Teaching and learning through the pandemic 

Teaching and learning through the pandemic 

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One cannot stop wondering how widely and deeply the coronavirus and its new fast spreading variant, omicron, has affected the world economy, the work place, education, and our lives and freedoms. The scientists warn we may expect more strains to come and advise preparations for the worst. Two years ago, all of us were absorbed into the cycles of our daily lives— home, office, institution, factory or business. Parks, playgrounds, museums, places of workshop and markets everywhere had the uninterrupted routine of life. All of it stumbled to a sudden halt in Februar 2020.
Like other institutions, our university was following a regular academic calendar and happened to be around the middle of the spring semester. As government orders came to lock down, we began to explore which online teaching and learning platforms could suit our institutional needs. In a global rush for access to such tools that were being used mainly for meetings, choices were limited, and equally costly. The real challenge was training faculty and students by running crash programs, obtaining enough licenses and integrating them into a complex system of evaluation and records.
Innovations in the field of information technology, the availability of broadband Internet services-- though slower in rural areas-- and global connectivity greatly reduced the transition cost and time. Within weeks, we were back to conducting classes online, arranging meetings, tutorials and holding weekly office hours. Having been caught off-guard, the administration, faculty, staff and students geared up into emergency mode, and things began to roll again but very differently both in procedures and quality. What we thought would be a temporary problem has lasted two full years, and we are not out of the online arrangements fully as yet.

The academic world has lived through its longest period of anxiety and uncertainty, and has faced interruptions, finding it hard to impart quality instructions effectively.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais 

Many academic institutions of higher learning around the world, and also in Pakistan, allowed students to come back with the beginning of the spring semester last week, but have drastically reduced the number of courses that can be offered face-to-face. We are in a hybrid mode still, watching the infection rates nationally and on campuses and taking decisions accordingly. The academic world has lived through its longest period of anxiety and uncertainty, and has faced interruptions, finding it hard to impart quality instructions effectively.
As going back to the ‘old normal’ looks uncertain, we have tried several coping strategies to compensate for in-class education. The problem is the virtual classroom offers no substitute of real learning that has traditionally taken place in an institutional setting.
Vacating campuses and leaving the social and cultural life of the university has not been easy for young students. Rather, it has been stressful for all of us owing to general chaos and fear that the virus caused around us. The number of students requiring counselling and psychiatric help went up many folds and some of the institutions that I know of had to hire more help to manage the flow of patients. In order to graduate on time and get into the job market, students were compelled to take the regular load of courses. But away from cities, the Internet wouldn’t work, and if it did, power outages and weak signals and problems of accessibility to the electronic learning resources of the university added to their stress.
Seeing students under considerable strain and pressure, the teachers had to lower standards, and even lower supervisory guards, as they proved to be ineffective while we operated from remote places. During this time, we witnessed questionable practices of ‘academic assistance’ for hire, another word for plagiarism and ghost essay writers grow exponentially. With ineffective evaluation instruments, like online examinations, we found students far ahead of the technologies that could catch copying and collaboration. Even when we applied in some cases, it raised moral questions, as there was a huge space for the benefit of the doubt.
Campuses that were once full of life— festivities over the weekends, supports, distinguished lectures, seminars and conferences, suddenly became ghost towns. After mass vaccination and a degree of confidence, we are back to restart it all over again, but find our environment vastly changed. Only a very small number of courses can be offered in-class, and that is also subject to change anytime, if and when infections grow and on-campus medical cares facilities run out of space.
Normalizing learning and teaching in the time of a global pandemic remains a big challenge even for the best and better-funded institutions in the world. Pakistan constrained by resources with limited budgets for higher education in the public sector, one of the lowest in the region, offers dim prospects for reviving higher education back to its conventional pattern.

- Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais 

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