COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the world, killing up to 3.7 million people, and affecting the whole the world, one way or the other. A total of 171,814,029 (170 million) cases have been reported so far, and the numbers are rising with each passing day. Not even a single country has escaped the effects of arguably the biggest pandemic of the last and current century.
COVID-19 is not only a global public health emergency, but it is also causing a significant global economic downturn, with severe consequences for vulnerable, marginalized, groups.
On February 26, 2020, the Ministry of Health, Government of Pakistan, announced the first case of COVID-19 in Karachi, and on the same day, the Pakistan Federal Ministry of Health confirmed another case in Islamabad.
In addition to shutting down economic activities for weeks, the CoVID-19 pandemic also harmed the educational system to a great extent. Attempts were made globally, including in Pakistan, to transfer learning processes and systems tot the virtual world, but not everyone was able to successfully address all the challenges involved. Low-income and relatively less industrialized countries, like Pakistan, suffered more than the ‘developed’ countries, in attempts to conduct online learning.
Figure: 1 “Thingdass “A fascinating valley situated in the district of Ghizer, Gilgit Baltistan
“Journey of a tribal student from conventional to online education system”
In March 2020, countless students returned home after the government of Pakistan declared lockdown to stop the virus from spreading, including the closing of educational institutions and businesses. After reviewing the situation, the government decided that online classes were the best option, and the Higher Education Commission (HEC) recommended all universities to conduct online classes. Initially when universities started offering online courses, no one noticed how students from rural areas and remote villages would be able to participate, when they did not have access to the internet.
Like me, many students from Gilgit-Baltistan, and other areas, who were staying in hostels, had to deal with a terrible situation. Hostel owners and wardens gave us a short notice to vacate the premises within 24 to 48 hours. We also had to deal with a bus ticket shortage since a large number of students were travelling at the same time. After 48 hours, we were able to find bust tickets with the support of a relative and leave for homes.
Figure 2: Andleeb ,a student of Mphil from (FJWU), belonging to Thingdass ,in search of good internet connection to deliver her presentation. Picture taken by an Author.
Our real journey began when government shifted all education system to the online and virtual classes. It is a serious challenge adopting and applying a completely new technology to any place, but especially so in developing nations, and the most backward villages in Gilgit-Baltistan, like “Thingdass”, a village located in the district of Ghizer, where people are still struggling to achieve other basic needs like electricity, water and shelter.
It was, essentially, a kind of cultural shock for people of the area. Only for the last year have some companies starting providing cellular services, so the penetration of information-technology is quite low. Since there are not enough towers (of cellular service providers – there’s no broadband service available), one has to look for a place to capture signals or climb to a higher altitude. Every student in GB is dealing with the same problem; we have to struggle to find internet access.
“I have to walk more than 20 minutes from home where the internet speed is better and sometimes my laptop shuts down due to a low battery, and I am unable to charge it in a timely manner due to distance from home”, said Andleeb,.
Challenges faced by students
With infrastructural pressures and social problems, making education available to all segments of society (women, minorities, etc.) becomes more difficult. And being a student from most marginalized and disputed area of Pakistan (Gilgit Baltistan), the challenges are even higher. When people are struggling to get basic fundamental rights, online learning looks like a luxury for the masses.
As a university student I am missing being in-person with my classmates, professors, peers and to have that natural interactions and conversations because it makes me exited and motivate me to learn more.
A less favorable learning climate
Whereas many families have enjoyed spending time together at home during COVID-19, some have been at home in more challenging circumstances. Many parents have been unable to help their children’s learning as much as they would like due to the financial instability. As a child of that area where people are still depending on agricultural activities, parental involvement is very low. So in such a catastrophic situation students have to struggle to create their own environment of studies.
Insufficient resources/ equipment
This is a major problem in rural and less privileged areas. The biggest issue we are facing is that most of the students do not have laptops, smart mobiles or computers. Like at the beginning of pandemic plenty of people did not even have a single laptop to attend classes and they were unable to join their classes on time. Disruptions in service, due to quality issues, was also very common. Generally parents who cannot afford this equipment have to face financial crisis as well, that is why lower class families avoid to continue the studies of their children.
Learners also faced the difficult challenge of time management because online courses require a significant amount of time and effort. Furthermore, while most adults choose web-based learning programs because of their mobility in terms of place and time, they never have the time to complete the courses due to their numerous daily responsibilities.
Loss of grades
While well-off city students sit on their comfortable couches and enjoy their Zoom meetings, other students, including myself, struggle to find a suitable location for a meeting. Half of the population returned to their villages at the start of the first wave, unaware that Covid would have a major impact not only on their health but also on their education. I live in an area where we have many a times been without power for more than 24 hours. Many teachers were so strict that they ignored the problem and declared us absent from class, and we lost our grades as a result of not submitting our papers on time.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread, one of the many lessons policymakers can take away is the value of high-speed internet, particularly for educational purposes and remote work.
Prime Minister Imran Khan should take serious steps for the provision of 4G internet services in Gilgit Baltistan. It will also support youth in accessing online educational resources and using their abilities through information technology. And last, but not the least, it will also be a request to teachers to treat well those students who are still attending classes despite the fact that they are from remote village and in tribal areas, and who are making double of the usual efforts in this difficult situation. In light of their condition, allowing them some additional time to submit their work, should not be a major issue.