Farrukh writes

Learning in the time of corona

(First appeared on November 28, 2020)

While politics keeps distracting us we should never lose sight of the extraordinary times we live in. As the dreaded second wave of Covid-19 sweeps the country and other parts of the world it is plain that a fatigue is settling in, in the fight against the deadly virus. The economy that always has a hard time standing on its two feet wobbles at the mere idea of another lockdown. Politicians who sit on stages wearing masks, properly sanitised and distanced seldom seem to care if their rallies turn into superspreader events jeopardising the lives of their followers. When everything else is open private school owners seem on a warpath protesting the government mandated school closures.

Despite positive reports from drug manufacturers, there is a lot that is unknown. For example, even if the Pfizer, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are over 90% successful in curing the patient, there is no guarantee they will inoculate him/her against reinfection for a long period. The first two are cost-prohibitive and need super cold temperature. Then bear in mind that the virus is mutating. An article titled “The Coronavirus is Mutating — Does it Matter?” published in Nature on September 8, 2020, reported that “researchers have catalogued more than 12,000 mutations in SARS-CoV-2 genomes”. The study concludes that while mutations haven’t had any serious impact on the nature of the pandemic, they could in the future. Finally, let us not forget that we live in the age of superbugs. Even if this pandemic goes away there is no guarantee that another more virulent one will not emerge in the near future. Both climate change and population explosion work as catalysts in the genesis and spread of these viruses. Consider the global shutdown and other ongoing responses to the pandemic as a full dress rehearsal for similar more devastating challenges to come. So, while the best and the brightest minds among us try to give us a fighting chance we need to be ready for the possibility that this may be the new normal. And the problem with this normal is that we are already ostensibly tired of it.

I can state with certainty that businesses that were affected by the Covid lockdowns will find their way. That’s how capitalism works. Through innovation and perseverance. But there is one area where that innovation has been faltering: education.

It is sad to see how our culture wars are affecting the future of our children. We will attend to our region in a moment but first let us talk about the debate still raging in developed parts of the world. The debate about school closures. And somehow this debate has become a partisan issue. Right leaning parties want schools to stay open. Somehow they seem to be deluded into believing that a mythical herd immunity is the only answer and the sooner the kids get infected and recover from the virus the better it is. Left leaning parties are more concerned about the human cost of such an impulse driven experiment. It is as if our neocortices and limbic systems have shut down and our lizard brains are running on fumes. In the middle of all this the mere possibility that the quality of remote learning can be improved is lost somewhere. For instance even if the use of interactive artificial intelligence may not be possible at this stage, I would have expected that at least for high-end customers a few big tech companies would have employed virtual reality technology coupled with visors and haptic gloves to create virtual learning spaces. Imagine if such an immersive experience could be provided how fun education would become. Once an innovation is introduced it takes no time for the business to scale and become cost effective.

In countries like Pakistan this may be a far cry. But even in high-end private schools the owners seem reluctant to invest in innovation and capacity building that is possible. For instance right now overburdened teachers are asked to deliver lectures through video conferencing software. Because many teachers are new to the technology and students are often camera and mic shy these classes are proving exceptionally poor substitutes for on-campus education. Add to it the unreliable internet bandwidth and teachers often communicate through one-way video streams in which they only hear voices of the children. Now think about the backbenchers who often get away with ducking teacher’s attention even when physically present in the classroom.

In the public sector and low-end private sector schools this situation takes a direr shape. Where the quality of human resource is often (although not always) considerably inferior, teachers and students both lack tech savvy and access to technology and internet is next to nil you can expect what affects this will have. In the underdevloped, neglected or remote areas like Balochistan, erstwhile FATA and Gilgit-Baltistan, internet coverage is a huge issue. These problems need solutions. We are labouring under the delusion that this phase is temporary and it may soon pass. But there is no guarantee. If education has to be saved the time to act is now.

I do not deny that the brick and mortar schools have their advantages. Around the world these schools are often chosen for interventions to ensure that the nutritional needs of children from depressed classes are met. Here children often get opportunities to exercise. And let’s face it this is how education has been conducted for centuries. But remember despite all that school enrolment in the country is far from perfect and with growing population the pressure on the existing public infrastructure is increasing to the breaking point.

Technology will come to our rescue if we take it seriously. The government needs to invest heavily on the education related internet infrastructure. The country has four mobile data networks. Why can’t we have a fifth dedicated to and subsidised for education? Likewise the country subsidises import of paper and card boards every year. Why can’t we import or manufacture cheap tablets or phablets with cameras for students? The country has over 50 news channels that are mostly producing a heap of white noise daily. Why can’t some of the channel owners be encouraged to invest in the education system instead? Some of these owners already run educational businesses as well. So why not combine the two?

School systems meanwhile can invest in tech-related capacity building of teachers and students. Private companies, publishers, textbook developers, and private schools can join hands to develop educational portals with pre-recorded lectures along with an army of online teachers to interact in real time, to answer questions, to test and grade. Something tells me that these business models may end up being far more successful, effective and profitable. And as long as there is a coherent plan, international partners, donors and financial institutions might also be willing to support such an effort. The fact that we are not even thinking on these lines worries me profusely. This is the age of the knowledge economy and this is how the future of the educational industry looks like regardless of the challenges posed by the Covid pandemic.

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