Online learning

Published April 3, 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.

UNIVERSITIES, which were in the middle of the spring semester when the orders for closure were announced, have been told to remain shut until May 31. It has raised significant questions for universities to consider.

If universities can continue the semester online, should they? The Higher Education Commission initially asked all universities to go online. But, a few weeks later, realising that a lot of universities do not have the infrastructure necessary to make the transition quickly, the HEC seems to be saying that those universities that can should move online, while others can take time (until the end of May) to develop and implement the necessary infrastructure, materials and trainings.

There has been a fair bit of pushback from students on the issue of online classes. The main points made, to the best of my knowledge, are about access to the internet, bandwidth and internet stability issues. There are areas in Pakistan that do not have good internet connectivity, and students who, for one reason or another, do not have access to a stable, high-speed internet connection.

The point is well taken. Internet access needs to be ensured for all students. As the HEC has standards for onsite teaching, they will also have to develop online teaching standards to ensure a certain level of access to the internet and other technologies before online teaching can become the default mode. But these will take some time.

Access is, in fact, the most straightforward of issues to address right now.

Due to the lockdown and distancing rules, the burden on the internet in Pakistan and across the world is also increasing rapidly. Internet speeds are starting to slow down. We will also have to keep an eye on this. Infrastructure will need to be upgraded to take into account the additional expected and unexpected traffic.

But this does not mean universities should not start experiments in online teaching. It means we have to start looking for, developing and deploying solutions. It will take some time for all universities to get there and for all students to have access of a sufficient quality, but the work has to start now. And universities, given their situations, will traverse this distance at varying speeds. The HEC should be ready to invest in infrastructure, material development and trainings. It has already announced some committees on these issues, but it remains to be seen what resources are invested in this pursuit and what the results are.

Access, the issue being agitated on right now is, in fact, the most straightforward of issues to address. There are several other, more complex problems to contend with. Online teaching does not simply mean putting reading materials online and expecting students to read, understand and/or regurgitate them. It does not mean that if you change onsite examinations to open-book online examinations, there is nothing more that needs to be adapted for online teaching.

Learning and teaching objectives of every course will have to be rethought. Teachers have to carefully consider each instrument they use for getting material across to students once again. Are synchronous and live classes needed? If so, since students are not sitting together in one room, how are these to be conducted? Do online platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams offer the same environment that a classroom does and how? How do you structure class participation in synchronous classes? Or could all teaching be done online without synchronous teaching? The teacher posts readings and questions. The students can submit their questions, if they have any, through email or in chat groups. Teachers and peers can respond to each other that way. Will learning this way be even better than in face-to-face classes?

Technology could offer distinct advantages as well. We can do a lot of small group and/or individual teaching too. If lectures could be recorded and made available to students to view whenever it suits them individually, and teachers then schedule small group or even one-on-one interactions (tutorials), learning in some subjects that require a lot of discussion (such as philosophy) could become even better than running large face-to-face classes.

A lot of thought needs to go into designing assessments. When faculty cannot conduct in-class quizzes, tests and examinations, and are potentially restricted to open-book and not necessarily strictly time-bound assessments, what sort of instruments can be created? For example, live multiple-choice tests will not be easy if students do not have sufficient bandwidth and internet stability. What could be a substitute for these? How do we ensure new instruments get to the right level, how do we validate them, and when do we move towards standardisation?

And it is not just teaching that needs to go online. A lot of administrative work of universities also needs to shift to online platforms. Some of them, for some universities, will take a lot of time.

Do bear in mind these things are important as it might not be just for a semester that we have to move online. Nobody knows how long the situation with distancing and partial lockdowns is going to continue. Even when the first wave of infections is through, it might still not be possible to go back to the way things were and have crowded dormitories, classes and/or cafeterias. Some universities in other countries have started to plan for the next 18-odd months in totally online mode or in hybrid mode at the very least.

Clearly, a lot of research and experimentation is needed here. The HEC’s insistence to do this quickly will have issues. Internet access might come quickly, but the larger and deeper issues need a lot more work. This is a difficult time to organise new things as a lot of people are worried, and rightly so, about their and their families’ well-being. Rather than worry too much about this semester, the HEC should really set up incentives for the medium term so that we can get closer to long-term answers for the deeper questions.

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, April 3rd, 2020

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