would have taken years to work out the threat-opportunity matrices. Of the 20 odd websites, the advances made by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) stand out. It lost no time in issuing HEC Policy Guidance Series on Covid-19 for the Universities and DAIs (Degree Awarding Institutions).

Realising early that there was “no cure in sight,” Dr Tariq Banuri, the HEC chairman, led from the front. He came out with a well-thought-out and timely policy note, Why Online Education? He observed: “Health systems in many places are overwhelmed. The toll of infection as well as mortality is rising exponentially. Not only has the pandemic placed our life and health in jeopardy, it has what Henry Kissinger calls ‘society-dissolving effects’. Our supply lines are cut, our production and distribution systems locked down, policy processes interrupted, schools and universities closed, and our very ability to respond to the crisis compromised.”

According to Dr Banuri, “It is a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, people need to isolate themselves to halt the spread of the virus. On the other hand, people need to re-emerge and reassemble as rapidly as possible to restart stalled systems. With God’s help, the current efforts will help eradicate the virus. But efforts must also be initiated to help us survive the economic and social disruptions that will follow.

“Since the advent of the crisis, HEC’s policies have been driven by these two imperatives. Support the government’s efforts to halt the spread of the disease, and start the effort to minimise academic disruption. Fortunately, online interaction provides a vehicle for doing so. Accordingly, the HEC has asked universities to prepare themselves to transition to online classes and online interaction as quickly as possible.”

A guidance series was started in right earnest. Doing first things first, Guidance No 1 explained the nature and possible spread of the virus and the likely consequences. There was also valuable information on symptoms and for patients.

Guidance No 2 focused on what the faculty and staff needed to do to stay safe with minimal academic disruption. Guidance Nos 1-2 provided information useful to all citizens. Guidance No 3 issued on March 26 was a working paper by Technology Support Committee on How Can Universities Prepare for the Transition to Virtual Instruction? The minimum features required for virtual instruction were identified, besides making a case for video conferencing.

The paper asked the important question: Are universities ready for this?It also made suitable recommendations. Last year, the HEC had conducted a survey to assess the digital maturity of universities. As many as 70 public sector universities had no Learning Management System (LMS). Only a few universities boasted an LMS and third-party video-conferencing facilities. It analysed universities with existing systems, evaluated alternatives and third party solutions and pinpointed next steps.

Technology solutions were discussed and LMS features elaborated along with cost estimates. Conferencing solutions were deliberated upon along with the outlining of the basic information needed from each university. Last but not the least, resources for best practices/guidelines were referenced.

On March 26, the government directed the closure of all education institutions until May 31. Within two days, Guidance No 4 was made public. Three scenarios were worked out. Scenario A following the official calendar of admissions by early September and classes by September 15. Scenario B to save Fall semester in case exams were delayed and Scenario C of the pandemic spreading beyond summer with continued online mode.

The last scenario has materialised. Universities and DAIs that had operational LMS have continued online learning. The HEC focused on complaints about the quality of teaching and the digital readiness of teachers. A response mechanism was instituted. Collection of real time data on content, equipment and participants was started. Lagging universities were to be encouraged to plan, acquire and train to execute LMS from June 1.

Capacity-building measures included establishing a National Knowledge Bank to provide online access to a variety of academic materials and tasking the newly set up National Academy for Higher Education to organise online tutorials on skills and competencies for quality online education. The key objectives were to protect (a) health and lives of all stakeholders (b) students against academic disruption and (c) universities against unaffordable financial burden. An important objective was to prepare for the future.

The HEC allowed continuation of teaching and learning during the interrupted Spring Semester through distance learning. To address the issues of quality, Guidance Note 5 was issued. The chairman admits “that the quality of many online courses being offered currently is quite mediocre.” This is why the HEC has come out with the concept of “online readiness”.

Before venturing into online education, vice chancellors will have to provide evidence of (a) university readiness, i.e., an effective and operational learning management system (LMS) as well as an oversight body responsible for certifying courses as online ready; (b) faculty readiness, i.e., faculty members have gone through training in online teaching before being allowed to teach such a course; (c) course readiness i.e., all key information about a course is available on the LMS; (d) library readiness i.e., all course readings and assignments are available through online means; (e) technology readiness i.e., the technology needed for delivering online classes is ready for deployment; and (f) student readiness i.e., students are assisted in overcoming any obstacles they may have in accessing the classes and materials.

According to Dr Banuri, “a positive development from this situation is that the students are, for the first time, demanding quality education from the universities. The HEC is fully supportive of this demand, for online as well as traditional courses. The above actions are the first steps in this direction.”

A four-point programme has been put in place for improving connectivity. These include negotiation of a Taleem Bundle with Telcos to arrange subsidised internet access for students; delivery modes to cater to diverse needs of students, including shorter duration classes; data-light options and placement of all course content on the internet; offline mode i.e., a system under which course materials can be distributed locally through CDs or other storage mediums; and Student Facilitation Committees at each university to address connectivity problems faced by students from remote areas.

The online education presents serious challenges in assessment and examination. Guidance No 6 issued on May 21 laid down prudential guidelines and minimum standards in this respect. A different set of online challenges is presented by the thesis defence of graduating PhD/MPhil/MS students. This is the focus of Guidance No 6a. The principles were agreed in an online meeting with vice chancellors. In fact, all policies were discussed in such participatory meetings of stakeholders, a process reminiscent of the preparation of the National Conservation Strategy spearheaded by Dr Banuri in the early 1990s.

The good doctor has the last word, too: “The objective is not only to cope with the current exigency, however long it lasts, but to harness the energies and passions of our youth to address and overcome the challenges we will face after the crisis has subsided.”

The writer is a former chief economist of the Planning Commission

Living with Covid-19