Learning for the Uninitiated

LIKE all other fields of human activity, information technology is also pervading different aspects of education that has visibly enhanced learning. Students have already integrated computers in learning, particularly those in the institutions for higher education where IT has been deployed and is being effectively utilised. There is a visible divide between graduates from IT-supported, high-end institutions and those without it. This is a serious issue that merits attention at all levels.

IT has already made seismic impact in distance education. With the advent of computers and the internet, learning is no longer restricted to time and place. Students these days have access to a great amount of relevant information and resources outside the confines of classrooms and auditoriums.

Open universities and other institutions employing computers and the internet (also television, and satellites) have come up and offer education in different fields around the globe. But there is also the digital divide and non-availability of resources to an overwhelmingly large majority. In addition, a lack of quality contents on the web, linguistic and cultural barriers and other similar complex issues are at hand.

However, this is not about distant learning. The aim here is to see the physical employment of computers and IT infrastructure for delivering of the higher education in classrooms, laboratories, and libraries in Pakistan.

Most public sector universities and business schools still lag behind in IT deployment. There are many reasons for this. For starters, economically, Pakistan is yet not a very strong nation. Although government officials’ statements and statistics indicate that the economy has started to mature, yet there has always been a scaling-down in education and investment in the sector which has not caught up with this part of the world and, thus, is hardly a priority.

Hence, graduates of many public sector universities cannot compete with those who have an opportunity to study in private sector universities. While much progress has been made in making computers and the internet available to educational institutions in the past few years, nowhere is the computer-student ratio seen to meet one’s ever-growing IT needs. “You can see more than 25 students flocking to one computer and same number waiting for their turn,” says Mohsin Khan, a university student. There have hardly been any concentrated efforts to prepare students to take advantage of IT and other resources that have been made available by the internet and the world wide web.

There are other problems besides funding which are equally grave. Barring all exceptions, most senior teachers lack technological literacy — “the ability to use a computer, equipped with a CD-ROM player, modem and phone or cable line, as well as output devices such as printers, to gather information, analyse, organise, and understand that information, and present it clearly and effectively.” No disregard is intended nor are the role of teachers or old assumptions about learning being questioned.

Senior teachers have not grown up using computers as their students have. Some of the teachers have become computer savvy but many others have not found the opportunity or the will to do so. For the less savvy, the best technology is still a chalk (at best, a marker) and blackboard and the best interactive activity is a class discussion (read class participation).

This is a serious problem in this digital age. Those teachers who cannot make appropriate use of computers, the internet and the web in teaching have trouble keeping up with their own specialties and staying ahead, what to talk of a few other related areas. It becomes difficult for them to excite, stimulate and motivate their students and prepare them for the real world where employers these days have started looking for graduates who can get along in the global marketplace. Only information technologies can help bridge the gap between the worlds of education and work even in the local job market.

More savvy students who use the internet and spend some time there may also indulge in plagues like, plagiarism and stand a good chance of getting away with it. The cut-and-paste phenomenon in the first place defeats the fundamental objective of the exercise of the written assignments. Spending time and effort in such unhealthy pursuits is unproductive and wears down the standards in educational institutions.

The practice impairs plagiarists to think logically, construct original arguments, and draw inferences. It is difficult, if not impossible, for less savvy teachers to effectively check and put an end to such practices.

Imagine this on the other end: an educational institution having classrooms equipped with multimedia, sound systems and projectors to deliver presentations along with multi-purpose computer labs where teachers illustrate and simulate observable facts. “I bring my assignments and presentations on a flash drive. Our teaching associates transfer the assignment on the teacher’s computer. Or I attach the removable drive to a computer in class and the multimedia software does rest of the job for me. Multimedia is not only a training aid but also contributes to the richness and variety to my work,” says another student.

There are complements of computing facilities, including educational software and subscriptions to some of the online research achieve services like Journal STORage (JSTOR) in purposely designed workstations for syndicate as well as individual work in computer laboratories and workstations in libraries. There are dedicated networks with their own connectivity and bandwidth. What is more, students bring their personal laptops and have the facility to connect and work.

Of course, the extent of the actual change, due to the use of IT and the degree to which progressive higher education enterprises have adapted to these changes, are quite impossible to predict in the longer run, but in the short run they have already earned a reputation among graduates, corporations and multinational concerns.

Students in technology-supported institutions are confident and rely more and more on their own initiative for knowledge exploration. IT enables them to manipulate information in a way that steps up both the understanding and the progression of higher order thinking skills and logical aptitude. The student’s horizon broadens as they gather more real-world data and share their findings beyond their own institutions.

Where one may see all these services in Pakistan? So far, in some private sector universities and business schools that can be counted on one’s fingertips.

Maybe one day, policy makers will think of creating a national educational grid and connect public as well as private sector universities and higher educational institutions to it to provide online information and support for students, teachers. and support and management staff equally. But first, all learning institutions have to have the physical infrastructure which must be needed to get hooked up to any central grid.

(Appeared in Dawn Feb 24, 2007).

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