On May 12, The Chairman Higher Education Commission (HEC) held a meeting with the Vice-Chancellors of the Universities in Pakistan and directed them to start online classes for the students and complete course work of the current semesters. HEC also directed universities to conduct online examinations soon.

According to details, a meeting chaired by Chairman HEC decided that educational institutions would remain closed till July 15 due to the coronavirus pandemic and all universities will start online classes from June 1.

However, lately in March, The Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan directed all universities and accredited Degree Awarding institutions to start online classes which have well-built learning management systems (LMS). But, in response to student complaints regarding the low quality and lacking capacity of delivering online lectures by the universities, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) stopped several universities’ online classes in April.

Later on, HEC collected information in regard to the concerns raised on social media. On the Internet access issues, consultations were put in place with Internet Service Providers (ISP) Telcos, and software experts in order to identify solutions. Similarly, universities were asked to arrange training for their faculty members software experts on the best practices in online instructions.

Moreover, HEC decided that universities facing technological, technical, or spatial limitations can remain closed for academic activities until May 31, 2020. In this regard, HEC has already instituted a Technical Support Committee (TSC) to help universities’ staff adapt to the online mode of education.

HEC also contemplated to set up a National Knowledge Bank (NKB) aiming to provide students and teachers access to a wide variety of academic resources. The commission tasked National Academy for Higher Education (NAHE) to recommend online tutorials to increase the skills of the teachers imparting online education. 

However, with the decision of HEC for online classes and examinations, the students, teachers and the universities’ staff of Balochistan have come under mental agonies and a hullaballoo is created amongst the students of the far-flung areas of the least developed province in Pakistan. As the province lacks facilities, amenities and optimum internet infrastructure considered indefensible for the conduction of online classes and examination. 

According to the latest stats released by Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), however, 3G/4G users have crossed the 65 million mark in Pakistan; but the province of Balochistan still lacks the efficient Internet and Mobile Communication Infrastructure. The Teledensity or the number of telephone connections for every 100 users in an area increased to 75.15 per cent from 74.23 per cent in Pakistan, but sadly the Teledensity in Balochistan still hovers near least in the country. Alongside that, broadband users also reached 63,773,916 million by the end of December 2019, yet the largest province comes last in the list of the broadband subscribers due to the weaknesses in the infrastructure in the interior districts of Balochistan. 

Furthermore, Pakistan’s mobile internet users as a percentage of the population have recorded at 21 per cent at the end of January 2019, according to a Global Digital report. The internet penetration stood at 22 % (44.6 million users) of the population at the end of the aforementioned period which is considered very inadequate for the proper commencement of online classes and examination in Pakistan in general, and in Balochistan in particular.

Apart from that, according to Pakistan Education Statistics, the education system of Pakistan is comprised of 317,323 institutions accommodating 50,292,570 students and 1,836,584 teachers. The system is composed of 196,998 public institutions and 120,273 private institutions. There are 185 universities in Pakistan in totality. Out of these universities, 110 (59%) are working under the umbrella of the public sector, whereas 75 (41%) are working under the supervision of the private sector. And, to provide uninterrupted internet services to such a large number of students, teachers and other universities’ staff is quite a tough task in Pakistan.

Another loophole in the uninterrupted internet service in the Province is that of The National Security Case. Balochistan has been crippled with an insurgent movement since 2003, the fifth round of insurgency in the history of the province. Insurgents and terrorists use common applications to evade security forces and coordinate their terrorist activities using the internet. The Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), an insurgent group, use the Internet to execute their attacks on the security forces. To tackle such incidents, the security forces have to interrupt and disconnect the internet facility in some regions of Balochistan purely for security concerns. 

Finally, although in 2016, a report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly declared access to the internet to be a basic human right, integral to allowing individuals to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression; yet Pakistan in general and Balochistan, in particular, lacks the capacity to conduct online classes and examinations for the far-flung least developed areas of the country. Moreover, the suspension of mobile internet services is not limited to Balochistan province. The services are also suspended in what was formerly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA, now part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

HEC should, therefore, reconsider its online classes plan in accordance with the restrictions faced by these provinces and provide a detailed layout for the students and the faculty of universities as the literacy rate is already struggling in these areas.

Pakistan is a developing country, with least developed provinces, and just have started planning for the 5G services in the country. The Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication has recently constituted Advisory Committee for 5G Planning in Pakistan (5G Pakistan Plan Committee) to define a roadmap and finalize recommendations for 5G Technology readiness in Pakistan. While the rest of the world who are efficiently conducting the online classes and examinations since long are much ahead in terms of the efficiency of the infrastructure of the internet. For instance, South Korea has already launched the world’s first nationwide 5G Mobile Networks on April 3, 2019. Three top telecom providers of South Korea, the SK Telecom, KT and LG Uplus launched the 5G services and the internet speed of this service is up to 2.7 GBPS. 

Another good example for e-learning and online education is that of Estonia after a tech revolution followed by Estonia’s independence in 1991. The country by 1997 got 97% of its all educational institutes especially schools online and in 2000, cabinet meetings went paperless because of strong internet infrastructure. In 2002, the government set up a free Wi-Fi network converting most of the country towards their vision called e-Estonia. In 2007, Estonia introduced e-voting. In 2012, fibre optic infrastructure laid out all long. And today, 99% of Estonian state-services are online. Much astonishing is the fact that In Estonia one can access Wi-Fi internet even in forests. 

Hence, unless the country has the capacity to upgrade its internet providing services to most underdeveloped areas and ensure the reach to all the students and faculty, it should reconsider the online classes plan and explore alternates to facilitate those who are already struggling.

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The author belongs to Quetta, Balochistan. He is the winner of 'English Article' category of the Writing Contest held by VOB from June-July, 2019.

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