The COVID-19 pandemic has disturbed almost all of the sectors but the education sector is amongst the most severely-hit sectors. According to UNESCO, closures of educational institutions in more than 180 countries around the globe have highlighted inequalities in education, digital divide and lacunas in distance and remote education. While most of the businesses are now partially or fully opened, educational institutions in most of the countries are still waiting for the ‘green signal’ from their governments to resume routine activities. In an attempt to minimise educational losses accrued amid lockdown, many educational institutions started remote learning by using different online tools and applications.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan also encouraged Pakistani universities to initiate online education, during very early stages of the lockdown, in order to minimise academic disruption. Chairman HEC, Dr Tariq Banuri, in a message published in HEC web portal states, “Closing down campuses is an important step to control the spread. But universities also bring knowledge together, and are the places where solutions will be found. No society can risk keeping universities closed for too long.” 

HEC issued comprehensive guidelines for online teaching and evaluation during lockdown. Consequently, most of the universities of Pakistan commenced online education during May 2020. Up to now, universities are at different stages of their online education process.

During the initial stage of online education, there was much uproar in the social media and some groups of students opposed online classes and also staged protests outside HEC. However, the HEC took a solid stand and the administration of universities also supported and consequently, online education continued in most of the universities across Pakistan during the closure of educational institutions for students. Although the Learning Management System (LMS) has been provided in many universities, it was being used mostly to upload teaching material and exam results. Therefore, remote teaching was a new experience for most of the students and teachers.

During the process of online classes many challenges were faced and apprehensions were raised both by the students and faculty. The biggest concern for students was internet connectivity. Students from metropolitan cities enjoyed good internet connectivity, but those living in rural areas and remote parts of the country faced immense problems in this regard. Online resources like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and LMS consume large amounts of data, require faster internet speed and advanced versions of phones or computers. Thus, the factor of social justice was overlooked in remote/online education. Nevertheless, it was considered as the only and best available option to continue with online education in universities.

Online classes from home need a proper learning environment to stay focused on the lecture. However, students belonging to the joint family system or living in small houses for large families faced difficulties regarding attentiveness and concentration.

Examinations are integral and a very important component of the teaching process; and online examination was also a new experience for a majority of the students as well as faculty members. Here, different universities used different strategies. Some universities announced that online exams will be held, but the Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of students will not be altered. Some universities adopted the policy of using multiple-choice questions for online exams and students took the exam through Google forms or LMS. However, educationists agreed that limited knowledge can be assessed through MCQs, and psychomotor skills in particular, are rather difficult to evaluate through MCQs. Students also used some illicit means while taking such exams; for example, students of the same class made WhatsApp groups and shared answers of MCQs with one another in no time. Similarly, in many instances, a group of students gathered in one place and solved the paper together. Consequently, disparities in the marks of the students were observed. The open-book exam type and assignments were also used for online evaluation by few universities, and a mixed approach was also used by some universities.

Dr Babar Shahbaz

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He tweets @DrBabar-Shahbaz.