Online learning in the hinterlands

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Faisal Ahmad Khan

Among the many astounding impacts of Covid-19, conducting online classes in Balochistan is a miracle that has happened. Four months back, it was moronic and unthinkable that a student in Washuk, about 450 km south of Quetta, near the Iranian border will be listening to a virtual lecture and asking fascinating questions in the class. It has all been made possible by the thrust of the pandemic that has triggered many latent potentials worldwide.

It is a treat to witness all of this happening in Balochistan. Each day, teachers in the province are making history by delivering hard-prepared lectures from their homes and transmitting them straight into the smart devices of their students residing in the scattered corners of the province. Thousands of real-time lectures are being transmitted each day via cross-continental servers and finally reaching the smartphones and computers of their students. In case a student misses a lecture, not a problem. Every lecture is recorded and is available in the class portal along with all the handouts and supplementary readings. Some might argue that online learning is a compelling alternative to in-person learning even in places like remote Balochistan.

Students have played the most critical role in making the entire online-learning framework possible. Students, even those with a tenuous mobile internet in the farthest areas of the province, are making history each day. In the midst of infections in their own families and relatives, with electricity supply only for four hours a day in many places, having barely any money to buy internet data, and a smartphone or a computer in the entire household, students have put the unthinkable system to work. Online presence of students has ushered them into newer realms of learning; they are reading materials and case studies from resources at Harvard, MIT, Georgia Tech and the likes. And when they attend the class, they are asking some really ingenious questions that are improving the overall quality of the lecture. Some students have even finally caught up with their deficiencies in math and grade school science by attending MOOCs courses on Coursera, edX and Khan Academy.

All of this is remarkable progress in education in Balochistan. However, celebrating it at this point might be detracting. There is a significant proportion of students who are completely out of the online-learning dominion. And it might be unfair that we head in the direction of using cutting-edge online learning software, learning management systems and more recently even thinking of adopting specialized lecture recording studios, yet we remain oblivious and ineffectual when it comes to including such students into the folds of online learning. The apathy and cold response of the government both at the provincial and federal levels is inconceivable.

There is very little that educational institutes and universities can do to connect the last link in the online learning system for students residing in areas with no internet. The matter has been raised by students themselves with demonstrations and protests in different parts of the province and on social media. A series of discussions and huddles have been held among academic institutions, officials of the provincial and federal government. However, the apathetic outlook of officials from the government in the consultations has resulted in complacence.

While we take the next steps in embracing online learning, we have to reconsider our attitudes when it comes to students from Balochistan and similar regions. With the remarkable power of computing, machine intelligence and software-defined electronics, all students can be brought into the online realm without the need for bulky funding or losing any official protocols for the safety of citizens. Precise connectivity between a student and the lecture portal is possible using the existing technology. Similarly, as an interim solution, the federal and provincial departments mandated in information technology services can also play an important role like establishing internet hotspot centers for students in public libraries and other appropriate government buildings at the sub-division level where students can catch up with lectures and materials on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, educational institutions are improvising for such students like mailing the recorded content on DVDs and on swapping flash drives. Similar efforts are being considered with regards to assessment and examinations to feel for all the students who may be disadvantaged being without the internet.

In spite of all the odds, with or without the support of the government; students, faculty and educational institutions are daring to make the challenging online learning possible. To benefit from all the rewards of online learning now and in the future, the government has to come forward and play their part in realizing the true spirit of online learning in Pakistan.

The author is Pro Vice-Chancellor at Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences (BUITEMS), he can be contacted via his Twitter account @faisalkakar

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