The conditions of quarantine and the onset of what some might refer to as ‘distance learning’, have made me see school – a locality, a piece of infrastructure, a microcosm – as a mother-ship. A space of literal and metaphorical importance. The school, college, or university setting you belong to, is both a piece of physical and non-physical infrastructure that gathers the actors of relevance in one place. The recognition of a mutual state that everyone finds them in, as it affiliates an institution and a microcosm for students and faculty alike.
To see it as that is to imply that these places of educational activity with time have cultivated a sort of ecology relies a great deal on the presence of a centroid – the school itself. An ecology that I have only seemingly noticed once it has been dismantled and diffused under the quarantine. The constituents of this ecology distanced and dispersed with the expectation of still maintaining the conduciveness of the environment they were all once a part of – and so the challenges begin.
Distance learning has come with its fair share of challenges and setbacks for faculty, students and auxiliary staff, alike. These including both technical, pragmatic and psychological challenges. With how unexpectedly a prolonged quarantine appeared out of thin air, the greatest challenge was perhaps to quickly reiterate our methods and adapt to the new normal – a new normal that no longer included the mother-ship, a place of work to some and learning to others and a natural secondary habitat to all. Instead we were now forced to find our ways around in the digital dimension, the online world and continue to emulate the culture of collectivity, mutual support and constant exchange that was featured in our prior ecologies.
Distance learning and the modes generally used for it all work on a rather misleading assumption that all regions of our country have effective and reliable communication and connectivity infrastructure and that all students and faculty own or have access to the equipment that is necessary to uphold this system. The reality however, reveals that students not only come from far-flung, disadvantaged areas that rarely have reliable means of connectivity, but also come from humble backgrounds where families must break their backs to deliver the school fees alone. Once these children acquire student status at an institute, certain amenities and technological infrastructure become rightfully available to them. Their reliance on these libraries, computer labs, etc., is immense. Unfortunately though, once the quarantine occurred, their accessibility to these amenities was revoked and most families struggled to induct those objects that assist distance learning into their homes.
It is not surprising that our geographic image does not feature an equal distribution of the infrastructure of connectivity and technology necessary to support this method of teaching. A report commissioned by the British Council in Pakistan on Digital Citizenship in the country states that the percentage of people that have access to internet in the provinces of Gilgit-Baltistan, Balochistan, FATA and KPK is 0.001, 1.1, 2.7, and 5.8 percent, respectively. This data reflects on a very serious constraint to the success of distance learning in times of quarantine for a large geographical chunk of our nation. It is the 21st century and so of course we have evolved enough to have engineered the tools that facilitate distance learning in the form of various specialized software and applications. However, these become of no use to students and faculty that find themselves in parts of the country that have no up and running telecommunication and network systems, or unreliable ones.
Institutes run on predefined Standard Operating Procedure(s) and rules of conduct that articulate the values of an institute in terms of operational directives. Often these SOPs are conceived holistically leaving few exceptions and their implementation and practice is crucial for the success of an institute and its smooth running. However, with such starkly unequal distribution with respect to the provision of reliable infrastructure around the country, the inflexibility of the SOPs that were developed to adapt to distance learning became rather short-sighted. Indeed, institutes have tried to be flexible in their approach but some continue to abide by a stringent framework that is derived from the premise of one-size-fits-all. We must question the validity of these against the diversity of situations our students find themselves in. Given the inequality, students have even raised the concern that at a time like this if they are graded for the work they produce, they are not being graded for their skill and aptitude but instead for their privilege – a fact that can hardly be denied.
In the cases that students have found available to them the equipment and connectivity infrastructure necessary, there are still problems with the reliability of these systems. And so even when online lectures are possible, the classes are plagued with connectivity issues, calls dropping, voices breaking up, blurry video conferences and the fatal power-cuts.
Owing to all of the factors already discussed, this new condition has allowed for a lot more struggles to surface on behalf of the students and staff that were unregistered before. To draw out a positive impact, these interactions and realizing the reality of the situation has helped in some ways trigger a deeper empathy towards the diverse circumstances and backgrounds students and faculty may come from – a reality, which is dulled out in the classroom as the crowd unites under the ambition of learning.
The technical difficulties are all mammoth tasks to overcome as they relate to large-scale development issues, however, the effects of the dismantling of the ‘ecology’, fostered within a functional physical space attributed to a school or university, also presents certain psychological challenges for teachers and students alike in the given atmosphere.
Physical distance has in certain ways resulted in an emotional distance between the members of this ecology. The online world is altogether an unreliable place given how much gets lost in translation from a message sent to a message received. The forced dependency in this environment has developed a realization of how necessary building and fostering a one-on-one interaction between the instructors and students can be, which is lost in the course of distance learning. Faulty connectivity is a technical issue, however, an added constraint is that meaning and emotion is often wrongly received in online communication. The distance also tends to de-familiarize us from each other’s states making it harder to act from a place of empathy and understanding, causing us to lose sight of the severity of circumstances at one another’s end. In a lot of ways, the circumstances of distance learning threaten the potential of negotiation and dialogue.
I think in the course of distance learning, we all grew a little distrustful of one another and a little less empathetic. An empathy that was far easier to feel in our day to day, in-person interactions. The constituents of our ecologies, whom we knew so well and understood, became usernames and email addresses, data-lists, and subscribers to weekly online meetings. The process of online learning mildly dehumanized whoever was at the opposite end of our digital interactions. And so, while the physical distance has caused for certain technical problems, the emotional distance has caused certain psychological ones.
With all the challenges in place, we must remember to act with resilience, flexibility, empathy and consideration. We must recognize the challenges that plague parts of our society and acknowledge and work to resolve these whilst also recognizing the privilege some of us come from and make an effort to pass it forward. Given the statistics, we might not be a populace that is a hundred percent fit for this medium of education, but we are adaptive beings and united when faced with these obstacles.
To conclude on a hopeful note, let us all wait for the day when the mother-ship will be calling for us again to reinstate our physical proximity and rehabilitate our ecologies. HH
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