“Learners learn better online than they do in a classroom, and if they take a hybrid course of online and hands-on, they learn even more, according to a report published by the United States Department of Education,” says Michael Lambert, now an executive director emeritus at the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), a non-profit educational association in the US.

The findings were concluded based on “a meta study of 51 rigorous research studies — comparing online and distance learning to traditional classroom learning,” says Lambert. “That study has put to rest all the old doubts there used to be about [online education — that] it’s not rigorous enough.”

Current state of online education

Distance education seems to be making strides in developed nations such as the US and the UK. Recently, online learning has gained further popularity with the introduction of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Web-based platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and edX — supported by universities such as Harvard, Stanford and others — offer MOOCs in a range of subjects. These courses are accessible to anyone who has Internet access and attract hundred or thousands of students worldwide.

However, traditional online programmes differ from MOOCs — as there is a fee associated with them, they may have a selection criteria and courses can be taken to earn degrees. Lambert believes that MOOCs have revolutionalised the state of education. “From here on now, and the rest of the decade, we are going to see more students enrolling online than those who sit in a fixed facility classroom,” he says.

Though the concept of online education has evolved in Pakistan and even though virtual universities are present in the country, more prestigious and well-known educational institutions haven’t introduced this form of learning yet.

The need in Pakistan

Taking into account the illiteracy rate in Pakistan, and the number of individuals who do not have access to education, we must do everything possible to ensure that education reaches the masses — so that it becomes a norm, a staple of life — like food and water.

In an article titled: “Education in Pakistan: The Key Issues, Problems and The New Challenges” published in the Journal of Management and Social Sciences, author Ghulam Rasool Memon writes, “The reasons could be a limited number of educational institutions in the country and accessibility to those.” He adds the situation in rural areas, where the majority of the country’s population resides, is much more grave. “The people in those areas avoid sending their children, especially females, to schools because schools are in far flung areas,” he writes.

For example, an academically brilliant student from Sukkur, who is capable of getting admission in the country’s most reputable business schools, but cannot leave his or her hometown, be it for financial or personal reasons, should have an alternative option. Such talent should not go to waste. Student talent needs to be harnessed by the best teachers and the best educational institutions so such students can acquire the skill set to compete with their global counterparts.

Similarly, a mother of young children who wants to study, but cannot commit to a five-day a week schedule, should have another option. Likewise, a married man, who cannot quit his day job to attend university, should be able to study after hours from the convenience of his home or office so he can upgrade his skills — and in turn reap the rewards of a higher salary — ultimately leading to a better standard of living for himself and his family. Such an individual is more likely to send his children to better schools, and chances are, the next generation will be more educated — and this cycle will continue and most likely multiply.

How online education works

With the prevalence of the Internet, the issues around access to education can be solved. A popular form of learning in the US and other developed nations, online education allows students to access learning without physically attending a university. All learning takes place via the Internet and learners access course

content online. Students and teachers engage in online discussions, where they can chat, discuss the subject, and may have the option to see their peers and teachers in real time.

Benefits of online education

So let’s consider some of the benefits of online education and why learners may learn better online.

Lambert says that distance learning presents an opportunity that many adults never had before. “Some of these adults would never have gone back to a classroom,” he says. “Now that Internet has become so ubiquitous — the technology is virtually free — it’s very easy for people to study at home,” he says. According to Lambert, the primary reason why adult learners choose to learn online is because of convenience.

Also, for adult learners, online learning may provide further benefits. Many adults don’t like to be in a classroom with younger people, says Lambert. “They feel a little intimidated by being with 18 to 22 year olds, when they’re in their early 40s,” he says.

Employers’ attitude towards online learning is also changing. More and more employers now accept online qualifications and are not as skeptical about them. “Today employers don’t discriminate against online degrees,” says Lambert. He in fact argues that as online learning is gaining popularity, corporations are now also funding their employee degrees.

In fact, Lambert suggests that employers prefer online students and think them to be responsible students. “They [online students] have lots of discipline, they are mature, self-starting they don’t need much supervision ... they [employers] know they have a great worker on their hands,” he says.

The online learning environment also provides learners an opportunity to learn without being in a pressured learning environment, where there may be any form of bias. Since face-to-face interaction is limited, students are less likely to be judged by their peers, and in some cases by their teachers — on appearance, ethnicity, class and other social factors — factors which may lead to a less cohesive learning environment.

Students may also end up saving a significant amount if they opt for online education — however, this is dependent on the school they choose. According to Lambert, the costs of distance learning programmes offered through the Distance Education and Training Council are much lower compared to traditional college courses in the US.

The daily costs associated with attending classes on campus are eliminated as most classes are conducted online.

Challenges

Local educators and universities, however, must understand some of the challenges of setting up online institutions.

When asked how universities in Pakistan should channel their efforts if they are to introduce online education, Lambert suggests the first step should be to commission experts who can provide schools with guidance.

“There is no longer any secret to product or curriculum design ... [universities need to] understand how to develop an infrastructure to support an online institution and that would take some tiresome consulting,” he says. “Develop it from the ground up.”

There are also many perks for universities which are thinking of going virtual. “Not only will they [universities] save a lot, they will make a lot of money,” says Lambert. “Enrollment will soar through the roof if you do it right.” He says in the US online enrollments are increasing rapidly, whereas fixed facility resident enrollments are flat.

Considering the enormous advantages of online learning and the fact that it is gaining popularity in developed countries, this mode of learning should be considered by all universities in Pakistan. It’s about time Pakistani universities follow their global counterparts and make learning accessible to people, wherever they may be.

Accessibility to education remains a key issue for many in Pakistan — and though online learning will not eradicate this problem completely, it will help tackle it, and slowly and gradually Pakistanis will be accepting of this form of education. Also, taking into account the illiteracy rate in the country, and the limited number of individuals who attend university, educators, private investors and government bodies must collaborate and consider all viable ways to deliver education to the masses.

Funding to the education sector remains another key challenge, which is a separate issue altogether, and must be dealt with first. Affordability comes before accessibility and access to education is not an option, unless families can afford education. But simultaneously, a greater number of educational avenues and platforms need to be established so that the ratio of educated vs uneducated individuals increase in Pakistan.

After all, quality education is in itself a force to be reckoned with and it will ultimately lift the masses out of poverty and pave the way for economic prosperity.

The writer is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada.

ainemoorad@post.com

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