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THESE are perilous times. The entire human race is in a state of war against an invisible, implacable, and lethal enemy. There is no cure in sight. Health systems in many places are overwhelmed. The toll of infection as well as mortality is rising exponentially. Not only has the pandemic placed our life and health in jeopardy, it has what Henry Kissinger calls “society-dissolving effects”. Our supply lines are cut, our production and distribution systems locked down, policy processes interrupted, schools and universities closed, and our very ability to respond to the crisis compromised. While the task of reversing the spread of the virus is urgent and hopefully temporary, the societal impacts are likely to last for generations.
It is a battle on two fronts. On the one hand, people need to isolate themselves to halt the spread of the virus. On the other hand, people need to re-emerge and reassemble as rapidly as possible to restart stalled systems.
Universities reflect this dilemma. They bring thousands of people together every day, which makes them exceptionally vulnerable to the spread of the disease. 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. Pakistani society has already paid a high price because of past disruptions in academic activities.
Since the advent of the crisis, policies of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) have been driven by these two imperatives. Support the government’s efforts to halt the spread of the disease, and start the effort to minimise academic disruption. Fortunately, online interaction provides a vehicle for doing so. Accordingly, HEC has asked universities to prepare themselves to transition to online classes and online interaction as quickly as possible.
There are other reasons for the urgency as well. We do not know how long the crisis will last. Some studies on epidemic curve modeling estimate that the lockdowns may last anywhere until September, including in countries with similar virus trajectories and lockdown dates as ours. The current lockdown of universities is in place until May 31, but no one can tell how long it will be needed for. If it extends beyond May 31, students will risk losing their semester.
Also, the current pandemic is likely to lead to a fundamental restructuring of the global economy, similar to those that took place after world wars, depressions, or earlier pandemics. While it is not possible to predict the precise shape of the future economy, there is near unanimity over the central role that information technology and virtual interaction will play in it.
The decision to shift to online classes has come under a lot of criticism. Some argue that students should be promoted without studying or evaluation. Others complain about the quality of the courses and connectivity challenges faced by students from remote areas. Yet others want to enjoy a vacation. There may also be an undercurrent of anxiety about a new mode of interaction.
One can understand, and even forgive, the desire of some people to stay out of this struggle. However, the vast majority of students and faculty members are eager to make good use of their time, continue with the education, and contribute to national efforts. HEC has been working hard to try to find such solutions.
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.
It is true that the quality of many online courses being offered currently is quite mediocre. If nothing is done about them right away, they will remain in this state even after June. To make a start on the question of quality, HEC has introduced the concept of “online readiness”.
Vice chancellors have been requested to proceed with online classes if and only if they can certify personally that six key elements are “online ready”: (a) University Readiness, i.e., an effective and operational learning management system (LMS) as well as an oversight body responsible for certifying courses as online ready; (b) Faculty Readiness, i.e., faculty members have gone through training in online teaching before allowed to teach such a course; (c) Course Readiness i.e., all key information about a course is available on the LMS; (d) Library Readiness i.e., all course readings and assignments are available through online means; (e) Technology Readiness i.e., the technology needed for delivering online classes is ready for deployment; and (f) Student Readiness i.e., students are assisted in overcoming any obstacles they may have in accessing the classes and materials.
HEC has introduced a 4-point programme to address connectivity: (1) Taleem Bundle is being negotiated with Telcos to arrange subsidised internet access for students; (2) Delivery Modes to cater to diverse needs of students, including shorter duration classes, data-light options, and both synchronous and asynchronous modes (i.e., placement of all course content on the internet); (3) Offline Mode i.e., a system under which course materials can be distributed locally through CDs or other storage mediums; and (4) Student Facilitation Committees at each university to address connectivity problems faced by students from remote areas.
Today, a digital device, be it a computer, a tablet, or a smart phone, is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. Universities have to make these a requirement, and for those who cannot afford one, arrange scholarships or student loans to enable them to do so.
As the old saying goes, one should hope for the best and be prepared for the worst. If lockdown restrictions are lifted by early June, universities can return to business as usual, but if there are further delays, there will be no choice except either to switch to online education or to abandon the semester (and probably more).
This is needed not only for the short-run response to the virus but also the long-run response to the disruption that will follow. The objective is not only to cope with the current exigency, however long it lasts, but to harness the energies and passions of our youth to address and overcome the challenges we will face after the crisis has subsided. To give them the tools and the experiences that will enable them to survive in, and indeed, thrive in the economy that emerges from the ashes of this one. It is a noble cause and we hope that our younger generation will lead us in achieving it.
The writer is chairman of Higher Education Commission
Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2020