While the Prime Minister’s plan of Digital Pakistan is something we should have had years ago, it is a step in the right direction. Tabish Qayyum contends why digitization of education and moving on to technological education must be the foundation of digital Pakistan that is compatible with a tech-led world .


akistan’s oft lauded “strategic position” happens to see us situated in South Asia. Apart from the geopolitical advantage that some claim we inherit because of this location, there is precious little that the world’s most underdeveloped region has to offer. According to a well-researched study by Mahbub ul-Haq published in 1997, “South Asia is fast emerging as the poorest, most-illiterate, the most malnourished, the least gender-sensitive–indeed, the most deprived region in the world.” Over two decades later, much of that still rings true. If we were to just focus on one aspect of the aforementioned quote, as is the scope of this article, education alone hasn’t progressed at a rate one would expect it to. Currently, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children (OOSC), with an estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not attending school.

That represents 44 percent of the total population in this age group. In the 5-9 age group, 5 million children are not enrolled in schools and after primary-school age, the number of OOSC doubles, with 11.4 million adolescents between the ages of 10-14 not receiving formal education. Disparities based on gender, socio-economic status, and geography are significant. In Sindh, 52 percent of the poorest children (58 percent girls) are out of school, and in Balochistan, 78 percent of girls are out of school, as reported by UNICEF. 

Regional Benchmarks

With such a dismal background, it is extremely unsettling to note that these statistics only refer to basic education. The world has moved to digital and technological education and skill development, the likes of which the school children of our country have probably never even heard of. Furthermore, if we were to just look East, Bangladesh is one of the top four countries in terms of ‘improvement and remarkable growth’ in digital economy in the last four years, according to Huawei Global Connectivity Index (GCI) 2019. The GCI report was published by Huawei on direct-sales development based on how ICT innovation and ICT applications can grow national economies, and a result of open research into the digital economy with top universities, think tanks, and industry associations.

Bangladesh has come a long way in literacy by efficiently responding to the Basic Literacy Project and by incorporating technology within the education sector. Bangladesh’s literacy rate has risen significantly in the past decade, estimated at 72.76%, according to the latest data from UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS). The rate is increasing as the present government is adopting multifaceted programs and it is one of the major reasons that UN Committee for Development Policy (CPD) has promoted Bangladesh to a ‘Developing Country’ status. To realize the plan for Digital Bangladesh, many institutions in the education sector have adopted information technology to engage the attention of students through visual representation of sounds, concepts and pictures alongside interactive activities.

With such an effective digital infrastructure already in place, Bangladesh was in a much better position to implement disaster management strategies to deal with COVID-19 outbreak with respect to education, a far cry from what has happened in Pakistan Online classes, remote and distant learning facilities were much easier to establish in Bangladesh. We, on the other hand, have just started to venture into the world that is digital education. 

Digitization

With the prime minister’s initiative of “Digital Pakistan” we seem to be on the right path, albeit a little too late. We must leverage all that we can from such a scheme for Pakistan to bridge the gap between where other nations stand and where we stand. Pakistan’s age old approach to education must see an urgent and immediate change if this is to happen. What we fail to understand in our part of the world is the dire need for education techniques and methods to change with the decade. The 21st century is the techno-revolutionary decade where every sphere of life must adapt to the technological impact in the industry it exists in. The new mantra of the developed world further emphasizes this point: “Data in the 21st Century is like Oil in the 18th Century: an immensely, untapped valuable asset.”

Those who see data’s fundamental value and learn to extract and use it will reap huge rewards. In order to reap these awards efficiently for all they are worth, Pakistan must build capacity in its various education streams. Now is the time to introduce technological education, robotics, learning in AI, IoT and data at all levels of education, specifically in universities. 

Our higher education still relies on BBAs, MBAs and other traditional degrees that the world no longer deems relevant. We should move on to information security, politics & technology and so on. Only a handful of universities offer such cutting-edge courses. Of these, UMT Lahore stands out with their BS in Artificial Intelligence, a degree that is need of the hour, in my opinion. Other universities should follow suit. Just having a computer science department in not enough anymore. We need to introduce technological skills for all disciplines, not restrict it to software engineers or computer scientists. Technological education for all, including humanities, liberal arts, even in disciplines like medicine, is the path to progress now. 

Had we been a little more prepared, we might have been able to mimic what Bangladesh did in its COVID-19 response. However, with our limited digitization, Pakistan had no option but to resort to traditional modes of education like Teleschool shows on television. It surely goes without saying that what I propose asks for a lot of research & development funding, but with a favorable attitude of the current government towards such schemes, the time to act is now. 

Digital entrepreneurs and small business owners should be provided with grants to be able to innovate in this time of need. Researchers and academics working in this discipline should also be provided with additional support to pave the way for this transformation. With our young and tech-savvy population, we can truly make the dream of a “Digital Pakistan” a concrete reality. 


Tabish Qayyum is a researcher and analyst on international relations, counter violent extremism, social media, big data and politics. He is an NDU alumni and recently graduated from MPhil Political Science program at UMT. He tweets @TabeshQ. 

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