Online education: ‘The road not taken’


By Dr. Waquar Ahmad Khan

BEING a linguist, I study every aspect of language, including vocabulary, grammar, the sound of language, and how words evolve over time. So, I am always a bit conservative to make any calculations about the future of online teaching.

Robert Frost in his famous poem “The Road Not Taken” symbolizes road as the choice we make in our life that impacts our destiny and future. The important message in the wake of an unprecedented outbreak of inauspicious COVID-19 has shaken up the landscape of worldwide educational scenario dramatically giving a forced choice for online education. The predominance of face-to- face teaching vs. online education shows represents choice between the road not taken versus the road taken. The road not taken calls for “emergency remote teaching”, though in the present circumstances, it might initially appear as an uncharted territory to some, if not too many.

Traditional educational system is moving online. This was the case before the COVID-19 crisis also, but the way this pandemic forced educational system to change from classroom teaching to online teaching has truly been unprecedented. We are facing a deadlock kind of situation for education systems around the world. It terribly illustrates the need for schools, colleges and higher educational institutions to build a technological support and digital proficiency to handle this COVID -19 crisis and to enter a new era of teaching and learning. We all need to understand that there are differences in pattern, model, plan, composition and support of online/distance teaching and classroom teaching. However, I do believe that online feedback is limited in nature which causes social isolation but so far this is one of the basic remedies to reduce the spread of this pandemic.

No one would have predicted the immediate necessity of online learning technology in full flow in the face of a pandemic. COVID-19 is likely to profoundly alter our lifestyle, human behavior and learning behavior. The impact would be seen in the way we learn and teach. It might change the formal off-line learning systems though it may not be solely replaceable. Now online learning has started influencing human thinking and behavior. It has already altered the growth of employment prospects beyond everyone’s imagination.

The higher education environs have historically been slow to adapt. Basically, every institution in the world is now trying to find out the way how they will offer online learning and teaching as a stop-gap measure. Fortunately, technology and content are available to help them do this quickly and with quality. The mechanization and platform choices are making it easier for the school, colleges, and universities to deliver a high-quality online learning experience. Had the crisis occurred a decade ago, it would have deformed the system. Fortunately, now we have extensive internet access, high quality communications tools, friendly video-conferencing and smart phone ratifications.

As we look at the present form of educational system across Saudi Arabia after COVID -19 pandemic, we find that the Ministry of Higher Education had announced the study schedule for the various levels of general education within its study plan much before to protect students, teaching, and non-teaching members from this pandemic.

The ministry accelerated the electronic teaching and learning process. As a result, approximately 1.6 million university students have benefited from distance learning across the Kingdom. The ministry has devised some major plans, but internet-based learning is still not so popular in the Kingdom. There is a major problem of connectivity. In remote areas connectivity is very low, students always complain about excess to the BLACKBOARD portal. Many a students are not having computers, laptops at home and mobile phones have their own limitations. Despite of all odds, under the dynamic leadership of Taibah University, Al Ula branch dean, Dr. Dhifallah Alrefaei, within a short span of time teachers moved to online teaching mode, initially with some difficulties students but later started enjoying the new format of teaching.

But then there is one very important question that needs to be answered. How far professional preparations and uploaded materials have assumed a different dimension and direction? When social distancing begs a vital question as to how to create the best practices on online education there lies in its vibrant scope to address a range of audience based on documented materials it can accommodate and restructure the improvised materials for online teaching. Researchers, teachers and experts need to systematically document their use of online technology, critically reflect on achievements and pitfalls because of the operational realities of online technology. Only then it is possible to measure the impact of learners’ performances in their attitudes toward this drastic change.

— The author is an assistant professor at Department of languages and translation studies, College of science and arts, Taibah University, Al Ula Campus, Madinah.