The Ones We’re Leaving Behind: How remote learning is accentuating inequalities at a provincial level

Photo: Umar Wazir

Towards the end of March, Associate Professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Dr. Faisal Bari, wrote an article for Dawn News pertaining to the future of education in an era of coronavirus-induced uncertainty. In it, Dr. Bari discussed the various  forms that our systems of education could possibly embody depending on the overall duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. While remaining relatively optimistic throughout the piece, he warns that if students are unable to return to their respective institutions for in-person classes, we as a nation will find ourselves in “unchartered territory.” While secondary schools and universities in the private sector will be able to adjust adequately to a hybrid or online model, unfortunately, “for most Pakistanis, who do not have internet access or will not have the resources to have internet access, the shift is not possible, even if we designed an effective education delivery system,” he wrote. 

Today, this premonition has come to pass. Student activism has once again started to gain traction, with pupils across the country having conducted yet another Student Solidarity March on June 23. The objective being, to call for the immediate cancellation of online classes and the instant reduction of semesterly fees. Students cited emotional distress and severely limited access to the internet as the reasoning behind these principle demands. 

“To continue their higher education, students in Waziristan must travel as far as Bannu (~211 KM) or Peshawar (~370 KM) where internet connectivity is available.”

However, these mere acts of advocacy based on challenges faced in accessing online classes have started to land students in hot water. With a student in the Capital University of Science and Technology being rusticated for advocating for the cancellation of online classes, university administrations are now attempting to stifle all and any such protests and forms of dissidence.

Internet landscape in Pakistan

While nation-states across the globe found themselves ill-prepared for the remote learning format, Pakistan was in an especially worse-off position. With inadequate government subsidies being provided to set up broadband connections in areas the commercial sector deemed to be unprofitable, Pakistan has emerged as one of the countries with the least number of overall fixed-broadband connections. With only 1.83 million Pakistanis having access to broadband internet, the shift to remote learning has not been entirely smooth. When contrasted with equally comparable countries, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Pakistan’s broadband internet subscribers per 100 individuals is a mere 0.93 in comparison to Iran’s 12.39 and Bangladesh’s 4.43. This has resulted in more and more of the general population having to rely on mobile data network services instead. The outbreak of the coronavirus has ensured that these existing deficiencies continue to harm those that have traditionally been ignored by the state.

Access on the peripheries

Decades of neglect and glaring infrastructural inequalities have led to internet access being severely limited for students located outside of the major urban areas of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The pandemic and the subsequent policies implemented by universities in regard to the remainder of the semester moving online, have only further exacerbated these discrepancies and have made it increasingly difficult for students specifically from Gilgit Baltistan, Balochistan, KP and the ex-FATA region to keep up with their peers.

Student activist and President of the Youth of Waziristan, Assad Ullah, is just one of the many students in the region mobilising against remote learning. “In my entire village, only I have access to a DSL broadband connection, and even then, the network itself is usually very patchy.” Years of political instability in the region has resulted in the prevention of the construction of the necessary infrastructure required to ensure decent internet connectivity in the region. Unfortunately for Assad Ullah and his peers, students in the region only have access to limited broadband internet, with mobile data services being entirely non-existent.

“I have to go to the shop to attend classes, but even there, there are customers, there’s noise and I can’t properly attend class.”

– Hedayat Ullah – Student

To continue their higher education, students in Waziristan must travel as far as Bannu (~211 KM) or Peshawar (~370 KM) where internet connectivity is available, and must convince a relative to house them in order to attend their virtual lectures. Those without relatives in those cities are left stranded in Waziristan, since private hostels have been shut down nationally because of the COVID-19 outbreak. With universities’ insistence on continuing to hold virtual classes, the students of Waziristan are falling far behind. “Either you cancel online classes, or you give us access to 3G and 4G services and other necessary internet facilities so that we may continue our education,” says Assad Ullah. 

In response to these protests, the Deputy Commissioner of Waziristan set up a number of broadband internet centres in the area. However, despite the gesture, it seems as if even these facilities are insufficient. “When too many students get together at these centres, it becomes impossible to even download a 4 MB file,” laments Assad Ullah. “When every citizen in Pakistan has access to the internet. Why don’t we?”

Even for Hedayat Ullah, a student of Iqra National University Peshawar, guaranteed internet access doesn’t mean he’ll be able to study in an environment conducive to learning. “We use [the] internet in our shop in the market. I have to go to the shop to attend classes, but even there, there are customers, there’s noise and I can’t properly attend class,” he says. After marking his attendance, he’s usually forced to leave the lecture mid-way. 

Unfortunately, for students in Northern Waziristan, the solution to their internet-related woes may not be as simple. The mere act of attempting to access these internet centres is incredibly challenging. “The internet centres that have been set in place are too far away from our locality,” says President of the Tribal Students Federation and student from the Agriculture University of Peshawar, Siraj Wazir. The closest centre to Wazir is 35 kilometers away and it would cost him anything in between 800 to 1000 rupees to get there. Thus, the cost variable makes it significantly more difficult for the average low-income student from Waziristan to access these centres.

Relying on self-study while also having to pay for classes one can’t attend, is why students are protesting on the streets today.

Unlike Assad Ullah, Wazir’s tehsil (district) has absolutely no broadband internet facilities as well as no mobile data options present for its residents to avail. Wazir’s township doesn’t even have functional mobile towers; thus, he doesn’t expect 3G and 4G services to be set up in the region anytime soon. He’s one of the many students that had to move to Peshawar in order to further their higher education and continue attending virtual classes. “If we haven’t been able to attend classes and don’t know the course material, then how will we take our exams?” says Wazir. “Sure, I came here, but what about the ones that were left behind?”

It’s Wazir’s central question that activists and social workers alike are attempting to further highlight today. What about the ones that we are leaving behind? Students stranded in these areas of low connectivity are having to rely upon the good graces of their professors and their peers. Wazir himself says that he instructs fellow students in his tehsil to refer to specific notes and directs them to read specific chapters from books in their curriculum to keep up with the rest of the class and to stay in the loop. Yet at the end of the day, relying on self-study while also having to pay for classes one can’t attend, is why students are protesting on the streets today.  

Unlike Wazir, who successfully organised peaceful protests in front of the Peshawar Press Club, and Assad Ullah, who partook in protests in Waziristan, when students in Balochistan attempted to do so to demand access to the internet, they faced arrest at the hands of law enforcement. 

Close to 70 students in Quetta were baton-charged and arrested by police, under the accusation of violating Section 144: Power to issue order absolute at once in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger, of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The same degree of infrastructural inequality prevalent in Waziristan can be found throughout Balochistan, even in the capital Quetta.

Internet in Balochistan

Balochistan has traditionally been ignored and mistreated by state entities, with low-grade net infrastructure only made available in certain districts. However, in some localities where mobile and broadband internet connections exist, they have purposefully been shut down by the authorities at hand, citing security concerns. Senator Mir Kabir Ahmed of the National Party, while addressing the Senate last month, said, “If our education continues solely on the internet, then the already weak Balochistani education system will get significantly worse,” adding, “At the very least open up the internet where it’s been intentionally shut down.”

Nazil has only tuned in to two lectures in total since moving back to Gilgit. This is not because she opts not to attend them or actively avoids them, but because the broadband internet infrastructure in Gilgit Baltistan, much like ex-FATA and Balochistan, is severely lacking and wholly underdeveloped.

Yahya, a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), had to return to Quetta once the university shut down its dormitories in March. While he was able to get by with the help of sympathetic professors and a semi-decent broadband connection, he acknowledged that for most students in the region studying from “home” was not what remote learning truly entailed. “Many students now have to wake up early and travel long distances to the nearest city or town for an internet café,” says Yahya. “For this reason, it also disproportionately impacts women.” 

Nazil, who originally hails from Gilgit, is a student at National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad, and echoes this very sentiment. Barring the limitations to mobility most female students face, more often than not, female students have had to bear the brunt of additional household work being handed over to them, while also continuing to study for their classes. Having limited access to the internet only exacerbates these inequalities. “It’s draining, it’s always more draining for the females of the household,” she says. “If you’re a brother to a sister, you’re probably adding to her weight by not helping her out with housework.” On top all of this, net-based limitations have come to obstruct both her, and the collective education of the students of Gilgit. To this date, she recalls that she has only tuned in to two lectures in total since moving back to Gilgit. This is not because she opts not to attend them or actively avoids them, but because the broadband internet infrastructure in Gilgit Baltistan, much like ex-FATA and Balochistan, is severely lacking and wholly underdeveloped. On top of which, only one mobile carrier, the Special Communications Organisation (SCO) maintained by the Pakistan Army, is allowed to provide 3G services to the people of the province. The services provided by the SCO have also garnered criticism for their glaring inefficiencies. 

Frequent power outages have only intensified the connectivity issues faced by the students of Gilgit. “In March, we would only have 4 to 5 hours of electricity per day,” says Hussain Alam, a student at LUMS student, Hussain Alam. “I would download all my recorded lectures in that amount of time.” While the frequency of power outages has reduced significantly by now, the existing internet facilities that are available for the students of Gilgit Baltistan are unsatisfactory for the purposes of attending online classes. 

Furthermore, it is becoming evident that remote learning is only reproducing and heightening pre-existing inequalities. Students with limited access to the internet have had to resort to self-learning, relying on forwarded notes, and recorded lectures, often missing out on discussion-oriented classes. The brunt of these inequalities falls once more on the already disenfranchised. While some administrations attempted to address these disparities — with LUMS sending internet devices to students studying on full Financial Aid as well as to students admitted through the National Outreach Programme (NOP), and with NUST mailing recordings of lectures on USB devices to students without satisfactory internet connections — even these commendable gestures are falling short. Those devices often didn’t function properly where the existing net infrastructure was already lacking, and courier services for USB deliveries were delayed significantly owing to the pandemic itself. 

Even in LUMS, students hailing from regions with unstable internet connections are the ones having to resort to taking classes Pass/Fail in order to maintain their GPAs. This strategy allows for the students to pass the course without having their cumulative GPAs affected because of the reasons beyond their control. In this case, lack of internet connectivity and subsequent loss of interactive classes because of COVID-19 lockdown is becoming a hindrance for students to maintain their grades. This is further proving to influence their future prospects of higher education.

Remote learning is only reproducing and heightening pre-existing inequalities.

For instance, with the Fulbright scholarship raising its GPA requirements from a minimum of 3.0 points to now at 3.5 in this year’s cycle, it has become even more crucial for students to maintain their grades if they want access to higher education abroad. Yet, an entirely online semester stands to harm those with little to no internet access, and with former NOP scholars hailing from locations with poor infrastructure, these policies only stand to disproportionately hurt the already disenfranchised even if the administration doesn’t intend to cause harm. “There’s talk of LUMS allowing freshmen into their hostels next semester, but they should accommodate NOP scholars and financial aid students instead, who have struggled with internet connectivity issues last semester,” says Alam.

Response of the Higher Education Commission

Thus, it is becoming clear, even to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) that has refused to suspend online exams or promote students based on past performance citing the options “out of question”, that Pakistan was never ready for remote learning, partly because the internet within the nation has been lacking for generations and partly because of the normalisation of infrastructural disparities.  

Remote learning has become a polarising instrument for perpetuating inequality. It’s those that were already disadvantaged that are, slowly yet surely, being left behind.

Talking to the Digital Rights Monitor, Tariq Banuri, Chairman of the Higher Education Commission, said, “We fully support the students’ demands for full internet access. Our view is that this should be seen as a basic right and every Pakistani citizen should have access to it.” Advocacy groups such as Media Matters for Democracy have been continuously pressing politicians and policymakers to decrease the digital divide through addressing the numerous maladies present within our existing internet facilities.

While the Higher Education Commission could impose certain policies to alleviate the qualms of students throughout the country, the issue penultimately lies exactly where Dr. Bari said it would three months ago. The shift to online learning was never possible outside the private sector, and what we, as a nation have come to witness is that remote learning has become a polarising instrument for perpetuating inequality. At the end, it’s those that were already disadvantaged that are slowly yet surely, being left behind.

Moosa M. Waraich is a rising Junior at New York University majoring in politics and journalism. He's a Summer 2020 intern at Media Matters for Democracy.

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