In Focus

Online Education and Web World: Harnessing Vast Potential with Prudence

More than anything that has come before it, the COVID-19 pandemic has spearheaded us into the world of online education faster than ever before. When it all started, the expectation was that this transition to online education would be for a few months and come the start of the new academic year in fall 2020, we will be reverting back to traditional means of teaching in no time. However, that has clearly not been the case for most of the world. Even in Pakistan where there have been fewer cases and most educational institutions did open, some remain closed and online, we are unsure with the rise of the second wave if that will continue to be the case. Now with the expectation of vaccine approval in the next few months, we might think that this will be all over soon, yet, what experts are telling us that mass vaccinations may take until the end of 2021 and beyond. What this has meant is for online education to be thrust again into the mainstream. 


It is not hard to imagine a school in a rural area with permanent work stations where students go and get the best teaching available from the best teachers from metropolitan cities. This can be supplemented with discussions and interactions of students across a vast strata of Pakistani society, helping to boost integration and understanding and combating inequality at least in the area of education. At university level it allows students to take courses from world renowned universities and interact with students across the world. The possibilities in this one domain are endless.


The internet is free (mostly!), and as part of that freedom the problem is that there are no gatekeepers of knowledge. Anyone can say anything they want and anyone can listen to what they have said. This has resulted in disinformation and misinformation being spread even in the realm of education.


It is said that crises have a way of accelerating growth and making us take decisions that would have otherwise taken a long time – an example is the rapid increase in security related checks across the world after 9/11. The same has happened with online education in a different way. There was always a reluctance to try it, arguments were made on why it isn’t effective or why the traditional experience is better. However, COVID has forced all of us to try it in one way or another – as parents, as teachers, as students and as observers. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that the last 6 months have been the biggest experiment in online education in the history of the world.
I, personally, carried the same qualms about online education. I thought it would be too inferior a product and that it could never stand up to the real experience. Change is hard to accept and adopt, specially the longer something has been done a certain way, and the way we learn with a teacher standing in front of a class, giving a lecture has been unchanged for centuries. I too never thought that I would be interested in or be a willing participant in online education. Sadly, this was also the year when I had planned to start my journey towards a PhD, and as luck would have it – we had to start online because of COVID-19. Not only this semester but I am being told that the next semester for me will be fully online. 
I was pleasantly surprised by how good and effective our online classes have been. I have been fortunate enough to attend in person classes at two of the world’s best institutions of higher learning, Cambridge and Columbia, and I would argue that it is not very much different at all from the in person classes we have had there. If done right online education is a great tool which has allowed me and many others like me to start their academic journeys against all odds. It wasn’t a problem of online education being not good enough; most of us never really tried it. This is equally true for students as it is true for teachers. It was always considered a novelty, and people’s experiences have changed because it went from being novel to being common. 
It would be wrong to say that everyone has been happy. Of course how online education fared has depended on several factors: internet connectivity, teachers’ efforts, students’ seriousness, institutional tools and support, and the intention to ensure that students receive as much support as possible. I have particularly found that the attitude teachers have had towards students has been instrumental. Whenever a student faced difficulties in my classes, or there was an internet issue the teachers would go above and beyond to ensure they were able to help the student out. In return the students also ensured that they were committed and disciplined throughout the classes. 


While believing in a flat earth may be harmless, but if the same disinformation methods spread to religious, sectarian, health related and other issues it can have severe consequences. Of course, the argument against misinformation should always be the right information and we have a stronger responsibility today to do that. If we don’t educate our children correctly in the online space or shun this responsibility, there will always be those who choose to misinform them. 


Apart from the availability of the internet, I would argue, there is no real issue that makes online education a bad option for people. It even comes with its benefits; our lectures are recorded so we can review them again if we need to. We have our class discussions on a class group where the students can interact with the ideas of other students even more so than what normally happens. The criticisms that come, do not come from the online format, they are problems that exist otherwise as well which get imported into the online space. The online space is not a magic place where one can expect all the vices of the real world to disappear, in many ways the online space mirrors and in some cases amplifies our misgivings. If a student wants to disrupt a class, then they can do that online or in person; it isn’t a platform problem, it is a student problem. 
Different countries have had different experiences with online education, which has been a reflection of their social, economic and academic realities. In Pakistan, we will find a mixed number of messages based upon mixed experiences of students. However, one central complaint has been internet connectivity. This should be a wake-up call for everyone in the country! When the world is moving towards gigabit speed with 5G, we can’t expect to compete in that world if we can’t provide basic good internet connectivity to our population. This is a fundamental problem for us if we address online education in Pakistan, and we must address it because it is fundamentally important! Without being able to deliver online education successfully we risk failing to educate our children. 
Online education is important because it offers the solution to our failings in education. We have failed (at least) the 25 million children who are out of school and millions more who are in school but are not getting the quality education they deserve. Online education promises to make educating more children easier, and it also allows teaching quality to be improved by having the best teachers teach not 30 students at a time but thousands. It is not hard to imagine a school in a rural area with permanent work stations where students go and get the best teaching available from the best teachers from metropolitan cities. This can be supplemented with discussions and interactions of students across a vast strata of Pakistani society, helping to boost integration and understanding and combating inequality at least in the area of education. At university level it allows students to take courses from world renowned universities and interact with students across the world. The possibilities in this one domain are endless. 
Online education makes education more affordable too. Without the need to travel, pay for expenses such as buildings etc., it allows students and education institutions alike to realize real savings on the cost of delivering and acquiring education. This can mean that an education budget which could only educate a certain number of students can now educate more. It also means that students can get more bang for their buck by accessing better quality teaching online or for free. I believe there is a real need now to accredit such online schools and colleges in Pakistan – preferably as extensions of existing institutions who have a track record of providing quality education. 
Even outside the formal education stream, online education has the potential to be a game changer for skills based fields as well. One of the most compelling examples in this space has been the field of technology. We have generations of developers, animators, and other computer based skilled workers who have had little formal education, but due to self-learning using structured and unstructured online materials they have been able to acquire skills that make them valuable and in demand in the workplace. Some of these workers are now earning in dollars helping Pakistan and its economy in the process. The potential for other skill based learners to enhance their skills similarly is endless.
Online education can also be tapped to inculcate soft skills and increase knowledge about core issues amongst the population. Through apps, websites, YouTube channels and specified teaching tools, online education has the potential to change the way we study after centuries. Education is perhaps the only sector that hasn’t been significantly disrupted by technology as almost many other areas of our lives have. That now seems poised to change.
Looking back to how surprised I was on my own experience with online classes, I realize that we have been learning online one way or another for years. At Cambridge our professors often used to joke how only a decade ago if they had a question that needed answering, they would have to go to the library and find the right book. Now all we have to do is take out our phones and in a few seconds we can have the answer to most questions. Even during school, I remember looking at YouTube and revision websites to help me prepare for exams. We have been educating ourselves personally, professionally and academically online for years without realizing fully what we were doing or formally calling it online education. 
Yet, no great thing comes without its own problems, and online education is the same. The internet is free (mostly!), and as part of that freedom the problem is that there are no gatekeepers of knowledge. Anyone can say anything they want and anyone can listen to what they have said. This has resulted in disinformation and misinformation being spread even in the realm of education. In the United States there are people, actually a movement, who believe and preach that the world is not round but flat. Despite, the overwhelming evidence we have that the earth is round, there are thousands of people amongst high and low literacy countries alike that believe this. This is one example of the dangers of educational disinformation. While believing in a flat earth may be harmless, but if the same disinformation methods spread to religious, sectarian, health related and other issues it can have severe consequences. 
We have seen that a false sense of history and religious beliefs can lead to violence. People can use false stories to instigate young and vulnerable people. If this was to be exploited, to a substantial extent it already is online, it can lead to disastrous consequences. It is one thing for these ideas to be seen in some corner of social media and the web, but it is scary when they come with the credibility of an online learning institution and platform where the source credibility far outweighs that of any obscure social media video. Going one step further, this ability could even be weaponized as a tool to sow discontent and sectarian violence transnationally. 
The effects of disinformation are already clear on social media. Even technologically advanced countries are unable to stop the spread of disinformation and its exploitation either during elections or other significant times. This is why we need to encourage and build our own platforms which are credible. Communications research shows that one of the easiest ways to stop disinformation is by making the right information more easily accessible than disinformation. Disinformation flourishes where space is left for it to flourish. The good news in the realm of online education is that it is not as easily spread as it is in other areas, but that still doesn’t mean we don’t have to be vigilant. We need to encourage, promote and invest in good and credible online education platforms.
If we don’t educate our children correctly in the online space or shun this responsibility, there will always be those who choose to disinform them. 
As the COVID-19 pandemic will end, which will hopefully be soon, I believe that online education will be a mainstay. It will be the legacy of the pandemic that came, just like masks and hand sanitizers will be for the time to come. Most educators and students have never experienced online education before, and as the pandemic has forced them to do so, there will certainly be many a new realization of the endless benefits it can offer. The question for us is how we can position ourselves to reap the maximum benefits from not only the technology but the potential for widescale acceptance of this technology as well. 
The first step would be, as already discussed, to ensure the availability of good internet connectivity. The second would be to setup a framework where online or virtual schools can be accredited to give out degrees and certificates which bear the same recognition as other qualifications. The stigma of private exams and education needs to be removed from the online space if we are to make it successful. We also need to work towards increasing digital literacy and this will require a serious commitment and effort on our part. Online education also needs to be normalized in our public discourse where parents don’t view it as a waste of time or an inferior product. This can be done through an effective communication strategy which can focus on success stories. Integrating online education to fill the gaps in terms of quality of teaching and school enrollment can be a game changer for our education system which is already lagging behind. 
When computers first came and the concept of online education was conceived with the rise of the internet, many thought this was the future. However, this future never really caught on. Perhaps it was the lack of a connected device like the smartphone or it was the lack of technology penetration back then. I believe that apart from both of these reasons, an important reason was that we never really tried online education at a mass scale – we never really had the need to. This pandemic changed all that, and for many it opened their eyes to the potential that this medium has. The future is here, whether we choose for it to be here or not, and it is ultimately up to us to make the best of it.


The writer is a columnist, educationist and entrepreneur. He also works on youth issues in Pakistan. 
E-mail: [email protected]

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