HEC: seize the corona moment

Published April 25, 2020
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

THIS essay concerns those Pakistani colleges and universities currently operating under the regimen of online learning. I suggest that professors and vice chancellors not read it else the hard truths might enrage some. My goal is to open a discussion with those who actually care about the future of this country and its higher education system. This particularly includes the rare professor who actually deserves being professor.

The world — and Pakistan — is in lockdown mode with all education institutions shuttered down. What happens when they reopen? Shall it be life as usual? Most likely, yes. But from the heap of social disruption and economic ruination one can hope for some betterment. For this we shall need ruthless self-examination.

Fact one: The global marketplace assesses degree holders from Pakistani universities as possessing distinctly inferior problem-solving skills and knowledge. Whether in Europe or the US, few Pakistanis work in high-tech fields such as engineering, computer science, machine learning, biotechnology, genetic research, etc. Western academia — both in liberal arts as well as sciences — has many Indians but few Pakistanis. While Pakistani doctors in the US and UK form a large wealthy group, they simply practise medicine and only rarely innovate.

Fact two: College and university graduates, as well as professors, seriously lack the ability to reason and analyse. Few can express themselves in either grammatically correct Urdu or English without suddenly and arbitrarily switching languages. Book reading is close to extinction.

What is called online learning can be worth its name if and only if there’s absolute transparency.

This is a deeply dismal situation. Forget for now some five to six high end private, high-priced universities. All else is a dull grey sea of mediocrity where the level of academic incompetence is mind-boggling. For example, just walk through education marketplaces in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Here, coaching centres for ‘O’- and ‘A’-level schools abound. Middle-rich, rich and super-rich parents desperately search out tutors who reputedly produce top exam grades, needed for sending off their progeny to some overseas university. They pay whatever the market demands.

The highest prices are fetched by well-reputed teachers of science subjects — math, physics, chemistry and computer science. Some rake in Rs10 lakh monthly; one that I met in early January this year said he made four times that. Some ‘super coaches’ accept only dollar payments, demanding that these be wads of crisp new $100 notes.

With such astronomical earnings, you might expect coaching centres to be largely staffed by university professors. They not only hold science PhD degrees but also have their names on dozens of so-called ‘research papers’ that supposedly make them masters of their respective subjects. So why are tuition centres nearly empty of moonlighting university professors?

The answer: although ‘O’- and ‘A’- level questions are straightforward tests of subject comprehension, they still demand some critical reasoning. But their PhDs notwithstanding, many of those weaned upon blind memorisation never learned to study otherwise. Hence science exams meant for British high schools are too tricky for them.

With this in the backdrop, enter Mr Corona. After he walked on stage, online learning became the sole option. Their incomes endangered, private universities jumped quickly into the act. Some contacted a majority of their students and declared success. Elsewhere little has happened. Based upon the spotty information sent by colleagues and my former students across Pakistan — just a fraction of some 250-plus universities (and a still smaller number of 2,000-plus colleges) have gone online. Other universities are preparing; yet others are clueless.

Limited internet access is a valid reason for slowness, but this is readily fixable. Imagine cutting the defence budget by one per cent. The $90 million thus released could quickly cover every part of Pakistan with fast 4G internet — and even leave some spare change to start the development of 5G.

But the truly Herculean challenge is to ensure that Pakistan’s online teaching standards — both pedagogy and assessment — match international ones. Glancing through materials sent confidentially by colleagues and students from five different institutions I see just how difficult this will be. Here’s the evidence — still fragmentary — gleaned over six weeks:

Roughly 15pc to 20pc of materials received range from good to fair with some professors taking extraordinary pains to create coherent, self-contained video lectures supplemented with free online resources such as those of the well-reputed Khan Academy. The remaining 80pc from local professors deserves the rubbish bin. Some have simply used smartphones to photograph their barely legible and yellowed student-day lecture notes. Others have posted trivial quiz questions whose answers are just a mouse-click away.

The solution to better teaching quality doesn’t lie in creating more rules or making some centralised monitoring bureaucratic apparatus whether at the level of government or of individual universities. While some small benefits might accrue, the very purpose of a university — creative ways of teaching, academic freedom and encouragement of critical reasoning — could be endangered.

In Pakistan’s peculiar circumstances, the best that can be presently done is to require complete and total transparency. With 21st-century technology, this is perfectly possible. So let there be a freely accessible central repository where every professor is required to deposit all his/her recorded lectures, videos, notes, research papers and seminars.

Transparency is admittedly not a panacea but it will have the salutary effect of contrasting good teaching practices with bad ones and setting a realistic scale for assessing teacher performance. Still more importantly, one will be able to see how well or badly students respond to particular modes of instruction.

This is exactly where the Higher Education Commission needs to step in. Apart from forcing every university to archive its teaching materials and make them freely accessible, it should also monitor that this policy is adhered to. The professor community is sure to resist this tooth and nail. Can the HEC risk provoking their ire? If it can, then our future can be brighter.

Seven decades later, those who sharpened Pakis­tan’s education into an ideological weapon need to be shrugged off. This has brought us nothing but ruination and disgrace. To become a part of the modern world, a complete reorientation is needed. Online education, if done right, offers a way out.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2020

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