Online Education and E-learning in GB-Threats and Opportunities

(Engr. Prof. Dr. Attaullah Shah, Vice Chancellor KIU)
Impacts of COVID- 19 on various sectors: The Novel Corona Virus and its infection COVID-19 has played an unprecedented havoc with the world. The number of infections and casualties due to this great public health crisis and pandemic are unparalleled in the living human memory. Today more than 2,50,000 people have died whereas more than 2.5 Million have been infected with this lethal disease. The term “ New Normal” has been coined by the experts for the post COVID-19 world. IMF, World Bank and other international Financial institutes have given the estimated impact of 10% less than projected Global GDP, which can amount to USD 9-10 trillion decrease. In Pakistan, the GDP growth has been projected to reduce to 1.5% or in worst conditions, it can be even negative. The economic depression will have severe impact on the global employment as the unemployment will reach 10% and according ILO, one of the four employees will be rendered as jobless. Only in US, the unemployed will be more than 10 million as the immediate impact of COVID-19, which can double in the next 2-3 years. The financial impact will further worsen as the world will take at least 3-4, more months to recover from the disease. The major sectors which have been affected due to this crisis include oil sector, hospitality and Tourism sector, Education sector, Hotel industry, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) etc.
Impact of COVID-19 on Education and Sectors:The education sector has also received the brunt of COVID-19. The Spring Semester 2020, normally starts from Feb-March 2020 in most of the Higher Education Institutes in Pakistan. At the same time, the SCC and HSC exams were scheduled in March-May, 2020. Hence a major amount of the HEIs revenue to the tune of 25% of annual revenue was planned to be collected during March-June, 2020. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 in the Chinese City of Wuhan and its spread to other parts of the world and assuming the Pandemic situations, all the educational institution in the country were closed initially till 31st May,2020 and now extended till 15th July,2020. This has certainly created further frustration as today majority of the public sectors higher education institutes are not in a position to pay the salaries of their staff for the next two month of the Current Financial year (2019-2020). In this regard HEC needs to immediately take up the case for special bailout package of an additional 50% of the normal allocation to all HEIs. The policy of the HEC and the Federal Government has yet to bring any such solution to solve the crisis looming over all HEIs.
The role of HEC and Federal Education department during this period remained very active and effective to promote two important policies. Firstly, about the safety and security of Students and Employees of University during the COVID-19 and Secondly, alternate teaching, learning and assessment systems at all Universities in wake of continuous closure of the Universities to save the time of the students. In this context, Chair HEC has been involving all the Universities leadership of public and private sectors, well before the lock down was enforced. The first ever meeting of VCs Committee a representative body of the VCs of all public & private HEIs, to discuss the COVID-19 and the requisite preventive and awareness measures was held on 6th of March, 2020. This was the time, when various options were on the cards with the Federal Government as the epidemic had already crossed out the Chinese boundaries to the neighboring countries.Soon the Federal Government decided to close the Schools, Colleges and Universities till the end of May,2020 in the first phase. After closure of the Universities, the thrust of HEIs shifted to the continuation of teaching and learning process of the students of HEIs, through various combinations of online, offline, distances and E-learning modes, which is sometimes called as Blended Learning. The chances of opening of HEIs by 31st May, 2020 were never more than 50% as often alluded by the Chair HEC, hence the policy of “Pray for the Best but Plan for the worst” was adopted from the inception of the problem. The latest announcement of the Federal Government to extend the closure of educational institutes is not surprising but its impacts are manifold on HEIs. Hence in the new scenario an option of Online Classes and blended learning remain a hope to save the time of students and avert financial collapse of KIU at the other hand. Before elucidating the HEC Online Education Policy and the threats and opportunities at GB, it will be more appropriate to give a brief history of Open and Distance Leaning and Online Education.
History of Open and Distance Learning and Online Education: Open & Distance Learning (ODL) and non-formal education system remained an alternate mode of educating for the masses in developed and developing countries since 19th century. The impact of ODL on higher education is more than 100 years old. The University of Chicago initiated its first College level distance learning program and the students exchanged their assignments through US postal services. The live audio shows were used for teaching in 1921 in USA. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) issued radio licenses to about 200 intuitions till 1945, including University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin and University of Salt Lake City. The FCC later instituted TV licenses for broadcasting educational material in 1963 which was named as “Instructional Television Fixed Services (ITFS). The first license of this kind was requested by University of California State. The infusion of Radio-TV broadcasting into dissemination of media based education created a big impact of ODL and most of such programs were focused on continuous development and capacity building. The advent of networks and internets in the computer science and IT in early 90’s, transformed the learning system in general and ODL in particular.

Berner Lee created World Wide Web (www) in 1991, which proved as a catalyst for the dissemination of the ODL through information superhighway later named as “Internet”, in early 2000’s, the initiative of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for creating Open access courseware. In the first decade of 21st century, online education has been adopted by large number of colleges. The share of online education increased from 39% in 2008 to 42% in 2009, thereby showing growing trends of Online Education.One of the inherent challenge of ODL has been active and real time interaction with the students. In the second decade of this century, ODL has become more interactive with the use of modern multimedia and simulation tools, creating virtual class room environment, thereby motivating the students to become connected to effective learning and delivery systems. This has enhanced the reliability and consistency of ODL as it has been treated equally accredited and accepted qualification and education in most parts of the world. In next two decades, the virtual education will become a more visible reality as the physical socialization will be changed to virtual socialization by the new “Tele-generation”. The high dependence of the new breed of Tele-generation will be on the education through virtual and online modes. Hence technology, interactive tools, highly modern contents and delivery mix will keep on redefining the ODL and Virtual Education with every new day.

HEC Policy of Online Education during COVID-19:The HEC policy of Online Educationreadiness has been based on two important pillars, the Institutional Readiness and Class/course readiness. The policy guidelines have been elaborated through a series of meetings of the expert committees. The salient features of the System/Intuitional readiness are given as follows:

i. University readiness: This relates to governance of the Online Education as this mode of non-traditional system is intertwined with many inherent challenges, hence a comprehensive governance system must be deployed before initiating the Online Education. This system is comprised of three elements i.e. Standard Operation Procedures for launching, quality assurance and review of the online courses. The second component is Learning Management System as an IT interface to act as virtual classroom and thirdly a governance structure to approve the courses and curriculum for offering of online courses which has been referred as Online Academic Council (OAC) by HEC.
ii. Library Readiness: This plays an important role for access of students to various library E-resources during learning process. HEC has already developed a large volume of E-resources which is accessible through E-library to all Universities. The Pakistan Education and Research Network (PERN) an initiative of HEC, provide a reliable internet access to such resources. Additionally, distance drives and data bases can be managed by HEI from Open Access Resources and downloads of free learning material, which can serve as virtual library for the students. For Library readiness, the HEI must have developed all these three components.
iii. Technology Readiness: The online education requires, strong technology platform to enable interactive teaching and learning. This technology platform must be used for LMS, which is tested and launched with sizeable success. For arranging classes, various technology tools, like Zoom, MS Teams, Google Hangout etc. are available but the faculty staff and Students must have good access and knowledge of these tools. The digital contents of library as already explained must be tested for retrieval and access.
iv. Evaluation (Tests, Quizzes, Exams etc.) This is one of the major challenges in terms of reliability, relevance, security and transparency. Since majority of the traditional assessments are based on verbose and descriptive questions and answers, therefore, arranging of online assessments and evaluation should remain a major challenge. The various options can be online assignments, MCQs, Case study analysis, presentations, text books based question papers etc. Again the grading policy and rules for the assessment can be different for such systems. This part is further being evaluated by HEC in collaboration with renowned IT Universities where such kinds of systems are already in vogue. Today, the world has made sizeable improvement on the reliable online assessments.

The second part of the HEC Online Education Readiness is Class/Course readiness. This is the reflection of System readiness with more focus on the class and course delivery. The class/course readiness has the following components:

i. Course Readiness: Important attributes of the course readiness Course objectives, Course Learning Outcomes, Weekly teaching and assessment plan, Lectures, recommended books and availability pf at least one book as E-resource, grading system, online class rules and discipline, attendance system and other logistics. More important is customization of these resources as E-resources. To ensure this, a department E-Learning committee will be required which will apply the initial checks and recommend the courses for approval of the OAC. This is more like digitalizing the traditional course file of the teacher.
ii. Faculty Readiness; Faculty is the soul for the quality assurance of any educational system both formal and informal. In Online Education, the skills set required for teaching and assessment are more than the traditional classroom teaching and that’s why major resistance initially comes from the faculty. This would require their capacity building for E-learning, revision of courses to customize it to the online delivery mechanism and timely response to the students’ problems (Online Students Counselling)
iii. Lab Readiness; This is one of the major challenges, as the development of psychomotor (Skills) and affective domain (Attitude) would require practical and demonstrations in actual and real environment. This is becoming more challenging in the practical dominated courses like Computers, Engineering, Technology and Medical & Clinical Sciences. For this purpose, though some tools like MOOCS, Drone usage, simulation modeling are available but their effectiveness is still questioned in countries like Pakistan. One of the proposals is to postpone this component of the courses work till opening of the Universities and only teaching part may be delivered online.
iv. Students Readiness; This has two important aspects, there capacity and their access. The internet speed, availability of the requisite technology gadgets and internet data prices are some of the very important components. Another important aspect is the online students’ services during troubleshooting on real time basis. This is supposed to be the major challenge in the GB.
KIU Endeavors for Online Education (A learning Experience):Based on my earlier interventions in online education and Open & Distance Learning (ODL) at Allama Iqbal Open University and later at City University of Science and IT Peshawar, E-Leaning Management System (E-LMS) and Campus Automation has been one of my major seven priorities at KIU. While workingclosely with my team, we have been developing various versions of E-LMS, mainly for its integration with new Outcome Based Education (OBE) philosophy of the teaching, learning and assessment. Soon after the spread of COVID-19 and meeting of the VCs committee at Islamabad, we constituted three important committees, Safety Committee, IT task Force for E-Learning & Online Education and Academic Planning and Review Committee. The Safety committee has been working mainly with the GB and Federal Governments to develop the response and mitigation plans against COVID-19 for safety and protection of students, faculty and staff. The IT Task force was assigned the two major tasks. To improve and enhance the capacity of LMS for E-learning & Online education and improvement of connectivity, through online class rooms and collaboration with the SCO. Dr. Aftab Khan Chair Computer Science Department has been assigned to lead the former, whereas Director IT is heading the latter group. The status of the readiness of the KIU for the online education based on the HEC developed policy guidelines is given in the SWOT (Strength Weaknesses, opportunities and Threats) as follows:
Strengths of the of E-Learning and Online Education at KIU:
The strengths of KIU and department of Computer Science are many for the E-learning and Online Education. The department of computer Science at KIU has been established even before initiating of the KIU through Presidential Order in 2002, as it was functioning under IT department. The department offers four degree programs of BS in Computer Science, BS Software Engineering, BS IT and BS GIS and Remote Sensing. It is one of the largest departments in terms of students’ body. The qualified PhD faculty with their diverse experience in Software development, machine learning, Information Technology in Education and GIS Remote Sensing make a good strength for new development and innovation in the field of Information and Communications Technologies. The graduates of the CS department are working across in the country in different IT and development companies. Some of them have also established their Software Houses. The networking and strong intranet within the KIU Campus and full-fledged IT department provides a reasonable service of internet through the HEC initiated Pakistan Education and Research Network (PERN). The strong collaboration with the Special Communication Organization (SCOM), has enabled a reliable high speed internet across the campus. The young energetic and technology smart faculty are relatively better educated in the use of IT skills as they have mostly completed their PhDs in last 8-10 years, having relatively better exposure of modern IT tools in teaching and learning. They are in the age range of 35-45, which is considered to be a highly productive age bracket for the academics in terms of their teaching and research. A good number of CS department graduates in Software Engineering are also collaborating with the KIU for development of various systems, which is also a good strength of the University. Based on these strength, KIU is collaborating with SCO for establishing of Technology Park through Federal Government IGNITE Funding and SCO-KIU joint Venture Technical Training Institute. Based on these facts, it can be assumed with considerable degree of confidence that the internal readiness of the KIU exists. This readiness is further judged on the basis of HEC provided guidelines:
i. For online delivery of courses, the Standard Operating Procedure (Sop) is being developed and the Senior Most Dean has been given the task as Convener of the committee to develop the same for approval of the Statutory forum. This committee was also act as Open and Distance Learning Cell at KIU
ii. The Online Academic Council has been constituted to approve the courses to be offered online, which will be chaired by the Vice Chancellor
iii. An operation, interactive and dynamic Learning Management System (LMS) has been developed by the Technology Team and has been standardized. The LMS provides a flexible, reliable and secured domain for the faculty, students and staff. The trial based online classes have been initiated till 31st May,2020.
iv. The faculty and staff have been trained intensively on the use of IT tools such as Google Meet, Zoom, MS Teams etc. Their interest in online classes has been increased substantially and a good number of faculty are offering classes online during the trail period.
v. Virtual Private Network (VPN) has been established and the students can access the virtual resource from outside the campus as well.
vi. For online Counselling and troubleshooting in the classes, IT Help Desk has been established and the link has been provided at KIU website and LMS to address the students queries on real time basis.
Weakness of the KIU for E-learning and Online Educations:
i. Poor capacity of the students and Library Services for online education and E-learning: Majority of the students at KIU comes from low income background and their earlier education has been completed in the public sector schools and colleges, with poor knowledge of IT. This can be improved through better coaching. The good thing is that majority of the students are using their cell phones for web streaming, use of social media etc.; which shows their high interest in use of these gadgets.
ii. The Library system at KIU has been mainly based on traditional system of hard books with very low emphasis over the E-learning and E-library. This is mainly due to the poor capacity of the majority of Library staff. This has been improved though strengthening the role of Library committee and developing E-resources Archives in recent past. For online classes more E-resources are archived and stored for access of the students and faculty. At the same time the access to E-library is also being enhanced through VPN.
iii. There are no well-defined online and E-assessment protocols developed at KIU. The faculty of education lacks the expertise in E-content development and Assessments. However, they are working with HEC and other stakeholders like Aga Khan University, VU and COMSAT, to develop online assessment and evaluation system. A committee under Dean of Faculty of Social Science has been constituted to develop a reliable mechanism for online assessment and exams. This may include Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs) data base, E-assignments, E-exams, Project reports, Case Study analysis etc.
Opportunities of Online Education for KIU and GB:
i. The geographic and demographic diversity of GB makes, it an ideal region for experimenting the E-learning and Online education, as access to the remotest part of the region through formal face to face modes will always remain a challenge. Hence a blended system of E-learning, Online and Open & Distant Learning has to be crafted to reach the unreached.
ii. In present circumstances, when the Spring Semester couldn’t start due to COVID-19 and continuous closure of KIU for more than 4 months, since the winter vacations, the future of the students is at high risk. Even after opening of the University after 15 July, 2020 due to threat of rebound of the pandemic, physical distancing has to be ensured and the formal classes to the masses will be a challenge. In such cases, a blended model of online/E-learning and face to face would work in future for many years to come. The post COVID-19, world has set new normal in all aspects of life. Hence E-learning would appear as a strong portal for alternate delivery and assessment in higher education as well as elementary education. Today only those Universities in Pakistan could survive the current crisis, who have already developed and matured their ODL System. This will also enable the KIU to avert financial disaster in the wake of COVID-19, where a large volume of the KIU fee revenue has been stuck-up.
iii. E-leaning,Online Education and ODL can provide a flexible platform for the skill development programs, direly needed in the GB in the context of CPEC projects. The ODL portal can provide a flexible option for the capacity building of masses in GB
iv. The private education of 2 year programs of BA and MA has been discontinued by HEC but at the same time they are considering to develop and announce ODL policy and allow the Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) very soon to use it for the education o private students. Hence a well-designed and deployed ODL system will create more opportunities for the KIU to extend its teaching and learning services more widely to GB and beyond the mountain communities of neighboring countries including Afghanistan, Central Asia and even China.
Threats to the E-learning and Online Education in GB
i. The obvious challenge to the E-learning and ODL in GB is the availability of quality connectivity of the networks and internet facilities in terms of speed and connectivity. A large part of the GB is still not connected to the internet and cellular service. At the same time the speed of the internet well below the rest of the country which is typically in the range of 2G and 3G. With this speed, the video streaming and synchronous mode connectivity becomes the biggest challenge. According to recent survey conducted by the IT Task Force KIU, only 25% of the GB is covered by internet but their reliability and availability is event then a challenge, as the long hours of electricity outages further restrict the available services. KIU has been working very closely with the SCO to further improvement of the services in the region and areas where access is limited. There doesn’t seem a shortcut to this problem as the difficult terrain of GB makes both the huge investment in extension of the services and quality in the region is an uphill task. During latest meeting of the Vice Chancellor KIU with the Director General SCO Maj General Farhan Ali, it was assured by SCO leadership that the services will be further enhanced and subsidized data and voice packages will be provided to the students. The Sector Commander of SCO Col M.Saqib has also been providing his assistance. To solve this problem, blended learning model can also be offered in which digitized study material can be developed for use of the students and the selected study centers can be used for the teaching in synchronous and asynchronous modes. Furthermore, with more advancement of the technologies better internet services can be provided in near future, with special reference to optic fiber connectivity through CPEC links.
ii. The cultural constraints of GB to adopt the modern technologies are again natural as the region is in the phase of technological transformation and this process will take some time. One thing is really very interesting to note that the use of internet and social media in GB is increasing exponentially since last few years and the young generation are highly motivated for this transformation process. A number of schools and colleges are also approaching KIU for developing LMS and Online Education portals for them, which shows the needs at their end also.
iii. The non-availability of suitable IT gadget is also a problem but the survey shows that more than 75% students have access to IT equipment for their use in internet and social media.
Open & Distance and Learning, E-learning, Non-Formal Education and Blended Learning and has been facing the challenge of adoptability since its inception, yet majority of the students around the world are using it either as supplementary (Alternate) source of learning or complementary (Supportive) source of learning. The number of students are increasing and reaching the figure of 50% within next 5-10 years. In Pakistan, the technologically advanced Universities of both public and private sectors, have been utilizing the ODL and Blended Learning as an alternate source of education for many years. Today, the students of these institutes seems less affected by the COVID-19. For us at GB, this a high time to experiment the ODL and Blended Learning to save the future of our students. I will finish with the following quote
“You can’t teach people everything thing they need to know, the best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know and when they need to know” SeymourPap art MIT Mathematician, educator and computer scientist
“Ten years from now it wont really matter what school you attended, whether online or offline education, free or paid, widely known or not, what will matter most is what you learned, the skills you acquired and how you leveraged it. Use every opportunity to better yourself.”― Bernard Kelvin Clive

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