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The dangers inherent in our immediate response to crisis

In less than four weeks, a staggering global lockdown on the homes of one billion children in 190 countries has occurred. According to UNESCO, 1.5 billion children and youth worldwide and nearly 63 million teachers are no longer in their classrooms.

Schools, colleges, universities and all educational institutions are closed for physical presence, affecting more than 90% of the world’s student population. The education sector is defending its turf with inadequate institutional aids and ability.

The digital divide

From developed to the developing world, the education sector is in a state of immediate reaction. From some of the world’s best education systems in developed nations to weaker ones, everyone is in a state of ‘fighting back’ as well as defending their existence and institutional authority.

Students, teachers, educators and policy-makers are trying to react and stabilise in this tornado of confusion and chaos. As a first reaction, many countries have devised online teaching solutions.

On 9 February, nearly 200 million primary and secondary school students in China started their new semester – online. In March, Afghanistan’s president asked India to make a satellite available to Afghan residents to assist with online education. In April, the Pakistan government launched two new educational TV channels ‘Tele Taleem’ and ‘Taleem Ghar’ in Punjab, which are expected to reach more than 60 million schoolchildren across the country.

While online education appears to be the only choice these days, it is also seen as an attack on equality as many learners and teachers lack access to the internet. If this is the only solution for some time, what will happen to digitally poor countries as well as the pockets of populations who do not have access to electricity and high bandwidth internet?

According to UNESCO, half of the total number of learners – some 826 million students – kept out of the classroom by the pandemic do not have access to a household computer and 43% (706 million) have no internet at home.

While most countries in the Global North are continuing education at home through online learning, South Asia faces additional challenges due to limited connectivity, with only 33% of people in the region having access to the internet.

Access to both radio and television is limited in some parts of the region. For example, only 35% of rural Nepal has access to television. Irina Rumpa, a fourth-year engineering student in Dhaka, Bangladesh, shared her frustration, saying: “I am an engineering student who needs extensive hands-on education. I did not pay BDT15,500 [US$182] for a single course to learn things from YouTube videos.”

In Pakistan, fewer than 20% of the population had smartphones and barely 25% of the population had internet access in 2019. Thousands of students in Pakistan are resisting taking online classes – #werejectonlineeducation was the top trending hashtag in Pakistan in March.

Emad Baig, a student in Chitral Valley, said: “I don’t have a mobile network. I have to travel for a long time to take online classes, which is a very difficult task.”

The University Grants Commission in India has admitted that India lacks the required ‘mechanism’ to hold online exams during lockdown.

Similarly, around 200 universities in Pakistan are struggling to develop the capacity and infrastructure to improve the skills of teaching faculty as an emergency measure. The digital divide does not exist in developing countries only, however. In a country like the United States more than three million students do not have access to the internet at home.

Time to move beyond reaction and towards resilience

The conventional ways of teaching and learning have suddenly been discarded as the operating procedures of attendance, assessment, grading, admission and graduation have all become irrelevant or have been replaced by digital platforms. The educational content floodgates have been opened by educational institutions and learning platforms and there is a risk of losing context in this overspill of content.

Like almost every game ever conceived it seems the world will have a new batch of winners and losers. This time the rules of the game may be prone to natural selection and follow a new adaptable and flexible script. Agility is winning over size; technology is replacing tradition.

Flexibility is the only way of survival – letting go of the ‘rules’ and setting up new ways of imparting education.

A director in Pakistan’s National University of Sciences and Technology said that his university is learning to be “more flexible, open, innovative and agile” than they could have imagined earlier. Admissions and graduations are being offered on flexible terms and fees are being reduced.

Graduating medical students in Harvard Medical School in the US have been given the opportunity to help in hospitals.

This focus on immediacy has made schools and universities behave in a very reactive way that may not be as resilient as it needs to be. Education must be responsive and responsible. Simply switching to online education is just a reactionary response.

A similar analogy is trying malaria medicines on COVID-19 positive cases. They may work or they may not. The risks of them not working will be more far-reaching than we can imagine right now.

The best result would be ‘uniformity of outcomes’ in building a resilient and fairer education offer for all in the longer run. The bigger question is, when will this happen and how?

Nishat Riaz is head of programmes, Pakistan, at the British Council.

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