There has been a lot of public debate about the general deteriorating quality of education, gaps between public and private schooling and myriad ways to improve the overall learning outcomes.

In many assessment reports and analyses it is devised that public schools learn from, or collaborate with, the private schools. Specifically in order to improve the quality of class room experience and retention rate of the students, it is assumed that public schools can employ the interactive teaching techniques used by the private schools. In this vein it is recommended, in part, that the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) used by the high-cost private schools should be used by the government schools as well.

The goal is to improve the learning outcomes by using interactive teaching techniques. However the abysmal state of a large number of the out-of-schoolchildren is a major hurdle. For instance, as per the fact sheet 2014-15 compiled by Alif Ailaan, a local alliance for education reform, there are 50.8 million children in Pakistan between the ages of 5 and 16 of which 24.0 million i.e. 47% are out of school. And more than half of the country’s out-of-school children live in Punjab.

Dismal education landscape in Pakistan: Fast Facts 

In order to better understand the gravity of the education crisis, following are some fast facts that paint a dismal picture of the overall education landscape in the country:

·         Regarding the large proportion of out-of-school children Alif Ailaan reports that the enrollment rates drop drastically at middle and high school level. And given the current rate of progress it will be year 2076 before every Pakistani child is in school.

·         A detailed report, Pakistan's Education Crisis: The Real Story, by Wilson Center, a research and policy forum based in the US, argues that Pakistan is at risk of overspending on education given its limited resources. The education and military budgets are very close in size, at $7.5 billion and $8.2 billion respectively for fiscal year 2016. Hence Pakistan must spend better, not simply spend more, in order to ease and ultimately solve its education crisis.

·         As per Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), a British ranking agency, Pakistan has the world’s weakest higher education system.

·         In a comprehensive assessment on Pakistan’s progress on achievement of Education-For-All (EFA) Goals, EFA Review Report 2015, while emphasizing on the importance of gender parity, recognizes that gender inequalities in education especially in primary and secondary education have always seemed prominent in Pakistan. (Pakistan had committed to achieving goals of Dakar Framework of Action and took the lead in developing National Plan of Action for EFA during 2002, followed by preparation of Provincial and District EFA Plans).

Such sad state affairs of education call for immediate and effective measures to be taken. In this regard, it is most appropriate to give attention to public schools since the majority of the students are enrolled in these schools and improved quality of education there would incentivize the private schools to improve further. 

However, besides all the genuine concern about education crisis in the country especially in the public schools there has been no commendable progress. And nearly half of all children of school-going age remain out of school.

Nonetheless, given a number of problems in public schools there is an initiative which introduced interactive teaching techniques in public schools where ICTs are being effectively used in the class rooms. And it is undoubtedly revolutionizing the class room experience.

About e.Learn Initiative

The e.Learn Initiative is spearheaded by Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB). It envisions training teachers to use engaging video content, simulations and classroom activities. The aim is to improve learning and teaching outcomes. Currently in its initial phase, the initiative targets Class-XVIII students in 30 government schools in three cities of Punjab province-Multan, Rawalpindi and Lahore.

Under the e.Learn Initiative, classrooms are equipped with television sets and teachers are given tablets with instructional content and a learning management system for each class.

Besides this, now backup electricity mechanism is also being provided to the schools so that load shedding should not hinder the interactive learning process.

In addition there is a mechanism of reinforcement of concepts outside the classroom as well. It is done through SMS intelligent tutoring system. In contrast with the ineffective teaching practices and pedagogical techniques usually used in public schools, this mechanism sets out to help students understand the concepts after school time through SMS based tutoring system. Hence, in a way, it provides for the after-school coaching, usually referred to as ‘tuition’ which, given the usually meager financial resources of parents of the public school students, the parents cannot afford in the first place. Then parental involvement through this mechanism has also helped improve attendance of students in the school.

Five important things about e.Learn Initiative

There are many things that make this initiative stand out:

·         The technological devices, study materials, monitoring of successful implementation of the project and other services are all provided to the public schools for free. More importantly this initiative has been received very well by the students who are taking keen interest in the classes. It is clear from significant improvement in their attendance and learning outcomes quantified by the team at the end of class term. 

·         The PITB team that runs this initiative consists of young and enthusiastic individuals coming from top-notch universities including Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, LUMS and others. The talented team with its varied experiences can really take this initiative forward and upward. 

·         In the next phase, the project will be expanded nationwide where the beneficiaries of the project will be 100,000 school children with at least 50% representation of girl schools. Nearly 600 public schools from disadvantaged areas will be targeted and teachers will undergo capacity building and training as well.

·         Since it is an initiative meant for public schools, it makes it a monumental task in itself. After the 18th constitutional amendment when, among other sectors, education was devolved from federal government to the provinces, such initiatives will definitely raise the bar such that other provincial governments and the private sector will also improve their facilities and standard of education.

·         Lastly, despite its tremendous achievements in the first phase, the promise it represents and the potential to become a nationwide success story, the initiative remains under appreciated. It needs to be highlighted because it deserves recognition and due appreciation.

When I recently met the e.Learn team in Lahore, I was impressed by the tremendous energy every team member brings to the table and the dedication with which everyone contributes their bit. Team members knew very well the impact their efforts are making on ground and this, above everything else, keeps them all highly motivated.

As this initiative approaches the successful completion of its first phase, Project Lead Mr. Waqas Halim told me, “There is no set successful model in public schools as such that can serve as a way forward to help solve the issues there. This initiative can fill that gap and can serve as a foundational work in which further progress can be made.”

It is hoped that successes of such initiatives actually serve as a foundational framework that is capitalized on and more progress is made. And this and other initiatives working towards improvement of public sector education have a synergistic effect. As article 25-A of the constitution says that the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years (in such manner as may be determined by law), such initiatives not only represent provision of this fundamental right but also the successful efforts towards improvement of its quality. As small as it may look but it surely is a step in the right direction and it definitely counts.