Virus closures make classes go digital in Pakistan

Published March 9, 2020
SAWERA, a student, attending an online class at her home in Karachi.—Photo by writer
SAWERA, a student, attending an online class at her home in Karachi.—Photo by writer

FOR Sawera, and her classmates, the sudden announ­cement of closure of her school sparked panic. But her concern was short-lived.

March is a crucial time for students preparing for the upcoming matriculation and Cam­bridge examinations.

However, the fear of the coronavirus spreading has led governments around the world to close schools, affecting almost 300 million students globally.

In Pakistan, schools in Sindh will remain shut till March 13, in Balochistan till March 15 and in Gilgit-Baltistan they remained closed till March 7.

Schools may be shut down, but educationists are hard at work.

The speed and scale of the educational tumult has left millions of teachers and students at the mercy of online learning — a method that is mostly unfamiliar and untested in Pakistan.

Online education has potential to change learning

In a bid to ensure learning is not compromised around the closure, they are experimenting with various e-learning platforms such as Zoom, Google classroom, Hangout, Edmodo, Facebook live and WhatsApp messenger.

Zoom is a web-conferencing software that allows synchronous class sessions, in which students can log in at a pre-scheduled time. The platform allows up to 100 people to meet online within 40 minutes for free.

Google Hangouts also supports video conferencing up to 250 people with an Enterprise package that costs $25 per month.

To help bridge the gap between educators and students, Google is rolling out free larger meetings with up to 250 participants per call, live streaming to 100,000 viewers within a domain, and the ability to record and save calls to Google Drive until July 1.

A virtual school

A day in the life of a digital student starts with notifications instead of an alarm. There is a timetable for live streaming, and attendance is marked when a student ‘logs in’ a classroom.

“Earlier when schools were closed, we were at complete loss of resources. With online learning, I am in touch with my teachers 24/7. In fact, this way they are more responsive… So it is very convenient,” says Sawera.

“We are doing all we can to ensure learning does not stop,” shares Sarah Tanveer, a Beaconhouse School System (BSS) teacher in Karachi.

“At Beaconhouse, we have scheduled a daily timetable where teachers upload lectures for up to two hours. Students are kept on ‘unmute’ and allowed to share verbal and written feedback during the lecture,” she adds.

To further augment file sharing, tutors have created course groups on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Digital learning is not limited to college students.

With her young children at home (aged under 10), Bushra spends most of her day fumbling through technology that leaves her confused, but also thankful.

“The teachers upload and share online resources and videos on WhatsApp. I had to learn how to save files from Google Drive but as long as it keeps my children busy I am grateful,” she says.

“Parents are very receptive to online education. I teach primary class to students near the civil hospital. These parents are now buying and learning to use smart phones to stay connected with us,” says Sana Mustafa Malkani, principal of the Formation School System.

Not tech savvy

Like parents, most teachers are new to alternatives to textbook education and struggling to create digital content that maintains the attention span of students who they cannot see in the virtual classroom.

“At first, we scrambled. Most teachers are not well versed in tech. But we are improvising, and learning from one another. We have to... digital is the future,” Tariq Qureshi, a tutor and student activities coordinator at Meritorious School, told Dawn.

“This requires a lot of time. A class of two hours takes up to six hours of recording and planning in the digital world. The idea is not just content delivery, but also to keep students engaged,” Bilal Hameed, CEO of Cedar School, said.

Hameed’s YouTube channel for A Level chemistry lessons has a following of over five thousand people. “On average, the monthly fee of an A Level school is Rs40,000-50,000. Digital learning is cost-effective. Anyone can be a content creator, even students,” he says.

The Cedar administration is also offering assistance to other institutions in setting up a virtual classroom.

“We understand that many institutions and private teachers are still trying to figure out a strategy to tackle this problem. We would like to offer our assistance to anyone who would like to set up virtual classroom(s) for their students so that they can continue to teach,” said its official page on Facebook.

While online learning is being well-received by students of O and A Levels, Qureshi points out, not all schools can afford and provide e-learning.

“Not all schools have the required technology or technical support that includes teachers with the training to create digital content. Not all students have stable internet or smart phones.”

Potential to change

Besides being the ‘survival kit’ during the Covid-19 outbreak, the education industry is yet to fully benefit from alternative methods of learning.

The team behind an online platform, Alt Academy, is intent on changing that.

“At Alt Academy, we replicate what happens at a school. On one end, there are video lessons on A Level subjects, and on the other we have an online engagement platform where students can discuss problems, and help one another,” says Yousuf Sheikh, a core team member of the Alt Academy.

“It is like Facebook for education,” he says, adding that the platform is connected to students world over. “Online education has the potential to change learning. But, is the [education] industry willing to change?”

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2020

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to Bilal Hameed as CEO of Cedar College instead of Cedar School. The error is regretted.



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