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eLearning and Higher Education in Pakistan: What may hamper it

By Abida Ellahi, Bilal Zaka / September 2014

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eLearning is in vogue, as its growth is one of the supreme energetically mounting areas of education. Despite its rapid growth across the globe, there is still a large bridge to cross between developed and developing countries in the context of eLearning's reach. As demand for information technology at universities has increased, in Pakistan there is an initiative to facilitate public and private universities with a Campus Management Solution (CMS). Initially eight public sector universities were selected for a pilot project, which has now been expanded to almost all universities countrywide at different levels of sophistication. The CMS provides campus-wide integrated information systems covering all functional areas; it also automates core managerial activities including admissions, academics, examination, fees, placements, alumni, and finance [1].

The goal of CMS implementation is to enhance each institution's brand image by increasing administrative efficiency via an integrated technological platform. Also, the CMS can be used to improve bottom- and top-line profitability by transforming the traditional university process. As the implementation of information systems has become an unavoidable concern that can bring enough potentials for higher education institutes. However, realization of such benefits requires a general consideration of the current status—for example the level of sophistication of eLearning technologies (CMS) and the challenges faced by higher education. Our research attempts to examine these considerations by studying the current status of CMS/LMS systems in Pakistan.

The purpose of this article is to describe the current attempts by universities in Pakistan to bring ICT into education and identify possible challenges in initiating full-fledge eLearning programs in the country. By adopting the situation analysis approach, first, an overview of the current status of the CMS (by selecting one module i.e. LMS) at two universities will be discussed. Major challenges faced by higher education while implementing eLearning projects will also be addressed. It is our hope that the situation analysis detailed within will be used to inform the development of a strategic framework for eLearning in Pakistan.

Distance Learning in Pakistan, An Overview

The higher-education sector in Pakistan is comprised of both public and private sector Universities, which are recognized by a government body institute referred to as the Higher Education Commission, Pakistan (HEC).

In Pakistan, the first, mega distance learning project was started in 1974 with the establishment of Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU). As the demand for information technology-based education at universities increased, the government of Pakistan took a step toward introducing ICT in the education. In 2001, a Virtual University and National ICT R&D Fund was established with the aim of "education for all" and lifelong learning. In 2002, establishment of the HEC led a number of universities in Pakistan to facilitate the higher education. Enrollment of students at universities (main campuses, sub campuses, and constituent colleges) has been increasing over the years [2]. The trend of increased student enrollment is given in Table 1.

Table 1. Enrollment at Universities and Constituent Colleges Classified by Sector (Source: HEC)
[click to enlarge]

The statistics in the above table, which can also be attributed to the growth of technology in Pakistan, depict a clear picture of distance education demand in Pakistan. To further design and implement policies for the promotion, improvement, and evaluation of higher education in Pakistan, HEC initiated and sponsored many projects such as eLearning, a digital library program, the Pakistan Education & Research Network (PERN), the Pakistan Research Repository (PRR), and a campus management system, etc. In 2011, HEC decided to introduce distance learning in public sector universities with an emphasis on setting up of special directorate at six universities as part of a pilot project.

Currently for distance learning and on campus learning, most of the public sector universities are using a CMS system. At AIOU, which is the earliest university offering distance education in Pakistan, Moodle has been used to support the OLIVE program, which uses a synchronous mode of teaching and learning (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The LMS (MOODLE) system at Allama Iqbal Open University.
[click to enlarge]

CMS/LMS as an eLearning Tool

The Commission on Science and Technology for Sustainable Development in the South (COMSATS) has been using a CMS developed in-house that consists of the following: student information system (SIS), course portal, accounts information management system (AIMS), human resource management system (HRMS), inventory management system (IMS), library information management system (LIMS), student fee management system (SFMS), and purchase management system (PMS).

At COMSATS, the SIS is a comprehensive system that provides the management with online information about all the academic activities. It also allows students and their parents to view academic progress, and facilitates registration and examination sections in maintaining the electronic records of students. Usually, students in Pakistan do not share their academic progress with their families. The course portal module is designed for teachers to view daily student attendance in the class; reflect upon topics delivered in previous class lectures; and monitor grades for different quizzes, assignments, session tests, and the final examination.

Figure 2. The LMS system used by COMSATS.
[click to enlarge]

The management console is designed for managers who handle the administrative matters in the university. This module/console provides information about the online status of all the classes being conducted, the attendance of students in any of the classes, the academic progress of a class, the attendance and academic progress of any of the registered students, and the topic delivered from the course plan of any class.

The student/parent console displays all of student's academic activities including grades obtained in quizzes, assignments, sessional, and the final examination. The students and their parents are kept informed about daily attendance in each of the conducted classes. A student (or the parents) can only view his/her information. The registration facilitates the registrar office in automatic, online and manual registration of the students. Using the examination module, the registration and exam department can add students in the database, and update the academic progress of the student. The system administrator console allows the system administrator to create users with different roles such as faculty. The course portal module is a common platform that joins together teacher and students by collecting and articulating contents of all subjects.

Challenges Faced by Higher Education

The current status of selected CMS/LMS system at a few universities shows an encouraging status of the growing ICT in higher education sector in Pakistan. However, it is still in its embryonic state. These systems lack the student generated content component such as a Web 2.0 approach to online learning. All these systems can be described as being in the initial stage of usage.

Recently, a new step has been taken by the higher-education sector to expand the distance learning programs, which were previously confined to only two universities, AIOU and Virtual University (VU) of Pakistan. HEC has been working on an eLearning policy initiative that has great potential; however, implementing a full-fledge eLearning system across the country is not without challenges. The desire to fully embrace eLearning in Pakistan can still be considered a partially filled dream because of the infrastructure hurdles, due to electricity load shedding, users' resistance or lack of awareness among the population about the potentials of eLearning, curriculum development, alignment with the existing traditional pedagogies, just to name a few. The successful implementation of eLearning directly depends upon four levels: namely the teachers' level, the student level, the institutional level, and the curriculum level. These four levels can be considered the biggest challenges for HEC in the context of eLearning.

Teachers' level. One of the biggest challenges for instructors is the technical skill required to deal with eLearning systems. Instructors are required to "develop and restructure their courses in a way that suits online requirements," which ultimately increases their work load, as they need to work not only on course development but on the proficiency or acquisitions of their own technical skills [3]. Hence, they may resist this new technology that may hinder the potential of eLearning. Some of them might become victims of a growing menace of technophobia, which may inhibit them to fully utilize eLearning systems. While others remain skeptical about the necessity of integration of technology into learning [4], hence, they don't appreciate paradigm shift in pedagogy settings.

University teachers in distance learning programs mediated by learning management system, may face more challenges such as communication and collaboration with isolated students, as well as difficulty in assessing students especially during their final class projects vivas and presentations. Teachers would need to change their way of conducting or marking exam papers. The challenges facing instructors are:

  • Educating and training instructors.
  • Enhancing technical competencies of instructors.
  • Additional time management by instructors.
  • Overcoming instructor resistance as users of an eLearning system.
  • Overcoming technophobia faced by instructors as users of an eLearning system.
  • Improving the limitations of eLearning systems in terms of communication.

Student level. Students also face issues regarding eLearning systems. The major concern in the context of students is their motivation to use a system that directly affects their learning outcomes. Researchers have argued online courses are successful when the students are involved and active participants. Students may find it difficult to study on screen material, as they are accustomed to the methods of paper-based readings, which allow to highlight text and make notes to foster their comprehension. There is also the issue of being unable to connect to the server for long periods of time due to low bandwidths or electricity problems; hence, students need offline material. Unfortunately, it is not just a simple solution of downloading the course material or reading an HTML web pages [5]

Another problem faced by students is social isolation from instructors and peers, especially in distance learning programs. This is due to the lack of face-to-face communication with instructors and course mates. Out of the student-student and instructor-student interaction, the latter is "the stronger of the two interaction measures in terms of predicting effectiveness" [6]. Such feelings of isolation may cause increased dropout rates.

Last but not the least is technical competencies or support to operate and manage the learning software. Like instructors, students also face the technophobia problem; hence, they resist impeding the desired learning outcomes. There are eight identifiable barriers to students' learning in online context: administrative issues, social interaction, academic skills, technical skills, learner motivation, time and support for studies, cost and access to Internet, and technical problems [7, 8]. In a recent study conducted at a private university in Pakistan, it was found that technical difficulties, access to computers, English competency, need for face to face interaction, level of awareness, computer literacy, resistance to change, student assistance, and privacy and security are the challenges of implementing eLearning in a Pakistani university [9]. So, on students' part, eLearning would face the following challenges:

Incorporating or enhancing social interaction of instructors and students.

  • Developing technical skills among students as learners.
  • Prohibiting students' dropout from eLearning.
  • Providing flexible and easy to use eLearning soft ware.

Institutional level. At the institutional level, the main problem of eLearning implementation is the cost software. HEC selected Oracle PeopleSoft Enterprise Campus Solution for public sector universities for which Rs 130 million (approximately 1.2 million USD) had been allocated for all six universities, while installation at the Dow University of Health Sciences (DUHS) cost approximately Rs 130 million (HEC and DUHS each paid 50 percent) [10].

In this context, ["the problem of limited funds for e-learning projects in Pakistan can be addressed by using open source software" [9]. Coupled with these initial cost problems, another issue is ensuring adequate specialized human resources. Together, these problems demand institutions to make arrangements for maintaining proper infrastructure, and providing ongoing technical support by hiring technical support staff and initiating on or off the job training courses for users. Institutions may also face complications in recruiting specialists and skilled staff to develop high quality eLearning materials.

Many institutions in Pakistan consider the provision of ongoing technical support by specialists a requirement of the HEC, instead of considering it a necessity for the institutional competitiveness. This may leave a loophole in institutional commitment, which is crucial for the success of any project especially for eLearning project, which is not a simple implementation of IT but is a new learning pedagogy shift.

Institutions also face the task of instantly persuading the academic staff to accept this new technology as a change agent in their existing teaching methodology, which is also a significant challenge [11]. Implementing an eLearning program requires many changes within institutions—which is a sort of "business process reengineering." These required changes involve "staff organizational integration, flexible delivery to students (on/off campus), and new concepts of teaching" [12]. Out of all these, a major challenge faced by institutions in Pakistan is providing more flexible learning and teaching environments.

Institutions in Pakistan need also to confront a crucial matter of assessing the quality of eLearning information systems. Such "evaluation of Information System performances means evaluation of performances in hardware, software, computer networks, data and human resources which aims upgrading and especially improvement in quality of maintenance" [13]. In the context of eLearning systems, evaluation does not only include information system evaluation but the assessment of complete teaching and learning outcomes. This imposes a need for an ongoing process of internal, as well as external, audit similar to what occurs in the U.K.—Ofsted audits in schools and colleges, whereas the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) audits in universities. Hence, the challenges faced by institutions for eLearning are summarized as follow:

  • Assessing and maintaining quality of eLearning systems.
  • Provision of adequate funds for software acquisition, and training sessions or using open-source software.
  • nsuring adequate and specialized human resource and technical support to users.

Curriculum level. eLearning courses have three major forms:

  • Online distance-learning courses (asynchronous mode).
  • Online synchronous courses using LMS.
  • Hybrid courses (traditional teaching with the aid of technology).

Here, a question arises: Does eLearning support each type of course taught at the university level? Curriculum development is a challenge HEC is trying to met, as it is "a continuous process of mounting an educational program over a period of time, which has no terminal point" [14]. The process of curriculum development begins with setting learning objectives that must take in to account Institutional goals, learner characteristics, level of studying (undergraduate, graduates etc.); as well as delivery modes such as eLearning, distance learning, or a traditional way of teaching. Which course can be aligned with an eLearning system is a question that needs to be answered, because in eLearning, especially distance learning programs, students are required to learn the technology first and the curriculum second.

There are many courses, like mathematics or chemistry, when equations can be best solved or taught in the traditional learning environment. In a 1994 study students assessed courses with higher-paradigm development (such as statistics epidemiology and accounting/finance) as less applicable for computer conferencing than courses with lower-paradigm development (such as organization theory and comparative health care systems) [15]. Among human, technical, and course issues, the most difficult issue is the alignment of all (theoretical and practical) modules of a course/subject with an eLearning mode of instruction, for example, through eLearning, doctors can learn about anatomy but cannot learn surgical and patient care skills [16]. Similarly, the subject of chemistry also requires laboratory work. which cannot be provided by the eLearning structure. Curriculum development for eLearning is not simply a course structure but also includes software page design for modules, content enrichment as well as content interactivity from learner's perspectives. Hence, curriculum development is a major concern for authorities on which all learning and information system's success depends.

While observing the library information system in Pakistan, a 2012 study suggested improving the quality of teaching skills as well as aligning the curriculum with the new technological trends and demands of job market in this digital era [17]. The curriculum development challenges for eLearning programs in Pakistan may be summarized as:

  • Enrichment and interactivity with curriculum.
  • Alignment of curriculum with technology and existing methodology.
  • Ongoing assessment and enhancement of curriculum according to the new trends in technology.


The potentials of eLearning are far greater than its challenges. Thus, it is imperative institutions and the HEC work together to resolve the challenges discussed in this article. In Pakistan, where eLearning has not yet reached its full peak due to challenges of infrastructure, eLearning software, quality assurance, training, faculty development, financing, curriculum development, and learning outcomes coupled with attitudinal factors among users. For this, periodic research or in-depth analyses are required to make eLearning or ICT in education a nationwide success.

HEC must not consider it simply a deployment of information system, but a social change in terms of technology as well as pedagogy, with an indispensable aim to shape a generation of young "learners." eLearning is not just simply learning via electronic means, instead, it can be considered as an "evolving learning" paradigm in the developing country context. The transformation of existing pedagogy via eLearning demands long-term commitment to grow and maintain the program.

In order to meet all obvious and hidden challenges, a separate eLearning task force must be established to initiate, develop, cultivate and evaluate ICT in education. An inter-institutional eLearning competitiveness program would be beneficial: "Education is no longer an option; it is the prescription for economic survival" [18]. There is an imperative need for a nationwide comprehensive policy for eLearning in Pakistan.


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About the Authors

Abida Ellahi is a lecturer at Fatima Jinnah Women University. She holds degrees of M.Phil and MBA. Her Ph.D. in technology management at International Islamic University is in progress. She earned her M.S. degree from the same University in 2010. Her research interests include policy research, e-health, eLearning, and social work education. Her research has been published in international journals, as well as in national and international conferences.

Dr. Bilal Zaka is the head of the department and General Manager of the COMSATS IT Center. He holds degree of Ph.D. in computer science and his area of research is "innovative media technologies." His research has been published in international journals, as well as in national and international conferences.

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