Education and Covid

13 Jul 2020

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I HAD just delivered two lectures to my history of economic thought class at the Pak­istan Institute of Development Economics when the universities were closed because of Covid-19. The only guideline from the PIDE was to continue online, if I could. For the next two weeks, I tried using a digital link, only to give up after two attempts for three reasons.

First, students from remote areas — Gilgit-Baltistan, AJK, KP’s merged districts and Balochistan — had poor connectivity. Second, poorer students had no access to smart devices. Third, others lacked a corner of their own to participate undisturbed. The pandemic is no equaliser: there is a great digital divide across regions as well as income groups. The divide across the globe is even more glaring. Checking with the two universities abroad that I had attended, University of Colorado [UC] at Boulder and University of Cambridge, I found out that the switchover to distance learning was almost instant.

On March 24, Cambridge moved all face-to-face teaching online. Colleges offered acc­o­mmodation to health staff and departments offered assistance in testing. Faculty epidemiologists, pathologists, immunologists, mat­h­e­ma­ticians and veterinary scientists supplemented public services. Other academics advised companies on challenges faced by manufacturing and mapped the virus’s genetic evolution. A novel idea was the early graduation of the medical students to join the public health services. The VC messaged that teaching and research online was not the same but it was working. Actually, it worked so well that Cambridge has decided to remain online for the next academic year, whatever the position of the curve.

The students went home and the universities were closed.

By moving to remote teaching and working on March 11, UC Boulder was the first public university in the state of Colorado to do so. Students were provided some flexibility by beefing up pass/fail options. Medical faculty and researchers were placed at the disposal of the governor. Researchers began testing antibodies and therapies for Covid-19. Students, faculty, staff, parents, community members were consulted to prioritise health and safety measures and formulate an on-campus academic model to accommodate both in-person and remote learning. The result was A Road Map to Fall 2020 plan. Classes will begin on Aug 24 and finish online after Thanksgiving. The Road Map was billed as “the beginning of a return to campus,” with an iterative implementation process to enable continuous adjustment in the light of new information. The university also started webinars on Covid-19-related issues of public interest.

In the words of the UC president: “Life didn’t stop when we moved to remote teaching in mid-March in response to Covid-19, but our campuses became different places almost overnight, with the normal hustle and bustle replaced by a strange quiet. Yet our faculty quickly pivoted to remote teaching and learning.” The university had been working on an Online Learning Project and Transformation and Innovation Programme. Covid-19 provided the opportunity to accelerate them.

Out here, the students just went home and the universities were closed. The latter were not seen to be thinking ahead. Somewhat late for the ongoing semester, the lead had to be taken by the regulator, the Higher Education Commission, more because of its dynamic chairman than any institutional inclination. The chairman laid out his plans in an excellent article in this paper.

Noting the poor starting point and where he would like to go, he wrote: “At this point, only the best universities and the most committed and dynamic vice chancellors will be able to launch a few high-quality online courses. But if preparations are taken in hand right away, others will be able to catch up by June. HEC is assisting universities in a number of ways, including arranging software and connectivity packages, curating online materials and training programmes, building a data repository, providing guidance on quality enhancement, and setting up and adapting monitoring and evaluation systems.”

Coinciding with the closure of the universities by the government on March 26, the HEC’s Technology Support Committee issued a working paper on how to transition to virtual instruction. In a series of online conferences with the stakeholders, the chairman attempted to build a consensus on online readiness, assessments, examinations and thesis defence. Remote education leaves remote areas remoter.

The announcement of a special package of Rs285 million for universities of Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, and tripling of Fata University funding, should help. The launch of the Rapid Research and Innovation Fund to support university research on Covid-19 is timely. These are, however, only small steps to help universities help themselves. It remains to be seen which ones would reflect Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — / I took the one less travelled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

The writer is a senior political economist.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2020