Pakistan has over 25 million out of school children. The ones attending public and most private schools get an education devoid of developing critical thinking skills. Aimed at school going children, IlmAppsChallenge hopes to offer solutions to this persistent problem of utmost national importance and in the process create perhaps one of the largest experiments in e/m-learning in the world.

 There are three reasons why we should be worried about state of public education in the country. The sheer number of out of school children is just staggering and will lead to a chaotic society when these children step into adulthood and must make a living. The children who do go to public school find untrained teachers or no teachers at all and a pedagogy that emphasizes rote learning instead of critical thinking. According to a recent World Bank report on learning in South Asia, many South Asian teachers perform poorly in math and language tests based on primary curriculum they are supposed to teach.

 Ask any private enterprise and you will be told that finding quality human resource is their pressing issue. Individuals with poor education have lower job prospects leading to decreased national productivity making individuals and nation worse off. Our universities are spewing out students by the thousands who cannot comprehend, analyze, hypothesize and solve real life problems in their chosen profession. Some of this may be universities’ fault but low quality of education in public and most private schools is a major cause. Pakistan spends a paltry sum on school education and even if this sum were to magically double or triple, it would not solve the crisis of education overnight. While some of the basic infrastructure issues like no or broken toilets in girls school will be fixed, an army of teachers equipped with latest pedagogical techniques imparting critical thinking to students will take a decade or more to become available.

 Can technology bring about a revolution and offer a solution? With the whole world experimenting with concepts like Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, Sughata Mitra’s SOLE (Self Organized Learning Environment) and MOOCS (Massively Open Online Courses), Pakistan too must experiment with using technology to solve its education conundrum. IlmAppsChallenge, an initiative of ILM Ideas (an entity funded by DfiD) and Pakistan Innovation Foundation, aims to be the first organized effort to do just that.

 While e/m-learning is taking the world by storm with anecdotal evidence pointing to appreciable gain in student learning, scientifically sound evidence is still being collected and assessed. With technology assisted learning where content is produced once and distributed to thousands and million of students, the promise of these technologies is huge. Imagine an MIT Professor teaching thousands of students spread worldwide.  Current models necessitate that student is self motivated but such issues, in the context of school age children, can be addressed through gamification of content (making education as much fun as playing a video game) and making learning enjoyable, fun and team based.

 Pakistan must catch this wave of e/m-learning or it would miss a great promising opportunity. With one of the largest out of school and in-school population yearning for acquiring knowledge no other place offers a greater opportunity for experimenting with e/m-learning innovation. IlmAppsChallange has inspired 160 teams from across the country to take up the cause, which through a gradual process of selection, mentoring and coaching are now narrowed down to 20 motivated teams. In finality, upto 10 teams will be selected to turn their concepts into reality, deploy them at a school or learning environment and assess effectiveness of intervention. IlmAppsChallenge has conducted two full days immersive workshops for shortlisted teams in three cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. These teams worked for full days and sometimes nights to refine and shape their ideas under the guidance of mentors while learning from accomplished speakers. These mentors and speakers have included Bernadette Dean ex Principal Kinnaird College, Seema Aziz of Care foundation, Chris Handley of AKU, and Hasan Rizvi of FRT. They emphasized building content in URDU and local languages, using examples set in local context while taking into account environmental constrains including extraordinary load shedding in rural areas and migratory patterns of inhabitants of Kucha area in Sindh. In a nutshell advice was to employ right pedagogical techniques, build engaging design wrapped in right infrastructure and scalable delivery mechanisms while measuring effectiveness and outcome. 

 The participating teams have a range of ideas; team(s) lead by Dr. Ashraf Iqbal of NUST proposed totally disruptive education delivery systems that entirely replace teachers with their gamified learning environment while Iqbal Khan’s wants to bring a localized version of Khan Academy in Urdu to public schools by including a DVD with every high school science and Math text book– a proverbial teacher in a DVD. A team from University of Gujrat wants to create a traveling carnival school cost effectively made from local materials and incorporating digital learning to excite rural students about learning. Team Arbisoft wants to create a virtual laboratory for science practicals in 9th and 10th grade. Team AAP lead by Arif Irfanullah wants to convert its very effective activity based English learning techniques into an App that can be distributed to thousands of students. Nizar Nagar, noted female cartoonist, wants to use her characters to make learning exciting for kids.

 As the competition winds down to select its final 10 ideas, it hopes to find Pakistan’s own Salman Khan and Sugata Mitra. IlmAppsChallenge has already succeeded by creating a community of teachers, school administrators, artists, entrepreneurs and computer scientists who deeply care about state of education in Pakistan. With the right focus, initiatives like IlmAppsChallenge could turn Pakistan into the largest deployments of e/m-learning in the world but we may not have another choice in the short and medium run. The experiment must succeed.

Zia Imran is a technology entrepreneurs with work experience in Pakistan and Silicon Valley. His other interest are e-learning, part time farming and building alternative energy and energy conservation devices. He also teaches at ITU and FAST Universities in Lahore. He tweets at @ziaimran