FeaturedInternationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 01

Harnessing Technology in Aid of Education

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the world faces a “generational catastrophe” because of school closures amid the coronavirus pandemic and said that getting students safely back to the classroom must be “a top priority.”

According to UN sources as of mid-July schools were closed in some 160 countries, affecting more than one billion students, while about 40 million children missed out on pre-school. This is in addition to 250 million children already out of school before the pandemic. This means colossal waste of promising human potential which will undermine decades of global economic progress.

Various research studies show that we face a global leaning crisis, as many students were in school, but were not learning the fundamental skills needed for life. The World Bank’s “Learning Poverty” indicator – the percentage of children who cannot read and understand at age 10 –stood at 53% in low- and middle-income countries – before the outbreak started. The pandemic has further worsened the situation, leading to (1) Losses in learning (2) Increased dropout rates (3) Children missing their most important meal of the day. Moreover, many developing countries have very unequal education systems, and these negative impacts will be felt disproportionately by poor children.

In Pakistan, over 300,000 schools have been closed since March due to the coronavirus outbreak. Some students at better equipped private schools have been able to continue learning through digital platforms and applications. But for millions of other Pakistani students, the fundamentals of connected life – smartphones and the internet – remain out of reach.

Access to education is a serious problem in Pakistan – 22.8 million of Pakistan’s over 70 million children are out of school. According to an estimate, due to the coronavirus outbreak over 50 million school and university-going Pakistanis now risk falling behind in their studies. For holding online classes, poor internet services are a major hurdle, particularly in remote provinces, like Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Outside big cities, home broadband is expensive, smartphone penetration stands at 51%. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), only one million school-age children have regular access to digital devices and bandwidth. However, about 40 million Pakistani children have access to television. That is why the government launched its coronavirus distance learning strategy with a dedicated TV channel called Teleschool. Figures show that television has a wider reach than digital technology at the moment in Pakistan.

Launched on April 13, the channel runs on state-owned PTV Home, which has a subscriber base of over 54 million people, and broadcasts content for grades 1-12, sourced for free from four Pakistani edtech companies. A text messaging system with 250,000 subscribers was added in late May so parents and students could engage with dedicated teachers.

The government is now planning to start a radio school to meet the learning needs of remote areas. Also on the cards are an e-learning portal with digital content available on demand and a local area network system to deliver content to the poorest regions. A “student relief package” with low-cost internet packages and reduced duties on smartphones are also in the works. Funding for Teleschool came from a $5m World Bank grant, while a $20m grant has been given by the Global Partnership for Education, a multilateral funding platform focused on developing nations.

It was a good idea to deliver lessons through smartphones but even households with smartphones face problems. Sometimes, one smartphone is not enough to cater to the needs of more than five children. As no firm decision has been taken as when schools will open, parents and educators are concerned about the loss of the valuable time of children. Schools were initially scheduled to reopen on July 15, but government officials now say they may reopen on September 15, if coronavirus figures improve.

In the meantime, online content is running out of steam. Launching new learning applications and ensuring a steady flow of online content is proving a major challenge. Entrepreneurs in education technology see in the situation an opportunity for expansion and investment in a long-ignored sector.

As far as the government is concerned, edtech has not been a priority because of low national numbers for devices and internet connections. However, in recent years, smartphone penetration has been growing fast. Due to the pandemic, edtech numbers are rising. Since schools closed, the well known Taleemabad app has seen a 660% rise in the rate at which people are joining the platform and Muse SABAQ grew by 200%. Knowledge Platform Pakistan has sold its edtech products to 400 new schools.

There is a consensus of opinion among IT experts that the government must now invest in private sector partnerships and allow wide-scale testing of digital solutions on Pakistan’s nearly 200,000 public sector schools. At present, the government is running a pilot project in 75 high schools in Islamabad in partnership with the country’s biggest telecommunications network and edtech company Knowledge Platform. But now everyone has realised the importance of promoting educational technology.

Knowledgeable circles say that if there is a focused government initiative to boost the sector, education will be revolutionised in two to three years. This will also take care of long standing problems bedeviling the sector – the poor quality of teachers, ghost schools and low levels of learning.