A hypo-digital interim solution?

May 31, 2020

Moving classrooms to a digital setting is proving to be neither teacher- nor student-friendly

The 9-to-5 job is now 24/7.

In his essay, On Education, Will Durant asks a question that after echoing in the corridors of educational seminaries for centuries has now taken a strange turn: “What education is of most worth?” He unites two processes in education: the transmission of knowledge and its absorption. In the Covid world, it is the “transmission” of knowledge — not its absorption — that bears a question mark.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC), which knew about the absence of a digital infrastructure, was compelled to digitalise our outmoded education system as the pandemic surged. In a country where hundreds of teachers are not even familiar with lesson plans and credit hours, moving classrooms to a digital setting was neither teacher- nor student-friendly. It meant teachers would not only have to go an extra mile to arrange a system to broadcast themselves, but also have to familiarise themselves with the new (digital) environment.

Digitising education

To understand how education got digitised around the world, I made some inquires. Zahara Batool, a research fellow and tutor at the University of Leads, simply moved to Microsoft Team where the business of Online Education is conducted ordinarily. Even in normal circumstances all of her lectures were recorded by the classroom camera and shared on students’ portal. Attending departmental meetings in her room and delivering lectures without an attending audience is the only change she mentioned.

About how she is being facilitated by the department, she says she needs nothing; though the university has asked to take anything from laptop (on installments) to a wi-fi signal booster to an office chair. That is precisely why we call those countries ‘developed’.

In an education system, curriculum is not just the ‘syllabus’ or course books and teaching aids; it is also the infrastructure through which education is ‘transmitted’ to individuals. We take education online; and because our system cannot provide for such ambitious plans, we leave our teachers and students in the lurch, battling with the ‘developing’ digital infrastructure.

Public schools and their faculty are in no way ready to jump the bandwagon. Perhaps, that is why universities are the first to take the digital ride.

When I was a lecturer at Government College University (GCU), in 2013, there were some 10 laptops, without internet connection, in the seminar room (for teachers and research scholars) and (23) faculty members. Attendance and results were manually kept and updated at the end of the semester, by the clerks. I’m told it is still the same. No wonder the GCU has yet to take its classrooms online.

At the University of Lahore (UoL), I was given a computer with a robust internet connection. All teachers had their own logins to upload attendance and result while students were also issued logins. Though it initially collapsed, the university has been efficiently managing its online classes through Zoom and Slate. When the digital divide between a public and private university is apparent, the next question is: is medium enough to transmit knowledge?

The adversities of our ill-equipped education sector have only multiplied by the burden of going online. The HEC allows 100 to 150 students in one live session, but universities do not. The teachers have been ordered to conduct online classes as per their routine credit hours; no training, or facility, or relaxation, or funding is provided. The 9-to-5 job is now 24/7. From teachers making calls to understand Zoom sessions to students condemning the online presence of their agonising teachers, the education sector is in bad shape as the senders and recipients of knowledge are ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the change of the millennium.

The free session on Zoom lasts 40 minutes only, but the duration of lecture is an hour. That means a teacher has to go live twice while the poor internet connection does not move promptly from one session to another, and a delay on teachers’ part means a makeup lecture.

Students’ woes

Students are bored to death from teachers reading out loud from slides (ppt.: a locally used electronic mortar for throwing knowledge at students). Many are unsure of their educational future. Those for whom knowledge is transmitted electronically are bound to endure it. And there are hundreds who are cut off from all this, knowing not how to make up for their inevitable loss. These would be left behind.

The woes of students are different. Automatic log-off due to poor signals means no attendance. Late submission of quiz in a 20-minute session means ‘zero’. The six-credit-hour subject is now equal to three hours’ lecture by the teacher and one assignment and one quiz by the student. Eighteen credit hours and six subjects means that the student has to submit six assignments and six quizzes within a week. It also means that the teacher has to mark all this online. All these will be needed to promote students to next semester without exams.

Social media is full of hue and cry over waste of students’ money on online education; it is not what they signed up for. Some complain of being in remote areas where signals are too weak to stream a lecture. Others are not happy with the online presence of their teacher sitting with a kid in her lap and cursing the whole system for 45 minutes. Many do not even know where the Playstore is, how Zoom works, whether Slate is digital; fearing a time when they will be left behind, knowing not they are barely holding the tail of the digital mammoth. The students have to put up with this hypo-digital interim solution.

Teachers’ troubles

I ask my colleagues about their experiences with online classes, and all forbid me to mention their names. So here we go, starting with Miss A. She complains that her job is no more 8 to 4; it is 24/7. However, it was not the students who were pestering but the departmental admin that would send a text or ask any detail anytime and needed to be satisfied immediately.

Mr B is tired of this whole drama of teaching a bunch of idiots who have been disinterested in the classroom. He insists that we are fooling ourselves with the illusion of spreading education online. Ms C is unable to find any decent corner in her house, terrified of being mocked at by her impetuous wards. Ms D finds it impossible to convince her husband that going online for the sake of teaching would not bring shame to the family. Ms E has borrowed a laptop to conduct her teaching duties. Ms F cannot be more thankful for having the luxury of staying home and dispensing her duties in a few hours a week. Ms G is thanking God that her school has not started online classes and will hopefully not be so audacious. As for myself, I have announced I will upload my lectures on YouTube so that the whole world can learn.

Some teachers are terrified of camera, others afraid of their videos going viral. Some know not where to hide the shabby walls of their homes; others are too lax to go live. However, all of them are running out of internet packages. Most teachers are only concerned with their part: they lecture for an hour, demand an assignment and go back to the safe corners of their homes. Group chats are disabled, screens are offed, mics muted and students asleep.

The free session on Zoom lasts 40 minutes only, but the duration of lecture is an hour. That means a teacher has to go live twice while the poor internet connection does not move promptly from one session to another, and a delay on teachers’ part means makeup lecture.

People from admin are included in live sessions so that teachers can be monitored. Screenshots taken during session are to be submitted with the attendance. Live sessions of female teachers are recorded using mobile cameras and shared in secret groups. Phishing links mysteriously arrive at the student- and teacher- portals. Of course, all that a teacher needs — from a laptop to an office chair to a wifi device to an internet package — is their own headache.

In the final analysis, teachers have to understand that online teaching cannot work without interaction. Universities have to understand that paying teachers does not mean turning them into labour class. The HEC has to intervene to protect the teachers from the atrocities of private universities that are overburdening their faculty and digging up excuses to terminate the staff. And the government has to understand that it is digital infrastructure that it needs to invest in, not for a temporary Covid-19 setup but on a permanent basis. I don’t know about digital revolution, but we are certainly not ready for digital education.

The writer is an Assistant Professor of English at FGEIs, Ministry of Defence, and also has a YouTube channel — Learn English with Fatima. She can be reached at  learnenglishwith[email protected]

A hypo-digital interim solution?