Education: looking forward

Published March 20, 2020
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

ALL educational institutions, across the country, are currently closed. This is as it should be. The same is true of most schools in most countries across the world. The government has, for now, said that schools will remain closed till April 5. This date is likely to be extended. We cannot open schools as long as we do not have control over the spread of the coronavirus. We cannot take the risk of infecting a large number of people. Even if children do not get very sick if they get the virus, they become carriers. This is a risk we should not take.

If schools remain closed till end May or June and then we enter the summer vacation and cannot have schools opening till mid-July or somewhere around that time, what will this mean for education? Clearly, it is a major disruption that will create some ripples. But if the delay is only of a few months, the ripples can easily be contained and dealt with by the end of the current calendar year.

We were almost at the end of the last academic year when schools were closed. So, from the point of view of curriculum coverage, most schools were probably in revision mode by now. Examinations were to be held in March. These had to be postponed. But this should not be a major issue. For grades 1-8, we only have school-based and/or internal examinations. We will not lose a whole lot if we moved all children to the next grade without examinations in these grades this year.

When the children come back, they should start in the next grade. For grades 1-8, having a pass on your transcript, for one year, is not going to impact the educational trajectories of these children in any way. This was done in Pakistan in 1976-77 as well. To the best of my knowledge, there were no adverse effects on educational standards that were recorded.

The HEC and most universities are already looking at online teaching as an alternative.

Where external and/or board examinations are concerned, we cannot do without these examinations. These are usually school-leaving exams and next stage admissions depend on performance on these examinations. These will need to be held, even if they get delayed a lot. If the examinations are held in July/August, instead of March/April, there will be a four-month delay. If we can rush results a little, we could probably start the new academic session for school-finishing students by December/January. So, we lose one semester. But, most universities could cover that semester quite easily in the next summer.

Most universities were in the middle of their spring semester. But here too, even if we cannot come back by May or June, the disruption can be reasonably contained without major changes in learning outcomes. The Higher Education Commission and most universities are already looking at online teaching as an alternative. These systems will probably be put in place in the next couple of weeks. Even if they are not and the spring semester has to be extended to the summer, it is not a huge cost. This and the next summer can be used to absorb some of the disruption cost.

If the educational disruption, and it should be clear that I am only talking about the delivery of education here, is only for a few months hopefully; students, parents, teachers and administrators need not panic. A lot of work will need to be done, but the cost of the disruption can be managed relatively well and reasonably.

However, we should be prepared for another scenario as well. The coronavirus might not go away in a few months. Even after the first wave has been lived through, and we are currently at the beginning of the first wave, the virus will be around and will possibly continue to impact people till the latter develop immunity, the virus fades away, or a vaccine is found. This might mean that issues of distancing, minimal contact and other precautions might have to be in place for a year or so. If this is the case, and we pray it is not, the adjustment in education will have to be much larger and much more permanent.

If students cannot return to schools and universities till the end of the year, or can only come back with restrictions about numbers of people in a room and/or dormitory, we will be in unchartered territory. Pakistan has 200,000-plus schools, we have a very large five-to-16-year-old population; it will not be easy to figure out online solutions for such large numbers. Elite private-sector institutions might be able to shift to online services or hybrid models, but for most Pakistanis, who do not have internet access or will not have the resources to have internet access, the shift is not possible, even if we designed an effective education delivery system. A solution here would require much deeper thinking.

Solutions developed in higher-income countries might not be of immense help for us here. Our school system is much larger, with a lot more students, our resources are more restricted, household poverty levels much higher, parental education lower and internet availability far more sketchy. So, we might have to find our own solutions in this case.

Though the university sector is much smaller in Pakistan, with only 200-odd universities, it will not be easy for them either to create new systems that have to either fully deliver education through online systems, or create a hybrid model for education delivery that limits in-class interactions significantly. But if coronavirus-related restrictions persist across the world, we might be able to benefit from solutions that might get created in other parts of the globe.

If virus-related issues last only a few months, education-sector disruptions will not be too damaging and can be reasonably managed. This should not worry policymakers, parents or students too much. We have bigger issues related to the virus to worry about. If issues persist even after the first wave, till the end of the year or beyond, we will be in unchartered territory and will require much deeper thinking for schools as well as universities to be able to manage education delivery issues.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, March 20th, 2020

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