In Kashmir, pandemic virtualized technical courses—and left a skill void

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Hamaad Andrabi was stocked with excitement when he enrolled in Kashmir’s Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST) in 2019. Finding a career in aviation, Andrabi put all of himself in the B.Tech degree.

More than eighteen months later, as he prepares for the third-semester examination of the electronics and communications branch, Andrabi isn’t sure what a circuit actually looks like.

“I have learnt things theoretically but I’m not sure if I can execute them practically,” Andrabi said, adding his years-long passion for engineering. “I had imagined it to be interesting and a good learning experience. Not the way it is.”

After three years in near-constant military lockdown in Kashmir; after the August 2019 clampdown, when New Delhi revoked the region’s limited autonomy, the pandemic began. Two deadly waves of the pandemic pushed millions of students of all ages on screens.

While the online classes have proved fruitful as an alternative for the continuation of education, in a bid to retain the students in the classrooms, a majority of students whose courses depend on practical learning face critical issues with honing their skills.

Andrabi, who is nearly half-way done with his degree, is among many students who fear if they can become skilled engineers or remain “just a degree holder” in the future.

“I will never be able to call myself an engineer if we continue to remain deprived of practical skills,” said Andrabi. “We will become labourers with knowledge, and lack technicalities and skills, not engineers.”

Just a degree

After his classes moved to the online-only mode, Andrabi’s focus is entirely limited to completing the syllabus every semester. “You have to cover all the chapters and pass the semesters,” he said. “That’s how you will get the degree.”

From distractions to the comfort of home, students like Andrabi in engineering and technology courses are devoid of practical aspects of their learning. Lockdowns have hampered practical work in higher education and it appears that learning loss will persist until campus life returns to normal.

These students continue to be worried about passing their earlier semesters without learning anything. “The problem begins where your basics aren’t clear,” he said, “and our’s are not.”

To stay focused on the right thing, Andrabi said he has invoked his own mechanism. He has been watching lectures on YouTube by different teachers across the world, and downloading relevant PDFs to gather more knowledge.

Engineering has become a lucrative career over the last decade. Thousands of students appear in the entrance tests every year across Kashmir. While for some aspirants it is a field of interest, others fall prey to peer pressure.

Andrabi and his seventy-two classmates have hardly attended classes in person since their course began in December 2019. “Now, there is no discipline, no focus anymore. That’s why there is a class.”

He instead attends virtual classes four times per day as he finds it hard to learn basic techniques properly. “You lose the understanding level with each passing day,” he said.

A lecturer, who teaches engineering students in online classes, compared online learning in engineering to that in medicine. “It is not good that the doctors learn online; they need to practice.

She believes it is important to relate theory with practicals as “both knowledge and application of knowledge is important”. “Only having theory without a good practical hand will make you technicians, not engineers,” she added.

In the long run

Imtiyaz Ahmad Shaw, dean of the Kashmir Government Polytechnic College, told The Kashmir Walla in an interview that the online teaching was a sudden shift that posed new challenges initially. From teachers to students, everybody had to learn how to deliver lectures and grab knowledge online respectively, he said.

However, he added that “students can’t be taught online the way they can be in classroom lectures.”

Since the pandemic began, the lecturers at the engineering college have been sharing videos of practical lessons to help the students in learning better. “We are giving our best to help them understand everything,” he said.

The students of this era will inevitably face issues, Shaw added. “They wouldn’t even have the concept of teamwork,” he said. “But we are helpless.”

A study by Plos One, an online publication for researchers, noted that since the onset of the pandemic, more than 1.5 billion students worldwide, which make up to 90.1 percent of total enrolled learners, have been affected by the COVID-19 closures and subsequent educational changes.

The study, titled “An observational study of engineering online education during the COVID-19 pandemic”, further added that “as a result, academic institutions that were mainly focused on traditional face-to-face instructions encountered various challenges in this transition.”

While identifying the challenges experienced by the engineering courses due to sudden shift to online instruction amid the pandemic, the study’s survey “indicated that about 30 percent of engineering students had work-life balance issues, while 55 percent of students lacked motivation, and 50 percent did not have access to a private space to attend classes”.

Shaw, the principal of KGPC, believes that the teachers have to give extra effort for online classes. “There is an issue of communication,” said Shaw. “And the learning process was obviously more effective offline.”

Tokens of knowledge

For another engineering student at the University of Kashmir, Yousman Zahoor, lecturers are giving their 100 percent to teach them but students don’t actually learn like in-person lectures.

“It creates a lot of problems for us to understand technical things online. I tried but it takes a lot of effort on our part too.”

“Now in the third semester, we learn to make printed circuit boards but I still don’t know how to do that,” she added.

Zahoor has attended online workshops to learn making circuits in the second semester but “I don’t know what we were taught in the class”.

“We didn’t have any equipment at home,” she said. “How do we learn without holding the device?”

During the exams, she said, it was all mugging up. “If this continues, we will be bookworms with token knowledge of practicals,” she added.

While the engineering students and teachers are concerned about half-baked skills, Anjum Khursheed, a superintendent engineer, who graduated a decade ago, too believes that “engineering is all about practicals”.

“Applying the theory in practicality — that’s how we can use what we learnt theoretically,” he said.

Khursheed doesn’t completely depreciate the current mode of education. He said that while it has been problematic, it also has benefits. “Tremendous time saving, so you can multitask,” said Khursheed. “You can easily access lectures of any renowned professor worldwide.”

Khursheed added that 50 percent of learning in engineering consists of practical learning “which hasn’t been covered”. “It will be a setback in the long run,” he said. “Engineers will suffer practically.”

“If you don’t attend labs, practicals, you won’t be certified as a trained engineer,” he said.

Lacking in field exposure will push the students behind to meet the ever-increasing demands of industry, Khursheed said. “They’ll graduate and might be on a better footing in theory but practicality, which is the industry’s demand, they won’t be able to meet.”

Over the years, engineering students in India have mostly been unemployed because of the unavailability of jobs in the sector and now, online engineering classes hardly guarantee them any security. In 2019, a study by the analytics firm Aspiring Minds found that “more than 1.5 million engineers who graduate in India each year – 80 percent are unemployed and close to 45 percent can be made employable with the right intervention.”

Khursheed suggested that after graduating, the students need to work hard to learn skills. “They will have to intern for at least two years,” he said. “Only then they might be able to comprehend how to do things practically.”

As the dust settles on this pandemic, the aftermath will offer new survival difficulties. Shaw said his institute will try to fill the gap and catch up on the loss.

To reduce the educational gap, the Plos One study suggested that “universities could adopt the practice of developing and implementing diagnostic tools to learn where and how large the deficiencies are” and then “offer short remediation programs with long-term reorientation of curriculum to align with student’s learning levels”.

The results of the study identified various issues that “negatively influenced the online engineering education including logistical/technical problems, learning/teaching challenges, privacy and security concerns and lack of sufficient hands-on training”.

As education continues virtually, the amount of screen timing is making it hard for the students to stay captive and curious for learning new things. The concern and regret remain. “We will get the degree, not the skills,” Andrabi concluded.

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