Universities unprepared for switch to remote learning

As coronavirus containment measures spread in South Asia, universities in countries such as India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are finding they are ill-prepared for online learning or remote classes as their campuses close and their students return home, sometimes to remote areas without internet or proper facilities to continue classes.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a complete lockdown in the country until 14 April as 76 districts in 22 states reported coronavirus cases, the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region) and Uttar Pradesh being the worst hit.

India’s main universities have suspended classes until 31 March, with suspensions expected to continue for some time as the virus spreads. But for students to only study online is difficult in India where internet connectivity is costly and a significant problem, particularly in rural areas with slow or non-existent internet access. Students report significant disruptions at home particularly in overcrowded households.

On 18 March higher education authorities in Pakistan instructed all universities to organise online teaching and learning, as educational institutions were closed down under an earlier order on 13 March.

On 23 March, Pakistan announced a two-week lockdown in the country, with all in-country transport suspended, international air travel halted and the army called in. On 26 March, Federal Minister for Federal Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mehmood announced that universities and other educational institutions would be closed until 31 May.

In a letter, Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) asked universities to “engage faculty and quickly develop online courses and disseminate those to the students in view of the coronavirus situation in the country”. The letter states: “Coronavirus pandemic has endangered us all and online education is the solution for the safety of the faculty and the students.”

As of 26 March the number of COVID-19 cases had risen to 1,200 with nine deaths.

Pakistan has faced university closures many times in the past decade due to terror attacks and the politics of agitation, but universities then did not adopt online teaching. A sudden shift to digital learning amid the coronavirus crisis has posed some challenges to the system as the majority of students do not have their own computers or internet facilities.

In Afghanistan, where all public and private institutions were closed from 14 March, ongoing winter holidays were extended for another month until 21 April. But access to online learning platforms is also restricted, either by lack of constant electricity supply in some areas or internet bandwidth issues, with delivery of courses via television channels or mobile phones a more realistic option.


In India, some authorities are gearing up support for students and universities to shift to the online mode.

For example, the government in the southern state of Kerala announced it would provide extra bandwidth across the state while more students are likely to turn to online learning amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

But the shift is not always easy. Sarwadeep Bhatia, VP sales and operations, Digibook Technologies said: “Shifting from face-to-face teacher training and conventional classrooms to computer-based education in a virtual classroom makes the learning experience totally different for many students.”

Some students can’t adapt to the switch, he notes.

The government’s approach to online education has been guarded. Only the top 100 institutions in India’s National Institutional Ranking Framework are allowed to apply to provide fully online degrees.

The government is currently working on a new national education policy and a draft version describes a significant role for online learning for increasing access to higher education. The policy encourages Indian institutions to develop their own online programmes and suggests some foreign institutions could operate in India.


Tariq Banuri, chairman of Pakistan’s HEC, told University World News: “We have already developed a good number of online courses for university students and have provided those to universities but there are a lot of other courses which are still not available in digital form.”

Abid Manzoor, who is studying for a masters degree in economics from Layyah city's sub-campus of Bahauddin Zakariya University, went back to his village, Nawankot, 75km from the campus, when the closure of academic institutions was announced.

Manzoor told University World News: “My village is located in the Thal desert of Punjab where the majority of the area does not have even mobile phone signals, so how could we have access to the internet? I have heard there will be online teaching, but I do not have a computer and no internet here, although I know how to use a computer.”

“Boarding students have left for their homes located mostly in less developed areas, and the majority of them do not have access to computers at their homes or internet for online learning,” Shabbar Kazmi, dean of the faculty of information technology at Lahore's University of Central Punjab, told University World News.

Kazmi said online education was the only viable option to minimise academic losses to students, but he lamented past inaction by the academic managers and the government to convert the entire education system to digital. “We should have developed a comprehensive online education system for the universities and tested that much before the spread of the coronavirus,” Kazmi told University World News.

The University of Agriculture Faisalabad is administering daily classes as before the closure of the university, but the number of students benefiting is a fraction of the total enrolled students. The university has seven faculties and 11 specialised institutes with 29,000 students enrolled, but only 4,239 connections were made on 25 March to the university’s Learning Management System.

However, the universities that were imparting online education before the spread of COVID-19, such as Islamabad's Allama Iqbal Open University and Lahore's Virtual University, have proved to be successful, having developed online and distance education systems long before the spread of the pandemic and subsequent closure of the universities.


The American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in the capital Kabul has switched to online classes. But AUAF President David Sedney acknowledged: “While our main effort will be focused on the use of the Canvas platform, we understand that some students will not be able to access Canvas due to bandwidth or electricity issues. As you all know, AUAF is making data packages available to help address band-width issues.”

Mobile phone penetration is higher in Afghanistan than internet connectivity. Sedney said AUAF will take measures to ensure education can continue by phone.

Locally, Afghan authorities are also eyeing territorial and cable TV networks. For instance, the directorate of education for Nangarhar province, 100 km east of Kabul, inked in an agreement with a TV channel to telecast lessons for students.

But this is not enough for many students. “What about the entry and supplementary examinations? There is no clarification. I fear we have lost at least one year of studies,” Syed Mahmood, a Kabul University student, told University World News.

“Had officials worked seriously on developing a dedicated TV [channel] for education, we would have not been worrying about expensive internet packages and power breakdowns under such circumstances,” said Ismail Hashimi, a Kabul-based private university student.

Free courses

In India and Pakistan, many online education companies are providing students with free access to their courses and programmes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Online learning giant Coursera said it is helping universities and colleges take learning online, providing affected higher education institutions around the world, including India, with free access to its course catalogue through ‘Coursera for Campus’ until 31 July.

Coursera’s existing ‘Coursera for Campus’ partners include KL University, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, UPES University Dehradun, Shiv Nadar University, NMIMS University Mumbai and Pearl Academy.

Coursera said it has five million registered learners in India and is adding over 100,000 learners per month.

Bengaluru-based edtech firm Simplilearn is also giving free access to its complete learning platform to impacted students, including its courses, based on machine learning, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and big data, among others. Many other Indian education technology firms have also come forward to offer free access to classes and courses to their users.

Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and CEO of an edtech platform Unacademy, said his firm would support the education system and students in India in every way possible.

“Unacademy plans to bring together their entire network of educators to conduct free live classes for students and help them learn from the comfort of their homes,” he said in a statement.