An Education Revolution in the making in Pakistan

14949482-finger-click-learn-title-symbolWe are ostensibly in a mess. In a country where we cannot count our people numbers – from 180 to 200 mn- we apparently know our livestock numbers. Or so says the Ministry of Livestock. Exact numbers!!! They can actually identify buffaloes and cows without RFID tags, and count them. Conclusion, we have a great ability to fool ourselves.

In over a year of working with the education people in Pakistan, I reached a similar conclusion that we are messed up and fooling ourselves. But, more significantly, it does not matter, because there is a thick silver lining on the horizon.

The numbers I quote are to be treated with a pinch of salt, as we are not sure. Neither will Google reveal all, as many reports and many numbers exist. We have to simply decide which one to work with and then settle for it. You can do no better. After all, I started with the words that we are in a mess. I have used a mish-mash of data. On the face of it, we have some 55% of the population which is literate. The gender ratio is worse. Women 40%; Men 68%.

That means we have +40% illiterates, 75 mn people! Even in the so-called literates, our average years of schooling are optimistically estimated as 7 years, rather than the typical 14. Not so good. The demographic breakdown of illiterate people suggests that approximately +60% is above 25 years age and unlikely to become literate now. That leaves some 28 mn who could become literate even at this stage.

When you look at the young, the numbers become even more alarming. Approximately 3.8 mn children are added each year to our population. Our present school infrastructure has a capacity of teaching between. 1.5 – 2mn annually. So, there is a literacy delta of about 2 mn kids per annum and in 20 years we would have added 40 million more illiterates to our population. We are looking down the barrel of illiteracy and are un-merrily dancing our way down to our version of hell. The illiteracy trap!!!

In all this doom and gloom, “our thick silver lining” is stirring. Technology! Moore’s Law suggests. If today technology indexed capability is 100 and indexed cost is 100. Then it will halve in costs and double in capability every 18 months. So, 20 years from now technology costs will be 0.012 and capability will be 819,000. A hardware device (as will exist then) will be cheaper than a sheaf of paper. That is going to be our saving grace.

A revolution is in progress in education worldwide. Led by a gentleman called Salman Khan and sponsored by Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. Astounding numbers are being taught via online structured education program. Recently, Salman Khan made it to Forbes Magazine cover, as the father of modern day education. The education revolution is on.

Another wonderful example of the force of technology is “The hole in the Wall” concept of Sugata Mitra. You can view his fascinating talk on TED which puts the concept forward. Simply put, younger minds left with technology access, free to exercise their mind unguided, learn literacy, math and all sorts of other things at express speed. This has huge implications, as technology cost reduces and we are able to provide access world over. And it need not be through a one laptop per child policy, which is expensive and prohibitive to a mass scale venture.

There are several other successful projects out there. Khan Academy and now several others are blazing a path to the collective glory of high literacy. The signs are clear. Even the large institutions like Harvard and MIT are also putting their curriculum online. The world is about to change. No infact it has changed.

Translate the above to our situation in Pakistan. Scores of NGO’s are now diving into this technology/education game*. Not only that, some social entrepreneurship organizations see profits in this sector, so they are entering also. My life experience tells me, when the nirvana of profits is visible, stuff happens. Human psyche! Worried people of Pakistan, I promise you we have opened the door to literacy and in 20 years literacy at least should not be an issue Inshallah. Added to that is the fact that no government can now disregard this education-technology deep dive. Votes depend on it. PML-N took the first steps last year and PTI of course has it as their main plank.

While we will hit and miss, I envision a process whereby, education sans teacher, but facilitated, will reach into the villages and the urban slums. It will be cheap, mostly standardized delivery, but the output due to less teaching will be varied, free thinking and out of the box. The consequences on the ballot box, on society structures, social behavior, economics are unimaginable. We should brace ourselves. A great mind and leader will be needed to lead us out of this mind boggling leap of the collective mind.

*Dawood Foundation, Engro Foods and Citizen Foundation are running 15 pilots on E-learning in rural areas, to assess our ability to expand these pilots to a large scale mass education program.


About sarfarazar
I have been lucky! A long career with large scale organisations and some acclaim. Also, took time off to write, mentor and do some education and social development projects. I continue to mentor and help younger people in life. Inshallah, hope to write on various subjects in my blog.

7 Responses to An Education Revolution in the making in Pakistan

  1. sana m says:

    If the nirvana of profits makes it possible. Be it. At least we get a literate nation. Thats the major key to success. Inshallah it will happen.

  2. Nice and well written article let the nirvana of profits boom no worries at least we end-up being a literate nation that’s more crucial and inshaALLAH WE SHALL BE TO ACHIEVE OUR TARGETS:)

  3. mobeen afzal says:

    two issues:
    1. make education facilities and provisions for the additions in the populations that we expect in the years to come.
    2. develop an enviornment where the most intelligent and the most motivated of our youth is attracted towards adapting teaching as a profession rather that migrate to other countries, work for international and multi-national companies, go in for government competition exams etc, teaching should be the most respected and highest paid profession in this country.

    • sarfarazar says:

      Mobeen sahib, my point in this write up is different from what you are expressing. We do not have the bricks and mortars or the teachers to solve the delta of almost 2 mn children p.a. We need to go an alternative route, or we will be illiterate.
      This new online education is very different. The 15 pilots being run just now do not have a single teacher. There are facilitators 4 for 15 schools. The pass rate of students (who were totally illiterate) in the first 2 months is almost 85%. The cost of education is maybe 10% of the present cost and as the numbers increase it will get cheaper still. You don’t need the youth to go into teaching at all. If this was applied 100% across Pakistan, the number of teachers will reduce significantly.
      Khan Academy has now hit amazing numbers of 100s of millions taught through their software. The system is already a success in some of the poorest regions of the world. So why not here in Pakistan.
      Thank you for your note. I am glad you raised the point, as it allows me to give more detail.

  4. sarfarazar says:

    Sana and Noreen, yes I do agree, the profit motive will drive some of this expansion in the literacy game. Also not against it. These social entrepreneurship orgs make smaller profits and make sustainability a target.

  5. Shafaq says:

    Great thoughts Sarfaraz. In this country of ours there happens to be such sour news all the time, that articles like this that are so convincingly put forth are always refreshing. But to a layman who has no insight to the education world you refer to, it may be useful to detail how this can and actually is working. How can we do this without electricity? How does it work? What curriculum does it follow? etc etc.

    • sarfarazar says:

      Quite right Shafaq. One of the reasons is the general restrictions on blogs being between 800-900 words. Makes it difficult to put more detail. But like any good manager you are diving into the process and implementation. Some of the details are there in my answer to Mobeen sahib above. We have a set curriculum, and that is being delivered through a combination of pads and mobile phones. The pads are doing better as can be expected and the batteries are of course charged. Btw you get solar chargers for batteries if need be. The pilots range from ages 6 to ages 17. The best performing class is a girls class of 6-7 years. The older 14-17 people perform the worse. Figures. The younger the mind the more flexible. Some of the pads are functioning like the hole in the wall of Sugata Mitra. We hv internet in a few to see how they perform. We hv benchmarked the students and now will review at the end. The evaluation is an independent agency.
      That should be enough details. You want more information then you have to take me out for lunch, alongwith Zainab, who can explain all this better to you. 🙂

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