The edtech silver bullet

Published September 14, 2020

Although we claim a 59 per cent literacy rate, the reality is that Pakistan has been described in the World Economic Forum’s Global Human Capital report 2017 as among the worst-performing countries in education and skill development. We rank 125 out of 130 countries on this report. An estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 are not even in school. These ‘children of a lesser God’ represent 44pc of the eligible age for school-going children.

Our problems do not end here. We are among the top in the world in terms of our net dropout rate, with 42pc of the children dropping out of school past the primary stage. The gender divide here is alarming as we again have the second-highest ranking for out-of-school female children in the world.

In absolute terms, the federal and provincial governments spent Rs892 billion (2017- 2018), 2.3pc of GDP on education. It is estimated that the private sector spends Rs740bn on education and tuition.

Pakistan has 444,600 primary school teachers with a teacher to student ratio of 44:1. The solution for our education problem is not to just throw more money at it, but to understand the core reasons for our children being out of school, the primary causes for their dropping out and the technology opportunities that exist that can be leveraged for reducing this problem.

Let us first examine why children do not enrol and why they drop out. Research indicates four prime factors: poverty, access to education, social factors and the motivation of the student.

When we look at the affordability factor for school education we usually neglect associated costs other than tuition. If the average tuition of a private school is Rs2,000 pm (per month), the parent’s expenditure does not end there. We need to include another Rs2,000 pm for tuition, Rs1,500 pm for transport and Rs1,000 pm for books/uniforms.

The solution for our education challenge is not to just throw more money at it but to explore technology opportunities that can be leveraged for reducing this problem

It is estimated that only one million children have access to their own dedicated smartphone. On the other hand, terrestrial TV and cable cover 90pc of Pakistan’s geography. Pakistan has a national curriculum and our country is not ready to issue instructions outside the existing curriculum. Lastly, while educational institutions like The Citizens Foundation have done an exceptional job, the reality is that they only cater to 2pc of children. Hence any proposed solution must keep these facts in mind.

Our key challenge revolves around affordability as opposed to the number of schools, teachers or the quality of the curriculum. Once we solve for the affordability issue, followed by motivation, we will be able to tackle access and the other related issues. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan was not ready for a technology-based solution. However, the pandemic has materially changed customer behaviour and a technology-friendly journey is more likely to succeed now.

Imagine providing financing for a tablet with a data package, content and software for every deserving student. The tablet will include the Pakistan national curriculum starting with science, mathematics and English, in a game format and animated where required. Teachers can be taught how to reinforce the digital curriculum and each teacher and student can be digitally evaluated.

At present, there are a few companies within the edtech ecosystem that provide this solution through engaging content and learning management systems.

Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, the acceptance of digital delivery is now palatable. Hence the challenge is the financing of the tablets.

There is no case more worthy than a private/public partnership to establish a local tablet manufacturing plant. A state-of-the-art tablet, created especially for this purpose, must have a sale price under Rs10,000, adequate memory and long battery life. One million tablets translate into a funding need of Rs10bn. This level of financing is unlikely to be provided by a single bank, hence a consortium would be required.

Even a consortium would be reluctant to take the exposure of the government, small private schools and individual students. As a consequence, a first loss guaranty would need to be provided by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), under its small and medium scheme for schools. For students, other sources of first loss provision would need to be identified. Lastly, in order to reduce the interest burden, this scheme would need to be subsidised by the SBP.

A Rs10,000 loan for 12 months at a subsidised interest rate of 8pc translates into a monthly payment of Rs870 per month. An affordable amount for schools as well as students who qualify. Remember an average private school student pays Rs6,500 per month.

Pakistan now has the ingredients to start addressing out of school children, net dropout rate as well as the quality of education. What is required is leadership by the federal and provincial governments and the private sector.

The writer is a tech entrepreneur

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 14th, 2020

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