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The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 24 January as the International Day of Education, “in celebration of its role for peace and development”. There was little to no coverage of the day.

Keeping the theme in mind, perhaps, now is a good time to review Pakistan’s progress even as elections and other news take education off the radar. Especially, since as the developed world moves towards embracing more knowledge, creativity, innovation, and incorporating AI, Pakistan remains stuck at the most basic step — literacy.

One of Pakistan’s most fundamental issues is disparity. Call it unequal distribution or overall lack of resources, but no one will deny that there is an accessibility issue as well.

Areas and their sub-sectors work almost, like they are ‘exclusive clubs’, which make the divide all the more visible and greater in magnitude. This is where technology can help bridge this divide and quite easily, too. It is just a matter of adopting it, and accepting that it is there to help, not replace.

In the education space, for example, we see that tech-enabled solutions are not only cutting costs and solving accessibility issues, but also alleviating some traditional problems specific to Pakistan.

A fundamental argument for the sector is the pace at which technology is being adopted. Give credit to the tech-savvy young population that made Pakistan among the fastest-growing apps market in 2022.

But as we go deeper in this space, one can see that a human-centered design that incorporates technology solves Pakistan’s three-fold problem: the gap between students/teachers, cost of schooling (both from the supply and demand side), and access to education. The best part: tech solves the crisis quicker.

The solution can no longer be in brick-and-mortar given rising inflation and high energy costs. We have to overcome the traditional constraints by leveraging technologies that already exist, and they are available indigenously. Edkasa’s partnership with TikTok, where we have successfully leveraged the short video-sharing platform’s growing popularity with the youth to achieve better learning outcomes is the perfect example.

Similarly, imagine ‘connected classrooms’ where one teacher imparts knowledge and skill sets to thousands of students in an engaging environment where cultural barriers, cost of transport, and accessibility are all resolved through a smart phone.

While the traditional model hinders girls’ education disproportionately, a tech-based model solves this problem as well. This also reduces the burden on the national exchequer on the need to hire teachers, and massively saves infrastructure cost. This is being done successfully in rural Punjab where we teach daily, live online classes to early years in community run schools.

Why is the solution so desperately needed?

Tech aficionados and the government are quick to highlight Pakistan’s growing population and big market, but go slightly deeper in those numbers and you will know a different story.

Mobile phone ownership and internet usage are not equal for both genders and access/ownership to a phone is up to 81% of men and 52% for women, according to the Mobile Gender Gap Report 2023 by GSMA. Pakistan was ranked the lowest as findings based on results from over 13,800 face-to-face surveys across 12 low- and middle-income countries, and subsequent modeling and analysis of this survey data were revealed.

This is the gender disparity.

In a recent survey conducted by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the ‘Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement’, and highlighted in the Economic Survey 2022-23, the population that has ever attended school is at 70% of men, but an embarrassingly low of 50% for women. Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are the worst provinces in this context. When you add the qualification criteria of what percentage has completed primary school or higher, the number falls to 60% of men, and 42% women.

These are not statistics that you associate with a country that wants to move up in the world.

One should not take away from successive governments as education allocations have been increasing over the years. Cumulatively, over the five-year period from 2016-17 to 2020-21, the amount allocations by the provinces and the federal government have increased over 60%. Compare this to the number of teachers in the same period, and one would realise where the problems lie.

The higher allocations are not translating to a higher number of teachers or a higher number of institutions. Hence, these do not result in tangible outcomes of higher literacy rate and employability.

With a massive gap in the number of schools and teachers already identified– add a restrictive environment due to cultural and safety issues – the education of females is bound to suffer.

In the GSMA report mentioned earlier, the top three barriers to women’s mobile internet adoption were ‘reading and writing difficulties, ‘family does not approve’, and ‘internet is not relevant for me’. How can any of these be barriers in 2023?

Policymakers want to discuss areas such as labour force participation, financial inclusion, and entrepreneurship, but how can any of these objectives be achieved when basic skills such as reading/writing are found amiss? Skill sets, in an increasing globalised world, cannot be developed this way.

However, there is hope. We have already seen some remarkable results of tech-enabled solutions in our line of work, and this gives us hope. The pace of work may take some time to deliver, but it’s certainly quicker and more efficient than increasing budgetary allocations without a sense of direction. Tech infrastructure for education is cost-effective and scalable. It takes a short time, and does not require a lot of maintenance, especially if it’s app-backed. All it needs is an app-upgrade, and new technologies are seamlessly translated to the end-users.

Pakistan’s economic woes, if you follow news headlines, are massive, and it’s almost as if policymakers have fires to put out each year. In this midst of chaos, and uncertainty, topics like education take the backseat. And maybe that is why they’ve never been solved. But there is one other reason: policymakers see it as a long-term goal, and too time-consuming.

The response is: it’s really not. With tech by your side, solutions are quicker, cheaper, and scalable. It solves so many problems at once that it sounds too good to be true. But it is true, and we see it in the tech space every day.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

Annum Sadiq

The writer works in the education sector

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