Filling the gap

Published August 23, 2023

PAKISTAN’S edtech space has been untapped for many years. The Covid-19 pandemic shifted perspectives on online learning all at once. The oblivion and resistance alleviated overnight when schools, colleges, and universities which used long-standing in-person teaching methods began adopting online modes, simply because there was no choice anymore.

Now that we have choices, it brings up the question: can we rely on online spaces of learning to fill the gaps of our education sector? My take is that if edtech start-ups in Pakistan begin offering recognised qualifications, in the manner that other traditional institutes offer, they can prove to be the catalyst in Pakistan’s educational landscape.

To be considered true alternatives to traditional learning spaces, I propose that edtech start-ups in Pakistan should offer courses, certifications, and degrees which are recognised domestically and internationally, beginning with Higher Education Commission recognition. HEC recognised online qualifications will address many pressing problems of the education sector in Pakistan, some of which are discussed below.

This shift will be immensely beneficial as the existing educational institutions no longer have the capacity and resources to accommodate Pakistan’s growing population. According to the 2023 digital census, Pakistan’s population has officially reached 241.49 million as of August 2023, with an annual growth rate of 2.55 per cent. The population problem is just too large — no pun intended.

Edtech start-ups could be the catalyst in our educational landscape.

Merely a handful of institutes in every major city in Pakistan offer quality education, which are now filled to the brim with students. Classrooms are severely overcrowded at every education level, inevitably causing declining learning standards. There are simply not enough qualified teachers per student age group. Consequently, quality control is one of the biggest problems for educational institutes all over the country.

In addition, student accommodations are proving to be insufficient at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. Institutes are struggling with constructing new accommodations due to sheer lack of space on campuses and budgetary restraints. This also causes fee hikes, which ultimately make education expensive for out-of-town students, discouraging them from pursuing these options. Social spaces also become inadequate for the growing population on campuses, affecting the student experience in subtle but important ways.

The other leg of the gap in Pakistan’s education sector that can be addressed by edtech start-ups is that 61.18pc of the 241.49m is a rural population. This means that the greater majority does not have access to the same kind of infrastructural, monetary, or human resources, creating a disparity at the outset. However, a rural population may, in many cases, have access to the internet and smartphones, which can be used for education. Although the lack of digital literacy is a gap in this system, it is being addressed by many edtech start-ups and social welfare foundations in Pakistan.

These initiatives will prove to be a far more effective solution than the mass migration of rural populations to urban spaces. Rural migrants face completely different hurdles such as the increased cost of living and the lack of familial presence in cities, discouraging many young people, especially women, from relocating. The barriers of relocating to an urban space should not be the barriers to education for this majority. Edtech start-ups can benefit this large chunk of our population by helping them access courses, certifications, and entire degrees which, as HEC-recognised qualifications, can significantly improve their life chances.

While I recognise that edtech start-ups face similar issues of resources, especially when it comes to skilled teachers who may be able to implement an accredited syllabus and testing method, I believe that is exactly where these start-ups can begin — by offering qualifications and certifications for teachers to ramp up their skills. Edtech start-ups have a unique opportunity to use a void to their advantage, training teachers to suit their own method of online learning.

Edtech start-ups cannot dissolve all barriers to education in this country, but by becoming platforms recognised by HEC, they can address specific problems that arise with a growing young population. Not only will this shift allow rural populations to access accredited education, it will also give urban populations affordable alternatives to traditional learning, by reducing cost of living and transport. The education sector of Pakistan stands on an axis and edtech has the ability to pioneer changes in the way this country approaches education.

The writer is a practising lawyer in Karachi and a LLB (Hons) graduate from Lums.

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2023

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