Since the appearance of the coronavirus in December last year, nearly every aspect of regular life in Pakistan has been transformed.

The education sector has been affected in a huge way with the closing of classes and calls for efficient education emergencies to overcome the academic loss. Academic institutions are now searching for new learning avenues by going on-line.

Educators are finding that the compromised state of curriculum development in Pakistan is not going to help matters. Without professionals experienced in bringing about rational change, and with little awareness of how to compare, judge and evaluate, Pakistan’s attempts are likely to make little progress.

Following the power coercive, top-down instructions from the Higher Education Commission (HEC), universities equipped with digital equipment can commence online teaching immediately, while other under resourced universities should ensure their setup for online learning prior to commencing.

Private universities are more likely to struggle, but what are the criteria for choosing the materials for the more established universities? Static pictures of the lecturer’s notes?  Videos of students asking questions about the notes? Does every university teaching course A have the same objectives, the same content, the same profile of assessments?  The HEC could build up a curriculum bank of courses and assessment schemes that universities could draw upon, but does the HEC have the quality of staff to attempt this? I shall return to the role of the HEC.

Dr Atta ur Rehman founder of HEC said on the emergency education:

“I had prepared a website at which I had accumulated thousands of excellent courses at school, college and university level. These include courses from MIT, Stanford University, University of California and many other top universities. It also has school level courses from Khan Academy. Our educational institutions should start using these free materials immediately.”

E-learning resources are available from top universities, so HEC curriculum bank could become the resource for such items.

Dr Javaid Laghari, a former HEC Chairperson believes that “everyone in Pakistan does not have equal and free access to internet, particularly broadband. It should be level playing first. Secondly, all faculty don’t have the same capability to teach online. Thirdly, all programmes are not equal.

Easy for social sciences but not for social sciences but not for engineering and medicine. All universities are not equally capable to do that. Unless the learning outcomes are the same as for offline, quality will not be the same for all.

So universities must be given two years to develop virtually, of course HEC must open a new division to monitor progress, there must be an independent online accreditation agency to review and approve. HEC must find universities to develop online”. 

To effectively develop learning resources, I suggest that universities should bid to establish packages for our most common courses, using what little experience they have of course and curriculum development.

In theory, universities are expected to adopt flexible sources of remote learning by using recorded lectures and online session through Zoom and meetup. Distance learning should involve tutorial support, free online courses, e-learning stations through occasional face-to-face communications with resource persons.

In practice in Pakistan, there will be challenges with on-line connections, and the accessibility of digital tools.

As Nadia Siddiqui ( Durham University) has remarked: ‘online learning has a high technology reliance and fast speed on internet so the universities must meet these requirements at a world class level before online education becomes a norm’.

The education system is already struggling to provide physical learning resources.This new digitalized movement in academia has to face the attitudes of teachers towards a system they have no training for, and their willingness to accept an E-learning system imposed from outside by a centre with possibly less know-how than themselves in setting up online sessions. From the students’ perspective, what about the affordability of the digital tools, internet access, browsing the web and the stability of the electricity supply. And in rural areas?

Head of the MD Programme at Vin University, Hanoi said that “Online learning needs huge investment in terms of resources both physical and human at the institutional level. In a country like Pakistan this needs to be carefully thought with open University and Virtual University on board. It is a fact that synchronous learning will be a disaster so more energy may be directed towards asynchronous learning. A student may be sent key resources on a CD with printed material and satellite offices and academics may be identified to support students”. 

Since the online assessment would be relatively a new concept to assess students’ achievement through online teaching so there is a risk of high-stakes exams and tests are a breeding ground for academic integrity, and this online testing raise apprehensions about high-tech remote-proctoring choices, said by Dr Asad Masood  of Zayed University.

Implementing E- Learning in Pakistan would be a gigantic undertaking in the best of times, so today in the presence of the Virus what can realistically be done? Besides, economic constraints, what preparation is being considered to design pedagogical models to align with technology? The design of learning resources requires a coordinated team approach comprising content specialists, academicians of learning theory and curriculum development and professional experts in technology.

This would be a long-term project.  In the short term, plans are required to build-up a library of resource video material to be broadcast on TV and also DVD in the form of online lectures and tutorials developed by the universities.

These ‘courses’ would be developed on an ad-hoc basis by those universities expressing interest. The courses would form a ‘Virtual Campus’ and their operation would act as a pilot study for the proposed national project of E-learning. A later evaluation would learn from the successes and failures before rolling-out the full national scheme.

So, in the short term, universities could start and prepare virtual courses in the normal academic sessions as a regular practice and should establish virtual libraries and laboratories for the students.

This virtual learning trend will minimize the economic burden of the universities and teachers and students can do work from home as regular practice. This type of learning will also make the student a more independent learner, and will save commuting hours for both the students and teachers if the class does not have to meet formally.

Universities should extend their collaboration with IT companies for telecommunications applications, such as teleworking and teleconsultation to facilitate academic affairs. It would be a joint adventure between academic institutions and IT companies to produce a positive impact in higher education sector during the national emergency situation.

This re-orientation of Higher Education towards  E-learning requires rigorous and creative solutions. These are unlikely to already exist ‘in-house’.

The problem should be opened up by inviting interested university educationists and IT experts from the private companiesto a ‘brain-storming’ conference hosted by the HEC to seek suggestions for transforming the current, exclusively, physical system to online.

Solutions are to be looked for in both the short- and long-term. Meanwhile, individual universities are expected to try out, within their capabilities, e-learning trials. These trials outcomes would be collated by the HEC to set up a solid information base for the longer-term national E-learning project.