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How Technology Enables Education in Pakistan

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Educational outreach in Pakistan is at an all time low and has reached a critical stage. Yet despite all the mismanagement and the lack of immediate measures on the part of government, there’s one thing that has a huge potential to drive and enable education on the national level – and this one thing is technology.

Though Pakistan claims to have a 50% literacy rate, it’s a very narrow definition of “literacy” which says that anyone who can read and write his or her name is literate! With the passage of time, there have been numerous campaigns which tend to keep reminding us of the dire situation of education in the region. One such campaign was initiated early this year and is called The Education Emergency . This campaign aims to use technology in order to create mass awareness about how severe the consequences will be if immediate action is not taken.

Below is just one of several videos they have on their website which tells how critical the situation has become.

Educationalists have begun to realize the importance of technology in making education available to far flung areas. There have been many such start-ups that recognize the true potential of technology and make use of it to educate the larger population.

Another example is VEFA Pakistan or Virtual Education For All. They use technology to deliver lectures and course programs in the national language. They have a couple of projects including an e-school which uses YouTube to deliver lectures.

We also have the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project in Pakistan working on a pilot project basis. OLPC advocates using technology for massive educational outreach across the country.

Acknowledging the great potential of everyday technology, the government of Pakistan has also jumped on the bandwagon and launched a national university for higher education which uses technology to make access to education easy for everyone. Called the Virtual University , it has proven a  huge success.

Following the trend, one of the largest of Pakistan’s universities, the Allama Iqbal Open University which has been providing remote learning to far flung rural and urban areas of the country, has also moved to make some revolutionary reforms to the programs they offer and use extensive technology for further enhancements. Such measures have proven to be very successful across the whole country.

Nethertheless, despite all the great measures that have been taken, the country has still failed to properly address the education emergency which has now reached a critical stage. The reason is that the measures undertaken are not enough to address the needs of the country’s ever growing population. As a rough estimate puts the population of Pakistan at over 180 million people, providing quality higher learning opportunities to the masses is indeed a daunting challenge. Even though there’s been a lot of buzz which keeps alerting the government to the threat of the education emergency reaching a truly critical stage, the government does seem to have other priorities to tend to and just keeps on repeating that it’s doing everything in its power.

Even so, the private sector still maintains that not enough is being done and that there’s room for a hell of a lot more improvement if only new means to educational access were explored. For example, did you know that Pakistan has the highest mobile penetration rate in the whole of  South Asia with over 108 million mobile phone subscribers as of April 2011, as reported by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. In the period 2009-2010 alone, no  less than 151.6386 billion SMS messages were sent. Pakistan even has over 20 million internet subscribers also in far flung areas and their number is growing. Another unexplored avenue in Pakistan is the social media scene. Pakistan’s largest ICT magazine CIO Pakistan gives more detailed statistics in this tremendous video.

In turning to new approaches, people have now begun to explore using the medium of SMS for education. SMS education is now being experimented with in new projects in the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan. The World Bank blog reports an interesting case:

“In February, almost 150 third year students at Asghar Mall College in Rawalapindi (note: ‘third year’ in this context would be roughly the equivalent of the first year at university in the United States) for whom authorities had mobile phone numbers on file began participating on a voluntary basis in a daily vocabulary quiz exercise delivered by SMS. These young men — from middle to lower middle class backgrounds — are sent a simple multiple choice question. Texts are addressed to each student individually, using the equivalent of a ‘mail merge’ function that will be familiar to anyone who has had to send out ‘blast’ emails or faxes). They reply via SMS, and then receive an automated response, based on their answer. In this response, their answer is repeated, a notation is made about whether the answer given was correct or not, and the correct answer is incorporated into a sample sentence.”

and concludes:

“This sort of thing is no substitute for school, of course. But, given current test messaging rates in Pakistan — a country with some of the fastest growth in recent years in text messaging in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as some of the lowest tarif rates — it is quite cheap. It is “on-the-go”. It is supplemental to what is being taught in the classroom, and increasingly easy to do, given the technology tools and code base out there. While Pakistan may not see high household penetration rates of desktop computers connected to the Internet for many, many years to come, most every household already has access to a small connected ‘computer’ of a different sort — the mobile phone — and this project is seeking to capitalize on this reality.”

Once again, there’s still room for improvement and for exploring all the resources we have. The  E-Learning Association is one such organization which creates awareness about technology, education and government policy megatrends.

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