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Learning from a distance

In a country like Pakistan where geographical and financial problems may hinder access to education, distance learning seems to be the only alternative to no education.

Students can learn as and when they want, using modern technologies and online resources. Different models of distance education are in vogue in Pakistan – some focusing on virtual learning, some on correspondence-based learning, and others on distance-learning centres.

While virtual and correspondence-based models have their flaws, distance-learning centres are no less than a disaster for the quality of education. Ideally, the model would have made education affordable, accessible and better in terms of quality given the availability of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Sources) and access to internet from smartphones. Practically, it has done the exact opposite. There is convergence of the interests of all stakeholders on churning out degrees with no relation to genuine learning.

The model works on the basis of a hybrid structure – teaching and facilitation is the responsibility of an independent entity (the centre) whereas examination and awarding of degrees fall in the university domain. Students in remote areas are enrolled by a centre in different disciplines with part of the fee going to the affiliated university. Exams are conducted after fixed intervals with no academic activity taking place during the whole semester/year. The centres have no infrastructure, no facilities, and no faculty and yet they have no problem distributing degrees.

Affiliation to a centre is generally granted on the basis of false evidence of resource availability and credibility of the applicant. No independent verification of the premises and faculty is carried out to ascertain facts on the ground. Examination, too, does not do anything to check quality as the invigilation staff and inspectors have their own axe to grind.

Students believe cheating in exam is their birth right simply because they do not receive anything back for their fee except the promise of getting a degree ‘on time’. The hand-and-glove relationship between the centres and the universities coupled with the students’ need for degree has an adverse spill-over effect on on-campus education as well.

This deterioration in quality of education has a context. The HEC was established back in 2002 to streamline higher education, improve quality, and promote research culture in Pakistan. In some areas, it has done a wonderful job but in other areas it has committed blunders. Research and distance education are the two areas where the HEC has to revisit its policies. Allowing some universities to launch distance-learning programmes without any regulatory framework has had the opposite effect on what the HEC had intended.

On the provincial level, the regulatory regime is even more fragmented and disoriented. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for example, there is the HEC looking after higher education alongside the HED (Higher Education Department) and HERA (Higher Education Regulatory Authority) – with overlapping roles and jurisdictions. This multi-layer system, coupled with the universities’ autonomous status, makes it difficult to properly regulate higher education and make it rigorous, focused and meaningful. Loopholes in the system provide opportunities for private universities to thrive on the spoils without any fear of being held to account.

Distance learning is a recent development throughout the world and needs to be promoted in Pakistan as well. But it should not be another windfall for unscrupulous businessmen. The HEC should conduct independent audits of the existing distance learning programmes besides revisiting the exam systems to make this new model work better, faster and cheaper for those who cannot get into the mainstream system.



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