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The pitfalls of distance learning

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by Rahima Kiran

We are passing through one of the greatest challenging times. The Covid-19 has not only sent a devastating impact on economies, health and other sectors in the world, it has also disrupted education. We have been experiencing a global leaning crisis. The pandemic has rendered more than 1.6 billion children and youth out of schools in 161 countries. This is close to 80% of the world’s enrolled students.

According to the World Bank’s “Learning Poverty” indicator, before the outbreak of coronavirus, the number of children of age 10 who could not read and understand stood at 53% of all children in low- and middle-income countries. The pandemic has and will continue to worsen the situation if we do not act prudently and find alternative ways of learning.

What should we be worried about in this phase of the crisis that might have an immediate impact on children and youth?

Loss in learning

In Pakistan, the society is already fragmented due to the class-based education system which is creating disharmony and social injustices. The heat of the discord and class contradiction and their negative impacts will be felt by the poor children, especially in Gilgit-Baltistan. When it rains, it pours for them.

The late start of the academic year and disruption in classes have jeopardized the future of many students, their parents, and teachers in Gilgit-Baltistan. A lot of measures can be taken, at least, to make up or minimize the loss through remote learning strategies. Students belonging to affluent classes and living in urban centres are better off to switch to online learning, although a big challenge for teachers and parents.

For the middle-income and poor families living in mountainous regions like Gilgit-Baltistan, where telecommunication service is poor, the situation becomes frustrating. Many students do not have a desk, books, better internet connectivity, a laptop at home, or supportive parents.

If the government and education authorities did not act swiftly, this will amplify disparities and social conflict. What we need to avoid or minimize as much as possible those differences that will expand and deepen the crisis and thus will have a negative effect on the poor students’ learning.

Many education authorities are of the view that relying exclusively on online strategies will benefit only students from affluent families. The appropriate strategy in most countries is to use all available means with the infrastructure that exists today such as the use of online tools to ensure that lesson plans, videos, tutorials, podcasts and other resources that require less data usage are available for all the students and teachers. Working with telecommunication companies to apply zero-rate policies can also facilitate learning material to be downloaded on a smartphone.

Globally, everything has come to a standstill. Projects have been delayed, workplaces and schools shut down. The world seems to have come to a halt because of the coronavirus.

However, students continue their education through online learning and via video calls with their teachers, especially in big cities such as Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. The model is currently the best alternative as keeping schools open poses a safety risk for students.

Globally, many countries have adopted this approach. Schools in New York as part of the preparation for online learning have started distribution of gadgets to their students, ensuring they had access to learning materials. As of early April, education authorities distributed around 500,000 laptops and tablets to their students, allowing them to participate in online classes.

When the first two COVID-19 cases were announced in Pakistan in early March, the country was in a panic. On March 14, the government of Pakistan announced that all schools in the country were to be closed. However, many schools were not ready to apply for home learning programmes yet. The online classes implemented in Pakistan work differently from those in the developed societies because of lack of preparation and efficient infrastructure.

I would like to share my personal experience during participation in the home-learning programme. Online classes are confusing to adjust to as we have not been prepared through simulations or practices beforehand. Students of Gilgit-Baltistan reported that home-learning programme is more stressful than regular classrooms. Some of the common reasons for this go along the lines of: “Normal classes may have been difficult, but having friends makes it so much more manageable and less stressful. Online classes take out the benefits of having friends to socialize with and being stuck alone with nothing but assignments.”

Many students participating in home-learning programmes also say that the workload of online classes is heavier than that of regular classes. The general consensus is that home-learning programmes still require some time getting used to as it is a new concept and not many are familiar with it.

However, the closure of schools have a silver-lining (home-learning programmes where students are still able to learn), the true sufferers of the closure of schools are the students who are in schools that are not well-funded and the students of Gilgit-Baltistan.

This is because those students lack the devices and efficient internet service to participate in online classes, and the schools do not have the capacity to teach online. Unlike, New York where devices are distributed to students by schools and private companies, in Pakistan, there is yet to be such initiatives.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, the slow network leaves many students in a bad spot where they are unable to receive an education. Although internet service providers have been giving out free data packages, they are simply not capable of supporting video calls on programmes such as Zoom.

To further complicate things, it seems that COVID-19 will remain in Pakistan for quite some time. For instance, in China, it took months for the transmissions to stabilize — and this was with a fast government response, instant lockdown and people obeying the rules and SOPs.

Despite the lack of a nation-wide lockdown, schools remain closed, meaning that students who have no access to a device or internet connection will have a difficult time maintaining their education. Due to these factors, they will be in a very difficult spot educationally until the COVID-19 pandemic dies down in Pakistan.

Students of Gilgit-Baltistan those who are taking online classes are saying that there is no learning they can’t understand single words during the class. Approximately 70% of students are in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and in other big cities, as the government had announced lockdown they moved towards Gilgit, and now they all are taking online classes. The data which we use here is 3g which don’t complete our needs. Students were staying at the hostel now the hostels are also closed. Where we will go for taking the online classes? How we will appear in online exams? Our degree will be considered as fake if we will be promoted without exams.

People sitting in airconditioned rooms and making policies should know that in universities there are not only students of DHA and Bahria Town, but the students from Kashmir, Cholistan desert of Punjab, and mountains are also studying who have paid large amount as tuition fees.

When the government announced lifting the lockdown saying that we don’t have a strong economy like Europe, it should keep in mind that we also don’t have proper internet service which could fulfil the needs of students from Gwadar to mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan. Government is providing opportunities to the rich students in the name of online education, but the majority of the marginalized and deprived poor students don’t have smartphones and if some have smartphones there is no efficient internet service available.

In this scenario, the only viable and effective way is to continue online education is that the government should allow hostels to remain open so that students of Gilgit-Baltistan and other remote areas could stay and avail online classes properly as many poor students are getting an education on scholarship will be able to maintain their position.

The government should make SOPs and allow hostels to remain open. If it is not possible then HEC should stop the online classes as there’s no learning.

I am in Islamabad but still facing too many problems. I have missed lectures, quizzes, assignments now I have to cover 6 months lecture in just two weeks, as papers are going to be held in June 22. And in this situation, the government should make extra efforts to support the education sector and build a sense of solidarity among schools, such as by facilitating networks between international and national/public schools to share experiences and study methodologies for online teaching.


Rahima Kiran is a student of Riphah International University Rawalpindi.

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