Access To Higher Education Online: Inequalities And Digital Divide

Only 38 percent of the population uses broadband internet, mostly in cities that hardens access to higher education online

Access To Higher Education Online: Inequalities And Digital Divide

With the growing evidence that we must live with COVID-19 for a foreseeable future, the universities of Pakistan are increasingly shifting to online teaching and access to higher education. Easier said than done; insufficient digital infrastructure, lack of training among faculty and students to use online technologies and costly subscription to the required software are but few of the challenges that universities are facing.

Though urban area universities have been quick to respond and adapt, universities having students from rural and remote areas are struggling to catch up.

Technological inequality and digital divide before Covid-19 poses a huge challenge of access. Even with Tele-density, or the penetration of telecom facilities per 100 households, is currently at 78 percent, only 38 percent of the population uses broadband internet, mostly in cities. Some of the rural and remote regions of Pakistan have no electricity and little to no access to the internet.

Typically, public sector universities have reserved seats for the population of these remote regions. With students sent packing with the onset of COVID-19, many students cannot access access to higher education online classrooms due to unavailability of the internet.

Ms. Lala Rukh, Lecturer at the University of Swat in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, emphasizes, “online system for remote areas like Swat is like trying to make the fish learn to live without water.

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Sporadic internet coverage, lack of computer proficiency and especially among female students, it’s challenging to conduct online classes. In various university institutes, we don’t even have due number of chairs for the students. Under such circumstances, going online and developing a digital infrastructure is challenging to say the least.”

Ms. Mehjabeen Hameed, Assistant Professor of Botany at Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University, Balochistan, reinforces, “at a personal level, online classes have been easy for me to teach as compared to face-to-face classes. However, it has been difficult to make my students understand complex topics. Besides, due to electricity access problems, students of remote areas have been missing online classes.

Though some areas of Balochistan are solar powered, internet access is not available. Similarly, in some areas, the internet is available albeit with broken and unstable access to higher education, not able to support most of the online portals. Most of the students studying in Quetta belong to rural and impoverished areas of Balochistan such as Turbat, Gwadar, Pasni Panjgoor, Zhob, Moosakhail, Loralai, Qilasaifullah, Dukki, Nasirabad, and Sibi where internet facility is either rare or none.”

Not all students, coming from poor families, can afford to buy internet data and thus are excluded. Besides, family dynamics, shared spaces due to joint family systems or inadequate living spaces make it harder to concentrate or attend classes peacefully

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Affordability also matters as huge volumes of internet data are required to attend online classes. Not all students, coming from poor families, can afford to buy internet data and thus are excluded. Besides, family dynamics, shared spaces due to joint family systems or inadequate living spaces make it harder to concentrate or attend classes peacefully.

In addition, just like many other countries, the university teachers, all of them, never had due training and skills to undertake online classes. In many ways, it has been a rollercoaster to deal with the new technology, learners, home-based working and maintaining work-life balance for the university teachers based in urban areas.

Ms. Anam Fatima, Lecturer, Department of Architectural Engineering, University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, says, “Online teaching requires a lot of ‘time-bound commitment’. If the course is already taught in-person, it can still be challenging to decide how to convert the activities into an effective online format to make students understand thoroughly.”

Mr. Mubasher Nazir, Assistant Professor, University of the Punjab also points out, “the biggest issue is adaptability. We, the faculty as well as the students are not used to these online platforms. The level of engagement through real interactions cannot be replaced with audio-video connection.”

Though teachers are trying to adapt to online teaching, and many find it more suitable for sharing course materials, reflective participation in the online discussion, and formative feedback from the instructor, they are learning to deals with the limitations of softwares as well.

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A few softwares or online platforms, for instance, are not interactive; while others have not been fully developed in terms of navigation, privacy and user control.

Despite hurdles, technological glitches and financial constraints, it is promising to see universities in large metropolitans are shifting to online teaching.

Dr. Muhammad Rizwan Riaz, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore asserts, “Even though it is not systematic at the moment, yet it can be considered a blessing in disguise that due to lockdown, a major technological shift has happened in the lives of our educated people.

People will use technology in the future especially for arranging webinars and research meetings which were totally unknown to most of our faculty in the recent past.

Now everyone will think that instead of calling an external examiner/expert from some other city/province, it is convenient to conduct an online meeting instead. In Japan, I remember it was common for professors to ask for sharing screens using Skype and rehearse presentations. It’s encouraging that people will also know and utilize these options in Pakistan as well.”

With Covid-19 on the horizon, the government of Pakistan should invest in building information technology infrastructure for reducing the digital divide. This would help reduce inequality and build an inclusive society essential for sustainable development.

Originally published at Daily times

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