Hannan Rifaat Hussain
Equal access to quality education, has been a long-standing challenge for Pakistan. Out of an estimated population of 191 million, nearly 25 million children between years 5-16, are deprived of schooling. Moreover, increasing urban-rural population divides have given strength to massive income disparities, which have made education a privilege for the wealthy, and a distant dream for the nation’s rural populace. To meet these challenges, it is essential to integrate educational equity, scalable technology and progressive lesson planning, into one far-reaching strategy. UnitedWeREACH promises just that.
UnitedWeREACH, founded in 2008, is a US-based, non-profit organisation which provides scholarships and financial aid to underprivileged children. One of its programs geared towards educational equity in Pakistan, is a need-based scholarship initiative, for undergraduate engineering students at NUST. Annual financial aid worth $2200 per student – to nearly 100 students – guarantees a place for meritorious candidates in the academic system, regardless of their financial backgrounds. Additionally, its vocational training initiative with the institute accommodates over 200 engineers from various mechanical and electrical disciplines, in an effort to enrich their technical skill sets for better market accommodation. In view of an academic system loaded with engineering majors, these programs couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
Moreover, scalable technology – in the form of e-tablets – attempts to revolutionise the teaching experience in Pakistani schools. Each teacher is handed an electronic tablet, and is able to access detailed “lesson plans” for every subject, at a single touch. These lesson scripts are the electronic equivalent of text books, tailored by a team of US experts, to meet the difficulty levels of each student in the domain of mathematics, science, English, and so on. Technology-based learning eliminates the need for teachers, especially under qualified instructors in remote villages, to undergo rigorous training. Instead, readily prepared lesson plans leverage a teacher’s basic ability to read and write, in order to effectively communicate tasks to students; an astonishing formula.
Furthermore, UnitedWeREACH’s partnerships with a series of schools under the Punjab Education Foundation help deconstruct an important misconception in the country. The belief that development of infrastructure is the key to resolving educational inequalities in Pakistan is not necessarily true. Partner schools such as the Amal School in Tulspura, and the Light of Hope School in Forman Christian College, employ progressive teaching methodologies in existing infrastructure, to obtain optimum impact. Teachers also enjoy full access to a digital library, equipped with books and resource material used by leading schools and universities, world-over.
Interestingly, each of these teacher tablets is connected to a central server, which uses the latest analytics systems to maintain full accountability of teacher/student attendance, measure the level of progress on lesson plans, etc. Acquired feedback is used to improve teaching practices, foster student learning outcomes, and discover new, dynamic ways of presenting information to pupils.
Considerable long-term returns constitute a remarkable aspect of scalable technology. For starters, schools enjoy striking relief from manual checks and balance mechanisms, sizeable administration and management personnel, high text book prices, and static academic curriculums. But more importantly, a fully equipped teacher tablet – which caters to the entire strength of a class – costs only $35. Likewise, lab tablets cost $80 each. Since the tuition expenses of each student is included within the fixed cost of the tablets, an “increase” in student enrolment, would result in “decreasing” per-head costs. With nearly 74.5 million people living below the national poverty line, more than one-third of the population can gain access to affordable, quality education. Imagine the possibilities for the people.
As Pakistanis, we must also realise that some of the most successful education systems in the world, have adopted similar measures. Finland and Hong Kong, for instance, reduced the “cost” aspects of education to render it a social welfare commodity, meant for all individuals. The local standards of education in these nations continue to take their cues from the national curriculum, which is composed of theoretical core subjects (such as English, numeracy, science, arts), as well as practical activities, such as critical thinking problems and interactive team-play. Much like UnitedWeREACH, both Hong Kong and Finland, revise their curriculums on an annual basis, to meet the changing demands of pupils’, and broaden their framework of understanding.
To conclude, the use of proven technology and progressive lesson planning would certainly brighten the future of education in Pakistan. As the nation spends $5.2 billion in real estate construction, and UNESCO identifying 25 million children out of school, it will take less than 0.4% to educate the whole of Pakistan. Hence, a shift in perspective could unveil a bright, new future for education in the country.