Online learning became a growing trend worldwide during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: RTHK

The Covid-19 pandemic has morphed the entire education system of the world into a digital landscape. Online classes are either in the offing or already taking the place of traditional teaching methods in several countries.

However, in Pakistan, the decision to focus on e-learning has caused protests across the country. Student organizations have begun demanding suspension of online classes. 

On the other hand, the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the federal body that regulates educational affairs in Pakistan, has been adamant about initiating online classes at any cost. However, the HEC does not seem to have any viable policy. Student protests, in response, are growing.

Both the HEC and protesting students have legitimate concerns. The former is haunted by a growing academic gap and the latter have been crying foul over starting online classes without adequate Internet facilities. 

Unfortunately, like while already facing political, social and human-rights issues, Pakistan’s geographically largest province has been at the butt end in terms of reaping benefits from a lucrative digital policy. Despite availability of 4G facilities in the country, Balochistan has a dilapidated cellular infrastructure. In a broader view, the security perspective in the province has been the cause of Internet suspension in most of the remote areas. 

In April, the HEC called on the universities to prepare a feasible digital ground for transferring education activities online. According to the HEC, 30% of the complaints it received were related to inaccessibility to the Internet. Most of the complaints were received from remote areas that lacked Internet facilities, including far-flung areas of Balochistan.  

Similarly, there are risks involved in transforming a traditional education system into a digital one in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, even the most developed countries, including the United States, have faced a digital divide after initiating online education given the closure of educational institutions across the country.

In Pakistan the digital ground is not as sophisticated as it is in developed countries. And because of a lack of data, finding a possible solution to the issue of online classes might be difficult.

Apart from this, in 2014, according to a survey, 87% of households in Pakistan owned mobile phones but only 6.8% had Internet connections. Since then, the connectivity ratio has increased steadily. According to DATAREPORTAL, a global digital think-tank, from 2019 to 2020, Internet usage in Pakistan has increased by 17% (11 million users added). The number of Internet users is 76.38 million in the country, whereas Internet penetration stands at 35% currently. 

Nevertheless, the pendulum of the issue of online classes swings freely, hitting both students and the HEC hard. The HEC lacks a viable plan that could meet the needs of students living in remote areas of the country. Lack of accessibility to the Internet will lead to a big academic gap among students who are missing online classes. Simultaneously, suspension of online classes will lead to an increasing academic burden on students when educational activities return to normalcy. 

The ball, at the moment, is in the court of the provincial governments, rather than the central government. One of the largest public-sector engineering universities in Balochistan has assured students that it will take up their issue with district administrations in order to provide them with a public place with high-speed Internet connection facility.

This could be a solution to end the educational impasse between the HEC and students. If the provincial governments are successful in providing students with designated public places with high-speed Internet connections, the academic gap will decrease drastically. However, a lack of serious attempts to resolve the issue will lead to an increased academic burden after the educational wheel starts moving on a routine basis. 

Ayaz Khan

Ayaz Khan is a freelance journalist and researcher from Pakistan and a member of Climate Tracker Asia. He is also a digital media fellow at Massachusetts University Amherst. He tweets at @Ayaz_Jurno.