‘We want to make learning easier, accessible and affordable’
Zara Jamal is in charge of Strategic Partnerships, Marketing and People Strategy at ilmX, a digital learning platform in Pakistan. Her prior work experience includes over 7 years of management consulting experience in HR and finance strategy and digital transformation at Deloitte Canada. She has also worked at L’Oreal Canada, Workday Canada and Airlift Pakistan.
After spending her entire life in Canada, Zara moved to Lahore in January 2019, with a commitment to uplift the field of education and training in Pakistan. She is currently also serving as a board member at Kiran Foundation, a non-profit organization which provides transformational education and holistic support in marginalized communities in Lyari, Karachi.
She completed her undergraduate degree in HR and her first masters in Accounting at McGill University. In 2014, she completed her MBA and a graduate certificate in Responsible Leadership at Queen’s University.
Following are the edited excerpts of a conversation BR Research recently had with Ms. Jamal:
BR Research: Tell us about IlmX.
Zara Jamal: IlmX is a social enterprise, and we are committed to enabling individuals and organizations in Pakistan by providing them with high quality learning. We are inviting diverse learning partners to join us in our mission to make education accessible and affordable for everyone. The way our learning platform works is that through interactive and activity-based learning, we think our learners will have a better chance at learning new skills to help in unlocking their true potential and eventually become change-makers in the future. We started working on ilmX in early 2020. We are looking to establish ilmX as Pakistan’s national learning platform.
BRR: What is your role at ilmX?
ZJ: My role at ilmX is three-folds. As a Strategic Partnership Lead, my work entails working with all of our content partners which includes universities, educational institutes, as well as other organizations that would like to develop and distribute their content on the ilmX platform. Besides the strategic partnerships role, I also take care of marketing and people strategy.
BRR: What potential have you seen for a digital learning platform in Pakistan? What is it that ilmX will be aiming to achieve?
ZJ: With Covid-19, we have seen how working from home and digital learning has become a possibility around the world including Pakistan. We saw schools shutting down and interrupting the learning process. So the rise of digital learning became almost a very natural shift. What we noticed and saw as an opportunity was that a lot of people wanted to shift to a digital platform but didn’t know how exactly to do that. COVID-19 actually allowed people to open their minds to digital learning, which was a great opportunity for an organization like ours. Schools, universities and other learning organizations were struggling to move online, and with the ilmX platform, it was the exact problem we were trying to solve. We want our partners to tell us what they want to teach, and then we can help them translate that onto the online platform, which makes learning not only accessible but more affordable.
We have a team that is spread globally that has experts in course authoring as well as instructional design concepts. They really understand how to translate the in-person learning into an online platform. The way our platforms are designed and our instructional design is laid out, ilmX is a very interactive experience. To make sure that we keep in mind the learning outcomes students require, our platform focuses on 4 main things: Micro-learning, learning autonomy, learning design based on best practices; and a hyper-localized approach to learning.
With micro-learning, we focused on having a short term strategy with shorter learning units and learning activities. This approach allows better retention of information that is given to the students in an e-learning environment.
Learning autonomy is synonymous with flexibility, for which we offer learners to learn at their own pace on our platform. This is very beneficial for people who are either going universities or working in full-time in an organization and want to build skills to enhance their knowledge.
One thing that we thought was very important was having a much localized content. When you are learning on a digital platform, and you are going through a digital training with an international organization, the specificity of Pakistani context is usually missing. We wanted to address that. For example, all of the content in one of our programs called Workplace Essentials under the ilmX for Business brand is hyper-localized to the Pakistani context as we brought in local subject matter experts who helped us design this course. We have also considered things like the legalities of various issues that we have made part of our modules such as workplace harassment, compliance requirements for information security, etc. Our content especially for our training modules for corporates is designed with Pakistani context in mind.
We are a social enterprise because we care about impact just as much as our bottom line. As we grow, we want to add features that make learning easier, more accessible and affordable e.g., without the need for internet connectivity, cover topics like mental wellbeing which no one really discusses but is a real social issue, or provide free learning etc. Our training module called Preventing Workplace Harassment under the program Workplace Essentials is being offered for free forever to all organizations, because we believe we all have the responsibility to build awareness around this social issue.
BRR: How do you plan to become the country’s first national learning platform?
ZJ: We have recently had a soft launch of our platform and we have a long way to go, but this is the dream. We are in the process of having conversations with different organizations and policymakers. However, things are still in negotiations and discussions are still happening. We are still new to the market, but the goal is to become Pakistan’s national learning platform. We invite everyone to experience our Preventing Workplace Harassment course to get a flavor of the kind of work we do, and to experience for themselves why we are so excited about our product!
BRR: Under ilmX for Business, what other training are you offering or are looking into?
ZJ: Within ilmX for Business, there are multiple things that we do. There are different types of organizations that we cater to: business, corporates, for-profit, not-for-profit, SMEs, public sector enterprises and more. Our goal is to nurture more productive and empathetic employees and we are also working on bridging the skills gap. Our first product is Workplace Essentials; it’s an off-the-shelf library of training content and covers a lot of crucial workplace topics such as workplace harassment; reducing environmental footprint; information security essentials; mental wellbeing at work; and many more - all localized for Pakistani context. Even our training is available in both English and Urdu language to make it more accessible for our whole population.
BRR: Customization and localization is at the heart of all the courses that you offer or plan to offer. Can you share how a course is designed?
ZJ: As I mentioned, we have a team for course authoring and instructional design. However, to give the local context, we believe that we need to speak with subject matter experts in the respective fields. For the Workplace Harassment training, one of our subject matter experts was Advocate Atika Raza, a well-known and super talented Attorney at High Court and the Team Lead Blackstone School of Law, who is an expert on the topic of workplace harassment as well as others. We, very intentionally, work with our contributors because we believe that if we want to bring the best content to the platform, we need to talk to the best people in that specific industry or on that specific issue that we are trying to address and solve.
BRR: What are the criteria for your Partnership Program?
ZJ: We have very objective criteria for selection, and the reason for that is that we want to make sure that we are maintaining quality and fairness in our course offering. We are looking for leading institutions, and educators, and we have a few criteria that we follow and our partners should have at least one of them: they should be a pioneer in their field of expertise; they should have expertise in and area or knowledge or subject; they should focus on strong academic research; they should have a commitment to advancing education and training; they should have a vision to provide quality, affordable and accessible education like ours, and a desire to make an impact.
BRR: What are your plans for the next couple of years?
ZJ: With our soft launch, we made sure that we focus on our social impact initiative. We are hoping that our Preventing Workplace Harassment course is actually going to help spread the word of our product and also help organizations get a taste of the learner experience. Our plans are to make ilmX the national platform for learning as well as eventually go global where we are trying to bring in content partners from not just within Pakistan but also abroad to open up global opportunities of learning for our platform partners, learners and organizations.