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The coronavirus effect on Pakistan’s digital divide
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Pakistani boys looking at a smartphone
Coronavirus has rammed home the extent of Pakistan’s digital divide. Could it lead to a useful debate about the future of technology in education?
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Five days a week, 12-year-old Khairunnisa Hussain logs into a 0900 Zoom conference with her classmates and head teacher, and then for the next four hours works quietly by herself on downloadable maths, science and French worksheets. Last month, an art assignment required replicating images of Damien Hirst’s butterfly paintings sent via email. On Tuesdays, the PE teacher shares links of yoga videos for the students to practice. 

In Pakistan, where over 300,000 schools have been closed since March due to the coronavirus outbreak, the students at Hussain’s private school in Lahore are the lucky ones, able to continue learning through digital platforms and applications. But for millions of other Pakistani students, the fundamentals of connected life – smartphones and the internet – remain out of reach.

Sometimes there is no power, sometimes the internet goes down - Atiq Ali

Atiq Ali, an economics student at Karachi’s Institute of Business Administration, returned to his hometown of Turbat, where there’s no wireless internet or 3G/4G coverage, after his university shut down. Now, every morning, he rides his motorcycle an hour out of town, braving temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius, to download lectures at a friend’s house. “It’s just a lot of effort to get there,” Ali says in a phone interview. “And then sometimes there is no power, sometimes the internet goes down.” 

While access to education was already a problem in Pakistan – 22.8 million of Pakistan’s over 70 million children are out of school – the coronavirus outbreak has exposed its profound technological inequities. Over 50 million school and university-going Pakistanis now risk falling behind, says Umbreen Arif, a top education advisor for Pakistan’s central government. 

Last month, hundreds of students across Pakistan protested against the government’s decision that universities hold online classes, even as poor internet services remain a major problem, particularly in remote provinces like Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. 

Indeed, home broadband is expensive outside Pakistan’s big cities, smartphone penetration stands at 51% this year and only one million school-age children have regular access to digital devices and bandwidth, according to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority. However, about 40 million Pakistani children have access to a television – which is why the government says it kicked off its coronavirus distance learning strategy with a dedicated TV channel called Teleschool.

Television has a wider reach than digital technology at the moment in Pakistan, figures show

Television has a wider reach than digital technology at the moment in Pakistan, figures show

Launched on 13 April just two weeks after schools closed, the channel runs on state-owned PTV Home, which has a subscriber base of over 54 million people, and broadcasts content for grades 1-12, sourced for free from four Pakistani ed-tech companies. A text messaging system with 250,000 subscribers was added in late May so parents and students could engage with dedicated teachers. 

“We’re also now working towards starting a radio school so that we can have some remote areas accessed,” Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood told the BBC, adding that an e-learning portal with digital content available on demand and a local area network system to deliver content to the poorest regions were both in the works. A “student relief package” with low-cost internet packages and reduced duties on smartphones had been placed before the prime minister for approval, he added. 

Initial funding for Teleschool came from a $5m World Bank grant, advisor Arif says, while a $20m grant has been secured from the Global Partnership for Education, a multilateral funding platform focused on developing nations. Discussions were ongoing with the World Bank for longer-term assistance of $200m to support learning in “districts with inequities”, Arif says.  

But for now, the struggle is very real for millions of Pakistan’s children. 

Ten kids, one smartphone 

Through April, one seventh-grade student at a low-cost private school in a northwestern Pakistani district received her homework on her father’s smartphone. Then her father was called back to work at his out-of-town job and the family’s only internet-enabled device was now 400km away. “I just spend most of my time now working on improving my handwriting,” says the student, whose name is being withheld for security reasons. 

Even households with smartphones are facing problems. One middle-aged woman, a former teacher from Lahore, says she has one smartphone and 10 kids to teach in the home where she lives with her extended family. “All the children are in different classes and have to be taught different material,” she says. “Sometimes we can borrow the grandparents’ phones but most of the time they all have to use my phone.” 

A 15-year old boy from Gujranwala, north of Lahore, says he uses his older brother’s phone to view educational videos. “But my brother is always on TikTok and he gets really annoyed when I ask for his phone,” he says.

It's not yet clear exactly when children will be able to return to school in Pakistan

It's not yet clear exactly when children will be able to return to school in Pakistan

The concerns of parents and educators have only deepened as the coronavirus-forced hiatus has grown from weeks to months. Schools were initially scheduled to reopen on 15 July but government officials have now said they may reopen on 15 September, if coronavirus figures improve. In the meantime, online content is running out. Teleschool only has enough content to broadcast until mid-July, Education Minister Mahmood says.And quickly launching new learning applications and ensuring a steady flow of online content is proving a major challenge. Entrepreneurs in education technology (or “edtech”) thus see the pandemic as an opportunity for expansion and investment in a long-ignored sector. 

“When Mister Rogers and other legendary children's media companies changed the landscape of education in countries like the United States, they did so with massive support from the government,” says Haroon Yasin, the founder of the Taleemabad app that uses cartoons and games to teach the national curriculum to primary school children. “In Pakistan, there are hardly any well-funded children's media or educational media initiatives.” 

Government officials admit edtech has not been a priority because of low national numbers for devices and internet connections. But Hassan bin Rizwan, the CEO of Muse SABAQ, an award-winning learning app for primary-grade lessons, said though smartphone penetration was not ideal, it was growing fast. “One million new connections were added each month this year,” he says. “Smartphones are growing faster than any other device.”

If we start developing an industry only when smartphones are at 90% penetration, it might be too little too late - Haroon Yasin

“Tech never stays static. In the 90s, if someone had said we would all go into work carrying sleek electronic ‘books’ that contained all our work and entertainment et cetera, no one would have believed them,” Yasin says. “If we start developing an industry only when smartphones are at 90% penetration, it might be too little too late, and we risk not serving a generation of students.” 

For now, thanks to the pandemic, edtech numbers are rising. Since schools closed, the Taleemabad app has seen a 660% rise in the rate at which people are joining the platform and Muse SABAQ grew by 200%. Knowledge Platform Pakistan has sold its edtech products to 400 new schools, its CEO Talhah Munir Khan says. To keep the momentum going, edtech experts say the government must now invest in private sector partnerships and allow wide-scale testing of digital solutions on Pakistan’s nearly 200,000 public sector schools

The only major pilot project run by the government – on 75 high schools in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in partnership with Jazz, the country’s biggest telecommunications network and edtech company Knowledge Platform – was never scaled, though it has improved students’ matriculation scores by 30%, says Ali Naseer, chief corporate and enterprise officer at Jazz. But there is a “silver lining in the Covid-19 cloud”, he adds: that the virus has finally sparked government interest in the edtech sector. “If there is a focused government initiative to drive this forward, I think within two to three years [edtech will be a reality],” Naseer says. 

Technology is no silver bullet 

But there are also experts who warn that the coronavirus is a call for the government to fix existing problems in the education sector – the poor quality of teachers, ghost schools and low levels of learning – rather than look towards technology as a “silver bullet”.

Some experts say fixing existing problems in the school system should be prioritised over expanding use of technology

Some experts say fixing existing problems in the school system should be prioritised over expanding use of technology

Riaz Kamlani, an executive vice-president at The Citizens Foundation, one of the largest networks of privately owned low-cost schools in Pakistan, said the government needed to take a “longer term” approach. “When we talk of a coronavirus-type of situation, we must be careful not to fall into that trap, to say that all problems can be solved with technology,” Kamlani says, adding that given Pakistan’s “ground realities”, the government should focus on a system where the quality and role of the teacher remained central to learning and could be improved. 

Talhah Munir Khan, the CEO of Knowledge Platform Pakistan, advocates blending traditional learning and technology. “We believe that most of the students cannot learn on their own regularly without the involvement of teachers. We need to improve the quality of teachers and then equip them to use technology to impart learning,” he says. 

Khadija Shahper Bakhtiar, the founder of Teach for Pakistan, concurs, saying “purely digital solutions” are perhaps not the answer for Pakistan, and educators would need to “differentiate strategies”. Indeed, localised initiatives suited to their environments have sprung up. Rida Rizvi, a Teach for Pakistan instructor at a public school on the outskirts of Islamabad, reached many students whose families do not own mobile phones by co-opting the local mosque to make announcements via loudspeakers so families could collect learning packets from designated spots. In Aminabad, a remote town in Balochistan province with few WiFi connections, high schoolers share video lessons on WhatsApp groups as part of a provincial government and Unicef-backed programme called ‘My Home My School’ that has reached over 35,000 children.

The most important issue is to solve the existing problems: invest in your teachers to improve learning outcomes - Khadija Shahper Bakhtiar

“You will need different types of content and different types of solutions adapted to whether a kid has WhatsApp, SMS or no connectivity via phone,” Teach for Pakistan’s Bakhtiar says. “But the most important issue is to solve the existing problems: invest in your teachers to improve learning outcomes. Don’t just be temporarily distracted by coronavirus or technology.” 

Tania Aidrus, the prime minister’s special advisor on digitisation, insists the government’s focus on technology is no temporary fixation. “We have to think of this [education] not as a coronavirus-specific problem, but how can we use coronavirus to fix the other problems, for example, that millions of kids are out of school?” she says. “I think coronavirus has given us as a country a chance to really step up … it’s really on us now: how do we capitalise on this so it’s long lasting?” 

“The target is, God willing, coronavirus is over soon, but we are not going to stop there,” Education Minister Mahmood says. “We feel that using technology for education is the way forward in Pakistan.”

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