Dr. Anwar Sabieh on online education

Prof Dr. Sabieh Anwar on Molding the challenges of Online Education into Opportunities

The current crisis has gripped every possible area of human life. All spheres of life have not just been significantly touched but will be greatly altered once this pandemic is over. One such important area is education.

These unprecedented times have made us transition to the experiment of online learning which is novel for many teachers and students. It is being done on a very large scale all around the world. In Pakistan, the challenge is even greater. With limited resources and access, educational institutions are trying to establish learning systems that can be efficient for both sides. To delve deep into this matter, I had the honor of interviewing Prof. Dr. Sabieh Anwar about how our education system is coping and what we can expect in the future.

Dr. Muhammad Sabieh Anwar is an Associate Professor of Physics and the Dean of LUMS’ Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering. Sabieh, a Rhodes Scholar, did his Ph.D. in Physics from Oxford University and Post-Doc in Chemistry and Materials Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the General Secretary of Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS), a non-profit organization founded by his father Dr. Saadat Anwar Siddiqui, that works for creating a science culture and science popularization across Pakistan and has been organizing one of the biggest science events in the country; the Lahore Science Mela, every year since 2017.

Here is what he said on the Coronavirus pandemic and specifically how deeply the education sector in Pakistan has been affected.

Maham: The COVID-19 crisis has shaken us to the core and is affecting every sector. What is the impact of the pandemic on the education sector, local and global?

Dr. Sabieh: This crisis has a big economic and social fallout. Growth rates will take a nosedive. This has also influenced our economy, social fabric, and lifestyle.

As far as the education sector is concerned, the complete drawn out closure of educational institutions is a big test. There are frantic efforts everywhere to develop an online learning system. In Pakistan, even though we do have widespread internet connectivity, there are severe quality concerns and some areas are totally blacked-out. A far severe problem is access to computing devices like laptops and computers. For the latter, households need to make an economic investment, which is again, not readily available.

Maham: How can we implement efficient distance learning in Pakistan?

Dr. Sabieh: I think the medium that can be more useful than the internet is Television. PTV has started the channel ‘Taleem Ghar’, which is indeed an excellent initiative. It needs to be further enhanced, as TV has a wider reach than the internet. On the other hand, higher education will be completely refreshed and reenergized. Remember, the new modality is a big shock for universities. Their outdated systems of communication are highly paper-oriented, Emails are not the norm. If the administration needs to do some communication, everything is done on paper. The current situation enforces our universities to take this challenge as an opportunity for introspection and improving the system, though this is not something that will happen overnight.

There was also uproar on social media. Students have already raised slogans against online education. The reason is the existing poor quality of instruction in general. Migrating to online medium does not automatically solve the quality problem. Teachers who used to teach poorly in the classrooms will do the same in online classes. Hence the online medium, which is more transparent, accessible, large-scale, and can be recorded, will accentuate weaknesses in teaching. Hence, the need for a general uplift in the quality of instruction exists.

Maham: What about your institution? What steps are being taken at LUMS?

Dr. Sabieh: In LUMS online classes have commenced, as the spring semester is currently underway. In the first three weeks after the lockdown we conducted webinars for faculty training, collected resources, did surveys, and are still collecting data from faculty as well as students. As all these things are data-driven we can’t rely solely on anecdotes. There is the requirement to collect data for this whole process in real-time, such as which tools you are using, how many students have access, whether student learning is improved or not, what is the percentage of attendance, do people prefer asynchronous or synchronous modes, etc. and some metrics to capture learning instead of mere quantitative metrics of instruction.

Decisions can be made only when constant empirical data is collected. In LUMS, and the faculty has largely taken ownership. The key is to trust the Faculty and empower them to make their own choices in the backdrop of broad guidelines, instead of harsh dictates from authoritarian circulars. Another aspect will be the changes in student evaluations. The evaluation will be formative in telling us what mistakes we made and how we can improve.

Dr. Sabieh demonstrating the motion of a pendulum to keen visitors. According to him, there are aspects of certain educational disciplines that are not possible online.
(Above) Dr. Sabieh demonstrating the motion of a pendulum to keen visitors. According to him, there are aspects of certain educational disciplines that are not possible online.

Maham: Are online classes comparable to classroom learning? Can it be an alternative to the traditional methods?

Dr. Sabieh: Education is not just the name of the classroom; it is bigger than that. For example, you cannot do your chemistry labs online. It does not matter how many virtual and remote experiments you design; the live experience of a laboratory just can’t be created elsewhere. There are aspects of certain educational disciplines that are not possible online. MBBS is impossible without a live clinical experience. The same is with laboratories, scientific enterprises, technologies, engineering; they can’t be done in this way. Then, you need to conduct field surveys and there are many instances where human interaction is a must. Hence the online system has a limited scope, and certain exceptionally promising outlooks, but it can’t completely supplement or replace learning and education.

The biggest benefit of an online system is that it can be upscaled and can reach wider audiences. Student interaction can be increased from scores to hundreds to thousands, statistics can be gathered, three-dimensional multimedia experiences can be incorporated into instruction, discussion forums can be initiated, and intelligent modes of instruction can be engrained.  However, one keeps in mind the scope. You can’t learn sports online; you can’t do experiments online and learning from peers is limited.

Maham: Can we expect significant increase in the usage of resources like online classes in the future? What could be the expected changes once this pandemic is over?

Dr. Sabieh: Well, I believe that there will be a different life after the pandemic. The experiment being done right now will have its aftereffects. Many people are convinced about this union between technology and education and hope that it will move forward. And development is not just expected in education, but other sectors as well as in health, where there will be innovation, entrepreneurship, and development. From biochemical testing to PPE to medical assistance devices used in hospitals like the ventilators, all of this will likely become center stage.

The healthcare management of the country might witness a revolution. New questions will arise like how to handle public health issues, build models, for disease progression, and how to manage healthcare networks from rural health centers to big hospitals.  Remember dengue, floods, earthquakes which require national scale efforts which redefine how we cope with calamity. If our response is scientific and intelligent, we can lessen the burden and worries of millions of people.

The fault lines of science and technology in our country have been once again exposed. Local innovation system isn’t well developed since the ecosystem is overly bureaucratic and based on regulations and excessive centralization by intuitions who lack modern training. Now is the time to address all of these things. Even though this pandemic is a challenge, it is also providing new opportunities and opening new doors.

Maham: In Pakistan, there are many different education systems. How can one channel be used for teaching when there is such a wide range of curriculum? Is this the time for a homogenous education system?

Dr. Sabieh: Diversity is a good notion. A Homogeneous education system is a slogan which I don’t think will ever be implemented. I think there is no need for homogeneity, there is a need for equivalence and mutual respect across systems. What we need to have, is excellence and equivalence. For example, millions of children in our country study in madrassas which follow a specific curriculum, forcing them to follow a different system, is hard and can result in worsening social patterns. Likewise, we need equivalence and glorification in that and in technical education as well.

Take for example Khan Academy. It does not follow any system. It is providing appropriate content material, teaching in a good way so as to bring up to speed students in different subjects. So, the material, teaching style and content is developed sequentially. I cannot regard this mode of education as belonging to a “system”.

Dr. Sabieh in a classroom. He is of the opinion that there is a need for equivalence and mutual respect across systems.
Dr. Sabieh in a classroom. He is of the opinion that there is a need for equivalence and mutual respect across educational systems.

Maham: What about the assessment of students?

Dr. Sabieh: Now that can’t be done by the medium TV. Different mechanisms have to be created which is quite a daunting task. Many countries have finished exams for smaller classes; in Singapore, they have no assessments till high school. And the Punjab government has also decided that in these conditions, students will be promoted to the next grade without exams. So, assessment is very hard as it is a two-way process. You also need to have feedback from the students. The biggest trap of online education is that it might become unilateral. Content may be delivered but there is no feedback. There is a lack of discussion mode, the opportunity for interactions is limited. A student must interact, ask questions, do peer learning and that also needs to be incorporated into the system.

Maham: Pakistan has some of the leading research institutes in South Asia. But why are we not seeing them actively participate in this crisis in terms of vaccine development? If we are not well equipped to, do we deserve such titles?

Dr. Sabieh: It is because our universities are a slave to the process, especially the public sector universities where enrollments outnumber private institutions. There is a lack of basic things, from chemicals and reagents to infrastructure, biosafety labs, the protocol, and equipment. Though, we never have a lack of ideas. Many peoples are generating research ideas, we have individuals coming from very amazing places after training, and we do have amazing faculty. But the work is slow-paced. For instance, one needs to buy chemical isopropanol, which is a solvent that is also used for cleaning and dissolution, a basic requirement just like water.

For someone who doesn’t know the system, it may take months to buy a liter. Because the process is so hard, we don’t have the budget or even if we do, we need to have the permissions of layers and layers of people to make simple purchases. If one spends whole life just completing that process then how could he manage time for the research work?  Ease the process, trust the scientist, invest in infrastructure, and let the scientist govern oneself, not someone who has the self-glorified air of controlling who scientists work.

Funds are scarce. Bureaucracy is not trained. Then there are various rules for so-called procurement. We are obeying rules that have been made for the development and management of dams and roads for the science development projects. For instance, one can’t buy used equipment, we need to purchase through middlemen, modes of payment are outdated and the entire system is hostage to a book of rules made by bureaucrats with little or zero understanding of the scientific enterprise. All of this is a trap and has crippled development, but no one is willing to change that. Then the selection criteria of the heads of the scientific institutions is outdated. If there is no leadership then things can’t move forward.

Maham: UNESCO has launched a Global Education Coalition that seeks to “facilitate inclusive learning opportunities.” Will our local institutes be willing to join such an initiative or prefer to work it all out on their own?

Dr. Sabieh: The Internet is a global paradigm. It would be really odd if we don’t take benefits from the global landscape. We should avail and collaborate with global initiatives, but at the same time, we should also consider local realities and local nomenclature. Staying mindful of the local learning process, our languages, and learning behavior patterns is very necessary.

Maham: This is the time of the year when many students are nearing graduation. Students are generally very concerned about their future by this disruption in the academic schedule. What advice do you have for them?

Dr. Sabieh: There is no need to be afraid of these problems; such big calamities happen after 100, 150 years. Those students who are at such stages should know that universities are also facing difficult times. This is a global crisis, there is no need to worry. Things will change, and compensation will be there in different ways. Usually, this feeling happens when some get ahead and some are left behind, but everyone is at the same mark in this break. Things will get better. But students should get the most out of this time. It shouldn’t be that when the lockdown ends, and life gets back on track, we stay at the same spot; we forget to do any personal training, or increase in knowledge, readings, or we fail to think about the big realities of life. So, my advice is to fully use this opportunity. This time is precious; use it for self-introspection, and learning.

Maham: Finally, Sir, what’s next for you?

Dr. Sabieh: Let’s keep learning!

Also Read: A Teacher’s take on getting the most out of online classes

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