In Praise of online Education

The outbreak of COVID19 pandemic has impacted the world in many ways. Most governments in a desperate bid to to prevent the outbreak of this contagion told their citizens to isolate themselves. Complete or partial lock downs were ordered to enforce this decision. All businesses came to a grinding halt. A force majeure confronted the education sector and they had come to come up with alternative solutions in quick time. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, it from home became the new norm. Although the concept of online education had been in the market for a few decades but it has become the norm and reality now. It has surprised many of us actively involved in teaching how quickly the educators at all levels have adapted to this method of remote learning.

Distance learning has been gaining traction in the field of education for the past many decades. It provides those who cannot pursue the dreams of acquiring degrees and certificates of higher learning through traditional means because of their professional commitments and alternate way to do so to suit their convenience. In Pakistan a beginning was made to expand the educational outreach through the PTV education TV. This concept became very popular in the 1970s. The lectures for the Education TV were prepared by the Allama Iqbal Open University (initially called the People’s University). The AIOU was a new concept of promoting distance education. In many ways it revelotionazed the education landscape in Pakistan. It offered and still offers distance learning packages from primary school to PhD level. An enrolled student receives assignment through mail and posts his completed worksheets to the designated teachers for marking. There are a few physical classes in shape of seminars and than you have to sit for an examination. At least this is the form that I practically experienced for my masters class in Pakistan Studies, while deployed along the Line of Control in Kashmir in the mid 1990s. It was a painstaking and laborious way of learning. The face time with the teacher was practically non-existent.¬† Sometimes it became difficult to send the assignments in time because of service requirements and because of poor postal service in some remote areas but it benefited people in many ways. Then came the Virtual University or VU, which promised online education to students. It was in line with the new trends in modern education. Some leading universities in the world now offer their courses online classes. Some have come up with blended solutions of online, distance and physical learning. Anyway world has made progress.

The advent of Corona forced everyone to simply switch to online education. Some universities had been wanting to go online, other’s were resisting the idea for fears of compromising on quality and losing out in the ranking game. Ranking enhances the university’s prestige and some university managements worried that an increased student to teacher ratio would them in terms of ratings. The universities concentrating on sciences and technology thought that it would be difficult to replicate labs in the virtual world. HEC, the higher education watchdog had other qualms i.e it feared that universities would turn this into a money exercise and by extension the quality of education would decline. As the HEC struggled to come up with a uniform policy it restricted distance and online education to AIOU and VU only.

Corona simply turned everything upside down. As education institutions from primary to tertiary level were told to shut down. University campuses closed and outstation students living in the hostels were asked to leave for their hometowns. At the same times universities were told to go online so that the students are not left stranded mid semester.¬† Viola. all of a sudden Zoom. Microsoft Team, Google classroom became the mediums of choice for taking lectures. In quick time, the professors began to terms with uploading their power point presentations on the university’s Learning Management System LMS) and sharing their notes via email. Exchange of ideas between teachers and students, the teachers themselves and teachers and hierarchy began taking place on social media platforms such as WhatsApps and Messenger. Some innovative teachers made groups on Facebook for their students and uploaded their lectures on Youtube. Some enterprising souls used Skype to broadcast their lectures. Those reluctant or shy or with the fragmentary knowledge of technology had to take the plunge.

The events are still unfolding. Students in some remote areas are complaining of a patchy Internet and some professors are finding it difficult to communicate their ideas online. The traditional mindsets as usual are reluctant to accept change but as the adage goes ‘time and tide waits for no one.’ After the disease subsides and universities and businesses reopen there will be a change. Online education will become the norm and brick and mortar structures¬† will either become redundant or lose their salience.


Winter in Canada

Winters in Canada are on an arctic scale. It snows heavily for days on end. The temperature dips below zero as a matter of norm. Sunny and clear days are a rarity. Children wait for snow days so that they can stay at home but despite heavy snows, these days are far and few between. Life goes on despite snowy blizzards. Inside homes, offices and shopping malls, its warm and cozy but as soon as you step out its freezing cold. Unless you are warmly clothed, you are set to be frozen cold. Winter clothing take in a new meaning in places as cold as Canada. Not only do you dress in layers, you wear caps, hand gloves and snow shoes. Going outdoors is an exercise in dressing in multiple layers. Coming inside means another exercise in getting out of the layers of clothes donned for stepping out.

But as I said life goes on. Office are open and so are the shopping malls and so are the schools. Protesters are out in their dozens, stamping their feet in freezing snow and chanting against the government for cuts in the education budget that would mean lesser amenities in schools and greater burden on the elementary school teachers. Indigenous people or first nation as they want to be known are blocking railway lines because they are cutting across sacred territory that is being violated by modern technology.

Winter is a time of great activity in Canada. Summer is the time for leisure. School holidays are in summers, when days are pleasant and people can go on holidays. In our parts of the world, schools in colder regions close down during the winters because these can be kept warm.

What do you do if you are visiting Canada in winters? Mostly you stay indoors, or visit friends and relatives or if you are brave enough visit the Niagara Falls. There is some merit in visiting the famous falls in winters. There are fewer tourists and you don’t have to jostle for space to admire the beauty of these world famous cataracts of exceptional beauty. When we visited the Niagara Falls, this winter it was partially frozen. The picture postcards that you see are mostly from summers, when the water barrel downs and the spray rises in a cloud misting those in the Maid of the Mist ferry down below. Yonder is the United States of America. Everything is picture perfect. On a cold wintry day, the trees on the banks are laden with snow and there are warnings to avoid slipping an d breaking bones.

Canada is a land of immigrants and it is no longer the Anglo Saxon variety that dominates. In Greater Toronto Area for instance you see so many brown people particularly South Asians that it sometimes feels that you are in India or Pakistan. There are so many Sikhs in certain areas that it seems like a town out of East Punjab and there are so many Pakistanis in Mississauga that you actually feel at home. There are desi restaurants in all localities and all stores sell Shan masala. Procuring halal meat poses no problem for those who would like to stick to strict religious dietary norms.

Is life easy for a South Asian immigrant in Canada? Not necessarily. He or she has to struggle hard and work long hours to make a decent living in a competitive capitalistic society and raising children is a real challenge. The first generation comes to Canada for a better future for their children but the children themselves don’t want to have anything to do with their parents roots. They want to be Canadians and not Pakistanis or Indians. One cannot grudge them that. They are part of society that is diagrammatically different from the home country of their elders. This remains the dilemma for those leaving their countries for greener pastures.

Winters can be cold and dreary in Canada but if you have family there, your heart remains behind once you leave them. May remain warm and happy loved ones, where niagaraever you are.