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Students left in the lurch as universities start online classes

Islamabad National

Students left in the lurch as universities start online classes

TP 4 weeks ago
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Islamabad (TP) June 6, 2020: After the long closure caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the refusal by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) to promote students without evaluation and examination, universities formally started online classes from June 1.

With the resumption of the online classes, a large number of university students, especially those living in far-flung areas, have complained about the difficulty in taking classes owing to slow and poor internet service as the HEC, being the regulatory body, seems to have failed to push the universities to comply with the SOPs and guidelines issued for the online classes.

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has allowed universities and degree-awarding institutions to continue teaching for the Spring Semester 2020 by using a variety of distance learning approaches including the internet, one-way or two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, broadband lines, fibre optics, satellite, or wireless communication devices, audio-conferencing, or sharing of CDs for students having no direct internet facility.

The students of tribal areas, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Balochistan have lodged their complained through the social media that they are facing problems in taking online classes due to the poor internet service being provided by different telecom companies and the army-led SCO.

Interestingly, almost without evaluating the preparedness of universities in offering online classes after the training of the faculty staff, the HEC has left the students at the mercy of their respective institutions as several universities have failed to put in place a robust and functional Learning Management System (LMS) for the online classes.

It has become evident after seeing the online complaints of the students on the social media that the systems for recording or disseminating lectures are rudimentary at best and faculty members have either no experience or not fully been trained to take online classes.

Critics say that the technological options have not fully been optimized by the universities nor shared properly with the students. Several universities have started online classes without the “online readiness” SOPs issued by the HEC.

As the part of the Covid-19 SOPs and procedure, the HEC has issued clear policy guidelines for the universities regarding the quality level of online classes, many of them have either failed to comply with the instructions or have not come with a reply to improve the quality of lecture delivery mechanism, creating a digital divide between the students and their respective universities.

HEC Director Media Aayesha Ikram while talking to The Punch said that the regulatory body was aware of the issues being faced by the students in the remote areas and they were in touch with the universities and the telecom companies and the Pakistan army to ensure the internet accessibility to the students.

Answering a question, she said that the universities have been clearly instructed to facilitate the students through online lectures or recorded ones.

When asked since universities have started online classes, if all of them have complied with the HEC directive, and if not, mention the name of the universities which are still working on the directives, Aayesha Ikram said: “There are varying levels of compliance. Every university has made some effort, with response rates ranging from 40 to 90 per cent. We don’t want to single out lagging universities at this stage. Our goal is to try to get every university to keep on improving their performance.”

When asked that since the HEC has issued directives to universities /DAIs for the commencement of online classes, students in remote areas of the country are facing interrupted internet service to take online classes, the HEC director media said: “This has been a major problem, which affects between 7 and 15 per cent of the student body of various universities. The delivery of full Internet services everywhere will take time (and is the responsibility of other branches of the government), but in the meantime, we have introduced other ways in which teachers can deliver their lectures and other educational material to students, including text messaging, WhatsApp, and even emails, phone calls, and TCS. We have also asked telecom companies to offer subsidized packages to students. The vast majority of students, as well as faculty, are trying hard to make this work. Professors report the response rate ranging between the highest of 97 per cent to a low of 65 per cent from the students who are fully engaged. They also face problems, of course, but they are dealing with them heroically.”

Answering the question that while using telecommunication resources, students have mobilized their money/funds to bear the expenses of online classes while the universities have collected a fee from them for the online classes. What kind of relief is being provided to the students by the HEC or the universities, Aayesha Ikram said: “We have asked universities to freeze the semesters of any students, at no extra costs, who do not wish to take online classes. They will not be charged the fees for this semester, and the few they have already paid will be applied to the next semester when the universities reopen. We have also asked the government to provide a student relief package so that low-income students can get relief, and a university relief package so that universities do not go bankrupt. The costs borne by universities are mainly due to salaries of faculty and staff, which remain unchanged in spite of the Covid-19 crisis. Other costs also haven’t changed much; the costs of operations (i.e electricity) are somewhat lower, but the costs of Internet services and online preparation have gone up. Other countries have also provided support to the education sector. At the end of the Covid-19 crisis, no country wishes to wake up to find that their universities have disappeared because of bankruptcy.”

When asked that other than the IT or related field teachers, if any training has been given to the university teachers on the usage of online teaching tools,” the HEC director said: “There are many areas that need support and training, e.g how to prepare a course, how to teach effectively through an online connection, differences between face to face lectures and online lectures, online evaluation systems, the use of the material available online, and many others. There is no need to develop brand new courses on such subjects. Hundreds of courses on these and related topics are available freely. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we have collected some of this information and provided it to universities so that can guide their faculty members.”

When asked that to teach biology, chemistry and some other similar science subjects, neither can teachers teach nor students learnt/understand thoroughly without the lab work and on hands-on-practice, what strategy has been devised to make it practical, Aayesh Ikram said: “Actually, the situation is not as black and white as this. There is a gradation from what is pure “episteme” (i.e knowledge that can be taught through oral instruction in the classroom) to what is called pure “techne” (i.e., material that cannot be learned without practical work). In between, there are various shades of knowledge, including some that need to be taught through practical demonstration, some others that require a different kind of practical engagement (e.g maths), without the use of labs or equipment, etc. In the future, as our classes grow in sophistication, all of these will be taught through multiple methods appropriate for the type of knowledge. Currently, we have asked universities to defer the practical work to later in the summer, when the campuses can be reopened. However, some faculty members have started experimenting with advanced teaching methods on their own.”

Aayesha Ikran, however, said that the HEC was waiting for a response from the military-led SCO vis-à-vis fast and uninterrupted provision of the internet service.

Answering a question, she said that the students cannot be promoted without taking an assessment because allowing so will tantamount to churning out a flock of fake degree holders.

The students complained that the HEC is doing nothing at all in facilitating them and colluding with the university to troll them to pay heavy dues for the useless online classes and online exams despite the fact that they themselves were bearing the cost of the online classes.

Earlier, responding to a question whether universities should promote students without any exam, HEC Chairman Tariq Banuri said in a meeting with the vice-chancellors and rectors of all public and private universities that he purpose of examinations is to reward students for actions that will make them successful in their future lives. Examinations and assessments are an integral part of the teaching process. Attempts to eliminate exams will have severe repercussions for educational quality and student achievement. Only fake degree mills will issue degrees and certificates without verification.”

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