Recreating classrooms

Originally Published in: Express Tribune

Writer: Farah Alam

The writer, a graduate from the University of Warwick, has been working in the education-technology sector in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Karachi for the past few years


As technology becomes ubiquitous, how we think, obtain information, travel and work is increasingly dependent upon the way in which technology intervenes in our lives. The exponential growth of technology has changed our world and the digital future we once envisioned is here.

In developing countries, where infrastructure in sectors such as health, transportation and education are fragmented, exponential technologies have the potential to cause disruption. Not too long ago we witnessed this in Pakistan with the penetration of Careem and its transformation of our transportation sector. What is most intriguing in this case is the provision of a personalised solution. One that can be obtained at the press of a button, from a device held in the palms of your hand. At the heart of this is one fundamental element — access to an internet connection.

A 2016 report by the World Bank states that access to the internet significantly affects economic development by fostering inclusion, improving efficiency and boosting innovation. Compared to an average 10% global increase in internet users, Pakistan saw an increase of 20% at the start of the year. Broadband coverage is expanding across the country and a study showed that a staggering one million Pakistanis are going online every month via their smartphones with a total of 29 million mobile internet users recorded in 2016.

Mobile phone technology was leveraged by a Mobilink-Unesco SMS-based literacy programme aimed at improving literacy among girls in a village of Hafizabad where an astounding 54% girls achieved an ‘A’ result after completing the programme compared to a meagre 27% previously. Out of 50 million children between the ages of five and 16, 24 million are out of school in Pakistan. For women, the situation is abysmal with only 51% ever having attended school, a number that is even lower in rural areas. Contributing factors range from distance to schools and limited financial resources, as monetary constraints lead families to prioritise boys’ education over girls’.

Pakistan’s education crisis is no breaking news. An oversimplified account of the situation is two-fold. On one hand, the issue stems from the quantity of educational institutions relative to the surge in population and on the other the quality of education that they provide which determines student retention rates. Consequently, policymakers and educationists face the conundrum of which problem to solve first. Should the number of schools and number of children enrolled be increased followed by improvements in the quality of education, or vice versa? In the midst of balanced arguments for either course of action, taking a look at the future of education through the lens of technological innovation reveals some enlightening possibilities.

Across the world, education technology, or edtech, is recreating classrooms through revised arrangements of teaching and learning practices. Take Khan Academy for instance, its mission to expand a network of free instructional videos and a personalised learning dashboard to students worldwide enables access to education anywhere and at any time by virtue of having an internet connection. An influx of massive open online courses, popularly known as MOOC, is also modifying higher education through platforms such as Coursera by providing various university courses online. Most of them, completely for free. Moreover, cognitive computing is paving the way for personalised learning. The IBM in collaboration with Sesame Street is developing a personalised digital language learning tool for primary school children. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Our current education system is extensively criticised for its assumption that all students are created equal. For the 21st century learner this premise is appropriately challenged and replaced with an understanding of the vastly different individual needs and capacities of students today. When utilised effectively, technology may provide tutor-like experiences without breaking the bank. However, to what extent do these methods offer a viable solution to educate the children of Pakistan?

There is no blanket technology solution to education. Correctly leveraging the internet and smart technology may help break down the barriers to learning particularly for the bottom of the pyramid, the largest untapped consumer segment in the world which constitutes 60 million of our country’s population — a group characterised by illiteracy. For them, the potential of edtech is immense.

Government schools in Pakistan are notorious for their lack of teaching staff, basic facilities and scarce resources with Alif Ailaan recording 6,164 non-functional, ghost schools in Sindh alone. According to an IBM report, new digital tools, advanced analytics and cognitive systems are facilitating a utopia of teaching shifting education from a homogenous one-to-many experience to one that is immersive and personalised. In a situation where 29% of government schools are run by single teachers and 16% are overcrowded single-room schools, can a move away from the traditional brick-and-mortar school challenge barriers to accessing education for our most marginalised children?

Traditional schooling methods lack rigour and an ability to tailor education. While pedagogical research proposes digital mediums are ideal when coupled with human intervention, limited budgets and pushback against rising tuition costs hinder the adoption of technology at low-income institutions. In light of the deplorable state of Pakistan’s schools and teaching talent, will bringing education to the palms of our children give them the opportunity to become active participants in our economy and eventually, the world?

The pace at which infrastructure develops to support a digital ecosystem enabling a robust edtech sector is the biggest obstacle to achieving this future. Much of the existing debate is on education centres on government policy reforms, institutional inefficiencies and appropriate budget allocations. While we live in the midst of a digital world, we need to take a step forward and explore innovative approaches to solving our education crisis with urgency.

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