Ethical dimension of education in Pakistan and the impact of post-Covid digitalisation

By Zubeida Mustafa

Before we take up the issue of the ethical aspect of education in Pakistan a look at its legal and constitutional status itself would be in order. I shall focus on school education as it is this sector that has a pronounced human rights and ethical aspect. In 2010, the National Assembly amended the Constitution of 1973 that made education mandatory for all children. Article 25-A was adopted and according to this, “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”

This provision should have been a landmark step towards universalizing education which is worldwide regarded as the fundamental right of all men, women and children. It naturally has to begin from childhood. It seems unbelievable that it took Pakistan 63 years to recognize this basic fact.

But Article 25-A has failed to achieve its purpose. The enrolment ratio of school age children is barely 60 percent and over 22 million children aged 5-16 years are still believed to be out of school. The resultant inequity geographical, gender and class – has demonstrated clearly that in Pakistan education is not the equalizer it should be. If anything, it is a factor that promotes inequality.

In Pakistan, education barely receives 2.8 percent of the GDP per annum (2017-18). In the absence of funds the authorities have failed to expand and upgrade the physical infrastructure, teachers’ training and the availability of teaching material and technology. This has had an impact on the accessibility of education as the number of schools is too limited to cater for a large population. Many areas, notably in Balochistan, do not even have schools.

This scarcity of schools led to the private sector entering the field of education in Pakistan in a big way. Taking advantage of the growing demand for schools, private proprietors soon escalated their fees and thus good education moved beyond the reach of the common man. In due course a new category of private schools proliferated the low-fee institutions which are a step above public schools. Today nearly half the schools in Pakistan are in the private sector.

The existence of this large private sector creates disparities as there is a stark contrast between the quality of education and facilities provided at public and private schools. These disparities have markedly increased following the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of physical classrooms for four months.

When COVID-19 struck in February March 2020, education for the poor in Pakistan was already in tatters. In the lockdown period, all educational institutions closed down and it became a sort of prolonged holiday season for all. Initially the focus of the government was on the economy and what was termed in common discourse as ‘lives versus livelihood’. Education was never its priority.

The private sector, however, was concerned about its survival and profitability. Hence, private schools and universities went into action and came online. It was not easy at first as nobody neither the students nor the faculty was trained for it. The international world of technology responded immediately and new apps and programs were created to meet the needs of the classroom and one heard of Zoom and Google Classroom. Teachers were trained or asked to train themselves and the digital classroom went on air by the end of May.

So far, there is no consensus on the effectiveness of online education. The utility of the new system is being debated and the jury is still out. At some private schools, teachers actually left their jobs as they admitted that they could not cope with the tiring demands of the new style of teaching. Children initially enjoyed their new experience until the novelty wore out. Then they began to miss the socialization dimension of education.

The low-fee schools tried to compensate for the absence of classroom teaching by devising substitutes such as assigning homework, circulating newsletters or providing links to story-telling and educational videos on smartphones.

But that was all limited to private education. The main reason was that private institutions – particularly ‘elite’ ones – had the resources needed to provide connectivity, the essential requirement of online education. These schools were able to shift their classrooms to online platforms because they could pay for the technology. Even more importantly, all teachers and students possessed laptops, wi-fi and also back up to provide electricity in case of load shedding or power breakdowns.

In the public sector, the situation was very different. As more households own televisions than computers in Pakistan, the government’s response during lockdown was to offer Teleschool via the state-run Pakistan Television Network. This was an opportunity to innovate and devise original presentations based on a mix of technologies such as videos , documentaries, animations and the use of sound and light to make lessons interesting. In reality, some of the presentations were engaging but others involved a droning voice reading from the dull pages of textbooks.

Teleschool failed to make an impact for many reasons. While 98% of well off Pakistanis have access to digital learning technology, only 15% of the poorest Pakistanis have access to any sort of remote learning technology, including televisions. Also, digital learning, even at its best, requires greater freedom from distraction and for younger children, requires the assistance of an educated adult who can facilitate learning. For many families, it was hard to understand the Teleschool daily schedule which dedicated an hour’s lesson to each grade.

Schools partially opened in September 2020 with all the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) being observed. However, on November 26, the government again closed all educational institutions because of a rapid rise in COVID cases. According to expert opinion, education in Pakistan has fallen back by a decade and the pandemic may have reduced the future earning capacities of many children currently in schools.

One indicator of the damage done by the pandemic is a possible increase in the number of Pakistani children who cannot read by the age of 10 years. According to estimates, this figure is projected to increase from the current 75% to 79%. Illiteracy affects negatively the quality of life of those who cannot understand the written word. It restricts their ability to get good jobs and improve their living conditions. It also leaves people open to exploitation by the unscrupulous. Good education on the other hand is a catalyst for change not only in respect of people’s material life but also in terms of their personality, economic productivity and intellect.

The damage done by school closures can only be counteracted by the creation of learning opportunities that the government can provide, with remote learning gaining increasing prominence in the post-Covid world. The impact of such opportunities will depend however on the quality of the facilities provided and who is able to access them. Recently, the government initiated ‘radio school’ to reach children who cannot access other technology but the effectiveness of this measure remains to be seen.

As digital learning becomes more important, the gap between the rich and the poor will become wider. As a result, disparity and inequity in society will grow. But the ethical dilemma is – if the government shirks its duties in promoting the standards of education for the poor should the private sector be pushed down to promote equity? This sounds unethical too. Then what?

Source: Bioethics Links