“ROTI, kapra, makaan — aur internet,” is how former Google executive Tania Aidrus underscored her vision for Digital Pakistan: a tech-driven society in which all citizens are connected. However, it will take many years for that dream to become a reality. The internet continues to remain a luxury accessible to a relatively small percentage of the total population, with even fewer able to access good-quality connections, particularly in the periphery regions of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, and former Fata as well as Balochistan. According to a report in this paper, in recent weeks, hundreds of university students and instructors have registered complaints regarding the problems they have had with internet connectivity, along with other technical issues, during their online classes. Others criticised the quality of lectures, which they felt were deteriorating, with less interaction and fewer chances to ask questions. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, with much of the country under lockdown, the online teaching system — particularly in use in developed parts of the world — has been encouraged by the authorities here. But it is also presenting its own sets of challenges and difficulties, and is exposing and creating inequalities which will be felt beyond the classroom.

Of course, no one could have foreseen the pandemic, and both students and teachers are trying their best to do what they can under difficult circumstances, but authorities will need to chalk out a long-term plan if the current situation continues beyond the summer months. Otherwise, the health emergency may just turn into an education emergency, which will bring its own host of problems, from a higher number of early marriages to more children working to support their families. Pakistan already has a high dropout rate from both primary and secondary schools, while millions of others have never even stepped inside a classroom. Prolonged breaks and disruptions in education may lead to even more dropouts. And how many Pakistanis can even afford to make it to higher education in the first place?

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2020

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