Learning dilemma

June 29, 2020

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The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

AMONG the longest legacies of the pandemic will be learning losses suffered by students, impacting livelihoods and the national economy. No wonder, then, the prime minister last week reiterated the need for a joint strategy across provincial authorities to resume educational activity as soon as possible. The problem is well-identified, the solution — a haphazard mix of virtual and traditional broadcast offerings — less so.

The government should be clear that the big­gest challenge lies on the demand, not supply side. Pre-pandemic, Pakistan already had the second-highest global rate of school-age children who do not attend school, more than 40 per cent. Going forward, the main challe­nge will be to get students who stopped atten­ding school during lockdown to come back. The economic and health impact of the pandemic means that many leavers will be forced to work instead, while others, especially girls, will be compelled to take up unpaid caring responsibilities. Before spending on e-learning platforms, the government should budget for stipends to incentivise attendance.

When students do come back, the focus must be on plugging the learning gaps. In a recent UKFIET blog, Rabea Malik cites research on rural government schools showing 10pc learning gains after a year of regular schooling for children in grades three, four and five. She emphasises the need for returning students to be assessed to determine where they have fallen behind, and argues that teachers will have to respond to a diversity of needs given that children in lockdown will have had varying access to educational support and technologies as well as varying health- and economic security-related experiences. In other words, post-pandemic education initiatives must be responsive, adaptive and localised.

This means that the seductiveness of virtual learning as a catch-all solution demands scrutiny. The state’s excitement about e-learning predates the pandemic, and may need to be tempered. It is highlighted in the National Education Policy 2017-2025 as a route to upskilling Pakistan’s youth; recently, the education minister has touted the imminent launch of an e-Taleem portal.

Post-pandemic education initiatives must be responsive.

The main critique of virtual learning is that it threatens to exacerbate educational inequalities. Around 22pc of Pakistanis had internet access in 2018, meaning any substantive shift to virtual education would exclude the majority of the school-age population.

To their credit, government officials and the education sector have recognised this challenge, and have experimented with a mix of education delivery options. The launch of an educational television channel is being followed by plans for Radio Pakistan to broadcast educational content for students on the wrong side of the digital divide. Unicef and the Balochistan Secondary Education Department have launched a blended learning initiative, Mera Ghar Mera School, which provides access to WhatsApp groups offering guidance on home schooling. Sindh launched an Android learning app for kindergarten and primary students, though it has reached around half the target student population.

Several edtech start-ups have also seen a boost to business, particularly those offering game-based learning, digital textbooks and STEM videos. These companies’ partnerships with mobile service providers and government school networks hint at how such platforms could be scaleable. Indeed, in a country as diverse as Pakistan, effective education delivery will always necessitate a mix of pedagogic approaches and technologies.

The danger is that we focus on the medium at the expense of the message. The time and resources expended on exploring Covid-appropriate delivery platforms will necessarily detract from the emphasis on educational att­a­in­ment. This is something Pak­is­tan can ill-afford. According to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Mea­surement Survey, the population’s literacy rate inc­reased only 2pc to 60pc between 2015-16 and 2018-19. Literacy statistics also have little correlation with learning, as fewer than 20pc of third-graders can read and comprehend a short passage.

Despite this context, the question of what constitutes an effective curriculum remains a political and ideological battleground. The focus on educational outcomes — eg literacy, critical thinking, STEM skills — remains scant. Instead, there is a push to launch a national curriculum that promotes populist nationalism (and undermines the post-pandemic need for tailored, responsive teaching) as well as a right-wing-washing of educational content (consider Punjab’s recent curriculum bill that requires Urdu literature and Pakistan studies’ textbooks, among others, to be vetted by the Muttahida Ulema Board).

Ultimately, one wonders whether the powers that be truly comprehend the value of education to the nation’s progress. What else explains the budget cuts for educational expenditure just as the need becomes truly critical?

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2020