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.