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GOING ONLINE: LESSONS FROM THE CLASSROOM

Are online classes failing our students, many of whom do not even have access to stable internet connections?

Updated 24 Jun, 2020 06:46am

As Covid-19 started spreading across Pakistan university campuses were the first to close. What followed was a hasty transition to online, which was anything but smooth. Are online classes failing our students, many of whom do not even have access to stable internet connections? And how can higher education institutes better prepare for the forthcoming semester?



Illustrations by Leea Contractor


In a pre-Covid-19 world students appear for an entrance exam in Karachi | Arif Ali/White Star
In a pre-Covid-19 world students appear for an entrance exam in Karachi | Arif Ali/White Star

As the new semester began across universities in Pakistan in January 2020, Covid-19 was a little more than a blip on the horizon; something happening in far-off China. For me, teaching second-semester students at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Covid-19 was a convenient topic for impromptu class presentations. Little could I have imagined how suddenly and rapidly the virus would reach Pakistan, ultimately causing universities to shut down.

Now instead of a physical classroom, my classroom is virtual and on Zoom. Instead of looking upon rows of desks occupied by students, I now gaze upon grey squares neatly arranged in a grid. I often feel hopeless and disconnected from my students. And surely, they must also intensely feel this disconnect.

When virtual classes first began, teaching online seemed a massive, almost impossible, undertaking. A couple of months later, the feeling still looms. There are two core assumptions that underlie online teaching. First, that everybody — students and faculty — has digital access, computers and internet connections, capable of withstanding heavy bandwidth calls. And second, that all faculty members are trained to teach online.

Here, immediately a distinction between public and private universities emerges: the former often did not have the infrastructure or funds to transition online. As a result, many public universities across the country halted classes altogether. In contrast, many private universities moved online as the lockdown continued. Yet, it would be erroneous to assume that all students enrolled in private universities come from socio-economic backgrounds that allow them these kinds of privileges. Even at the most ‘elite’ private universities, class differences persist and they become more apparent as we consider students on financial aid or scholarship schemes.

Then there is the fact that some studying at prestigious universities in large metropolises actually belong to rural areas. Some come from areas devastated by poverty and infrastructural neglect, in interior Sindh or Balochistan, and do not own laptops or have access to high-speed internet.

Waqas Alam, a member of the Progressive Students Federation (PRSF), believes that it is “brutal” for universities to hold online classes. PRSF and other student-led groups advocate that until universities can ensure digital equity, they should not conduct online classes.

Brutal or not, the classroom has moved online, at least temporarily. As the semester comes to an end, students and faculty are getting a much-needed break, but also some time to look back and reflect.


THE SHIFT TO ONLINE

This spring, I was teaching a course on Speech Communication. As the name implies, the course has a weighty public speaking component. Shifting it online initially seemed impossible. Students no longer had an audience to present to, or gain cues from. Presenting to your camera is very different from presenting in front of your peers. You can no longer gauge how your audience is responding and nor can you use your body language or gestures to hook their attention.

How would I give my students opportunities for practice, given that our ‘classroom’ was now on Zoom? What wisdom could I impart when I could no longer assess if students were nervous, bored or engaged? In the absence of visual cues, it became harder to navigate the classroom, read student energies and adjust my lesson accordingly. Eventually, I revisited my syllabus, modifying my understanding of communication to align with the new context I was teaching in.

Everyone had to do some trial and error. “The key thing to remember is that it wasn’t planned,” says Dr. Faiza Mushtaq, head of the Department of Social Sciences and Liberal arts at IBA. “It was an abrupt mid-semester transition.” All faculty had to “scramble” to adapt courses, Dr. Mushtaq reminds me.

The fact is, most faculty members are not trained to teach online. Most of us have gained our experience in face-to-face classrooms. Teaching online requires both technical expertise and a revised pedagogy; to engage with students online means relying on certain tools and altering instructions accordingly.

When virtual classes first began, teaching online seemed a massive, almost impossible, undertaking. A couple of months later, the feeling still looms.

Some universities did offer the faculty relief and structural support. IBA offered round-the-clock IT support, provided tablets and devices to faculty, and conducted software training workshops. The administration also urged faculty to be more flexible: attendance was abolished, as were timed quizzes and assignments, and holding asynchronous sessions — that allow students to learn the same material at different times — was strongly encouraged. However, many students were still left behind due to their lack of digital access.

Ghani*, a student hailing from Chitral, was unable to access online classes. “Even if IBA gave me money or a device, it would not have been useful,” he says. He says there is no internet in his village, Baleem, and only two cellular networks are accessible. Ghani would ask his uncle to download the lectures when he would go into town and access the lectures whenever he returned. This meant accessing lectures on a week-by-week basis, sometimes longer. The silver lining was that Ghani was able to study at his own pace, giving him more time to engage with the course material. “I would have no idea when assignments’ deadline started or finished,” he recounts. Although the semester has formally concluded, Ghani is still completing his assignments and credits his instructors for being flexible. However, if the fall semester is conducted online, Ghani may have to defer.

Sheema Khawar, another faculty member at the university, really felt this disconnect with some students. She says she had “very minimum student engagement from some students, because they barely had working internet or very poor connectivity.” Matters became worse as the university hostels closed down and students (mainly out-of-towners) returned to their homes. By leaving the campus, students were also forfeiting access to resources such as high-speed internet, a functioning computer lab and boarding.

Some of Khawar’s students were returning to areas with poor or no internet connectivity. Others were on financial aid and scholarships, and did not have the disposable income to install 4G internet or buy a laptop. She estimates that one-third of her class was unable to access online teaching with the same ease as their peers who were based in the city.


RETHINKING HOW WE TEACH

A webinar arranged by Habib University | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
A webinar arranged by Habib University | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

All faculty now needed to be selective about what they taught, given that the number of sessions for the semester had been reduced. Faculty member Subhan* struggled with this compromise but ultimately, believed that he shouldn’t “be trying to reach some standard out there at the cost of burdening my students.” Fixed standards of attendance, class participation and academic excellence are traditionally designed for face-to-face classes and can hardly hold up in times of extreme uncertainties and changes without hurting the students’ well-being in the process.

In these circumstances, pedagogy isn’t just limited to what we teach but how we teach.

I could no longer assign interactive activities or use peer interaction to facilitate student learning. Every week, I had to push myself to re-envision a particular module, keeping in mind the limitations my students faced. Google Forms especially became a constant — perhaps a crutch — as I tried to build a space where students could reflect upon what they had learnt during class. Assignments were spaced out and, sometimes, students submitted late, without facing a penalty. I knew my students were overworked and trying their best and I wanted to let my course be a source of distraction, not additional stress.

Some of Khawar’s students were returning to areas with poor or no internet connectivity. Others were on financial aid and scholarships, and did not have the disposable income to install 4G internet or buy a laptop. She estimates that one-third of her class was unable to access online teaching with the same ease as their peers who were based in the city.

Haya Fatima Iqbal, adjunct faculty at Habib University, faced a similar predicament. “The irony of teaching a journalism course and expecting students to study from the confines of their home was not lost” on her. Iqbal had to revisit and adapt her syllabus to make sure that it aligned with journalism values, without compromising student safety. For one of her courses focusing on interviews, she had to convert assignments focusing on long-form journalism into audio assignments; “tiny compromises” had to be made, but Iqbal and her students figured out a way forward.

On the other hand, Sadaf*, an instructor at a private university in Karachi, struggled with transitioning online. For one, her department initially did not issue any clear guidelines on what platform to use for online teaching or how to take attendance. In the absence of support from her university, she sought out professional development opportunities on her own, so that she could better adapt to online teaching. While her line manager was supportive, Sadaf believes that, ultimately, the management should have involved both students and faculty in how to best transition to online teaching. The haphazard transition has been stressful and both faculty and students are “ultimately losing out”.

Sadaf also shares another alarming fact: she has not been compensated since the spring semester began in February. This is an additional source of worry for her and she is considering other part time opportunities to supplement her income. Sadaf requests anonymity and that her employer’s name not be disclosed, to avoid ruffling any feathers.


THE OTHER SIDE

While his peers struggled with the shift to online, Basharat, a Media Studies student at Szabist, enjoyed an unexpected benefit from the transition. The student lives in Karachi’s Korangi area, and getting to campus would take him a good 40 minutes. Now he can simply submit his assignments online and save on commuting. This is particularly significant given that Basharat is on financial aid and has a stringent budget to spend on university expenses.

Students acknowledge certain other benefits too. Most acknowledge their instructors for being lenient on deadlines. Asad, a student at Habib University, cites one particular professor who was a stickler for deadlines but, after Covid-19, even she has been more accommodating. She would use the first few minutes of class to gauge the energy levels of students and alter her approach accordingly. Similarly, their supervisor told them that this is the time to “slow down and minimise”.

But despite these efforts, all of the students I spoke to also reported an increased workload. New assignments and quizzes were being assigned every week and many felt exhausted trying to keep up with the pace. Instead of cutting down on course content, some instructors seemed to be proceeding at an accelerated pace. Often the content was exclusively theoretical: the nature of online teaching and the lockdown outside left little or no scope for students to carry out practical work, a vital part of coursework for many students.

For some disciplines, this has meant that students can no longer access the on-campus facilities that are vital to their studies.

New assignments and quizzes were being assigned every week and many felt exhausted trying to keep up with the pace. Instead of cutting down on course content, some instructors seemed to be proceeding at an accelerated pace. Often the content was exclusively theoretical: the nature of online teaching and the lockdown outside left little or no scope for students to carry out practical work, a vital part of coursework for many students.

Hamna*, a fourth year medical student, shares how her clinical modules were initially suspended and, instead, instructors sped through the theory classes. A module typically takes eight weeks to complete, but the timeline was now compressed. Under normal circumstances, Hamna would have been wrapping up her second module instead of her fourth one. For medical students, the clinical visits are vital in helping them understand the practice of medicine. Hamna recounts how, in her gynaecology module, the instructor had difficulty showing the position of the baby during labour using a model pelvis and a baby mannequin.

In class, the instructor would have laid out the mannequin on the table and demonstrated the position of the baby’s head at different stages of labour. But, on Zoom, she struggled holding both the mannequins and ensuring it was visible on-screen. Eventually, she gave up and told her students that they’d see it properly once clinical visits resumed.

Currently, Hamna’s clinical visits have resumed virtually. Instead of small groups of 13-15, the whole batch of 350 students watches as their instructor details the symptoms of the patient and explains the management online. But this is not like a typical clinical visit. “[In those visits] we can question freely and make them repeat and ask about any patient whose history we took, that was confusing or contradicting,” she says. It is harder to achieve this clarity online and both the instructors and students are getting frustrated.


INCREASED WORKLOADS

For Samira*, a final year student at a private arts school, the closure of campus meant she could no longer work in the university studio or have access to the materials and facilities that she needs to complete coursework. Additionally, Samira is required to prepare for her dissertation and thesis in her seventh semester but her productivity and pace have been affected by the pandemic. The idea of being graded for work that she is struggling to do during the lockdown, is further demotivating. For her, the increased workload was merely the university’s way of keeping students busy and to avoid repeating the semester.

Others point out the cancellation of exams as a probable cause. Given that on-campus exams are no longer an option, many instructors have turned to assigning additional work, most often assignments or quizzes. An increased workload would be difficult to bear in normal times, given the heat and Ramazan but, during a pandemic, it adds to the financial and mental strain on students. Moreover, during the lockdown, many families were not calling in their domestic staff. This meant that the burden of housework has fallen primarily on the female students. These students had to juggle housework and assignments along with the stress and uncertainty they may already be facing because of Covid-19.

Zunaira’s* case is an apt example. She is a fourth-semester student and studying on a scholarship. She does not have access to the internet at her home and nor does she own a laptop. To complete her assignments, she visits a friend’s house and uses their laptop. To be able to attend online classes, she uses data packages on her phone. This is a significant financial investment, especially during a time when Zunaira’s father, a daily wage labourer, has not been able to find employment since the lockdown started. Zunaira has to juggle her worries about her family’s financial stability while coping with the increased demands of her coursework.

Given the disruptions this semester has witnessed, universities are now also considering the Pass/Fail grading policy. LUMS and IBA both have implemented it, with the latter opting for a Pass/Fail policy across the board rather than as an adaptive grading option.

Moreover, during the lockdown, many families were not calling in their domestic staff. This meant that the burden of housework has fallen primarily on the female students. These students had to juggle housework and assignments along with the stress and uncertainty they may already be facing because of Covid-19.

But for Shazia*, a social sciences student at IBA, the Pass-Fail policy came too late. Initially, Shazia opposed the policy because she had been working very hard for the past two months to keep up with her assignments and classes. However, she later acknowledges that the policy was a way of bringing grade equity, especially to those students who were not as privileged as herself. Yet, had the grading policy been instituted when teaching was shifted online instead of at the end of the semester, it would have ensured that students and faculty were working systematically towards a very specific and clear end-goal.

In a pandemic, when uncertainty reigns unchecked — having a clear grading policy reflects an institution’s clear stance in extending support to students and serves as an equalising force. For Shazia, the pandemic only highlighted the inherent flaws in our educational system. “Why does compassion matter only during a pandemic?” she says, stressing that it took a pandemic for universities to emphasise that your grades shouldn’t define you.


LOSS OF CONNECTION AND SAFETY

It isn’t just about internet access or a change in teaching styles and assessment. The online transition has entailed sacrificing the small rituals that often have the greatest impact on building a rapport with students. Subhan’s students would often walk back with him to his office, using the time to discuss their concerns or questions. This was no longer possible once online teaching began. The loss of this “extra communication” made it difficult for Subhan to check in with his students.

Students also reported how they were more hesitant to ask questions in online classes. The majority of class would have their cameras switched off as video would cause lags in streaming. Unmuting their mic and asking the question was not the same as raising your hand in class and getting a response. Sometimes internet disconnections would mean that students would miss on parts of the lecture as well.

For many students, the closure of campuses meant losing a space which provided them respite from their homes and a chance to find their preferred haunts or sanctuaries. There is no longer a distinction between the classroom and one’s home. This can significantly impact how students engage with course content.

The Habib University campus | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
The Habib University campus | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star

Not all courses are politically neutral; liberal arts courses often call for students to critically analyse the society they inhabit. Discussion is as critical to the course as the content itself. The campus provides students with a level of anonymity as they debate and discuss these questions. As Sheema shares, it is somewhat easier to create a safe space within the classroom, where students can share and open up. At home, they may not have privacy or feel uncomfortable sharing their experiences.

Asad experienced this first-hand. On campus, Asad felt more comfortable sharing and participating. The classroom setting accords them a certain level of anonymity, making it easier for them to contribute. The discourse in some classes calls for vulnerability and it is harder for Asad to be vulnerable at home, where there is a sense of threat. In one of Asad’s courses, their professor was talking about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Asad did not feel comfortable contributing and they tried expressing their discomfort to their professor, but the professor didn’t seem to understand the nuances of the situation. Asad quips, “Class tau khatam ho jayegi [The class will end] but I still have to live here.”

ASSESSING PROGRESS

Yumna*, a computer sciences student, recently gave an exam on Zoom. During the exam, students were required to turn their cameras on and remain in the frame for the duration of the examination. This brings up two core issues: reimagining assessment and reflecting on what we think about our students. And what methodologies can we use besides exams (questions or essays) to assess our students’ learning?

The practice of recreating an exam on Zoom goes deeper: it signifies a lack of trust in the students themselves. Across my professional experience, whether it be secondary or tertiary level, I have seen many teachers express their suspicion and mistrust of students again and again. These sentiments have only heightened during the pandemic; I saw and heard about many instructors assigning additional coursework. Plenty were operating under the assumption that students were sitting idle at home. Evidence of students’ domestic responsibilities, mental health concerns and toxic family environments, all failed to sway them.

Reimagining what assessment looks like calls for not only changing the way we transmit information but for treating our students like the adults we sometimes berate them for not being. Incidents, where students exploit the system or practices of academic dishonesty, are inevitable, but our monitoring mechanisms for students should go beyond barely disguised surveillance and treat them as key stakeholders in this process.

I also acknowledge the labour that goes into crafting and checking non-traditional assessments and the fact that many visiting faculty members are not adequately compensated as it is. If we are to reimagine assessments, our administrations also need to extend us support, be it financial, or opportunities for professional support.


STUDENTS’ CONCERNS AND DEMANDS

Talking to multiple students, it also struck me that, despite being in prestigious universities, students often struggle with making their concerns heard. Additionally, students on financial aid/scholarships have not been accommodated by most universities. The exception seems to be LUMS, where students from the National Outreach Program (NOP) have been sent internet devices by the administration.

Consequently, groups like PRSF demand that online classes should only begin when there is digital equity for at least 90 percent of the student population. Another central demand is that students should be reimbursed their tuition fees. Tuitions fees are charged on the assumption that students have access to the facilities provided by their respective university. They argue that, in the light of closure, it is illogical to continue charging students for facilities they can no longer avail. PRSF’s Alam acknowledges that universities have costs and salaries to pay but he believes that, at the very least, students should be reimbursed 20 percent of the fees.

A look at the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) Twitter page shows a thread dated April 23, 2020, where HEC outlines policies and commitments to ensuring online learning. However, apart from mentioning talks with telecommunication companies to introduce subsidised internet packages for students, there is no other policy for ensuring digital equity amongst students. It seems that the onus is still on students to show up to online classes, no matter where they live or what socio-economic background they come from.

Another core concern that has emerged during this pandemic is the urgent need for student representation and a way for students to organise collectively. Both Samira and Shazia are actively involved in student politics and organising, the former being a member of PRSF. PRSF is one of the few organisations working towards empowering students and has been actively working remotely with students. They have aided them in writing letters to the management and organising sessions. Samira asserts that her university had not seen students as stakeholders to engage with and instead, without gathering student feedback, they’d moved on to begin online classes.

Shazia shares how she was often at the forefront of negotiating with professors about extending the deadlines or adjusting the workload. Shazia acknowledges that she would not have been able to do this without the support extended to her by her department head and that isn’t something students in other departments could rely on.

The past two months have been very mentally draining for the student. “Parrhai ke ilawa sirf phadday kiay [Apart from studying, the only other thing I did was arguing],” she says.

Where do we go from here? As Covid-19 cases rise across the nation, it seems unlikelier day by day that the pandemic will cease any time soon. An online fall semester seems imminent. But the virtual classroom can only succeed if students, faculty and management are equally involved in conversations about it. Much of what are standard practices in university classrooms need to be interrogated and re-envisioned if necessary. Students like Shazia should not have to bear the additional burden of negotiating for empathy.

What accountability mechanisms can be introduced for faculty, that do not compromise on their agency and privacy but also protect students? What support can the administration extend to faculty and how should their labour be compensated? Unlike the spring semester, there is time to start reflecting and looking for answers. What remains to be seen is whether these conversations translate into substantive policy.


*Name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual


Komal Waqar is a teacher and writer based in Karachi. She can be reached at komalwaqarali@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 14th, 2020