Education At The Doorstep

One of the most spectacular successes in Punjab in the last two years has gone almost unnoticed. This is the ‘almost’ complete elimination of dengue fever from Lahore and certain other parts of Punjab. This became possible due to the brilliant Dr Umar Saif, Chairman Punjab Software Export Board, and his team who employed information technology tools to identify puddles of water that could be the breeding grounds of the lethal mosquitoes and eliminate them.
Dr Umar had the strong support of the Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. The same technology can be employed to eliminate a number of other diseases from Pakistan, illustrating the power of modern technologies.
It has been realised by many fast developing countries that the key to socio-economic development lies in education, particularly in higher education. The single most important factor that determines the quality of education is the quality of the faculty. Unfortunately, the majority of faculty members in universities of the developing world are not adequately qualified, and the standards of education and research are therefore very low.
However, technology has now opened up opportunities that did not exist a decade ago. It is now possible to learn from courses developed by top professors at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other top universities while sitting at home! All you need for this is an appropriate bandwidth to your computer.
During 2000-2002, when I was the federal minister responsible for IT and telecommunications, there had been a phenomenal improvement in IT infrastructure. Internet access quickly expanded from 29 cities to 2,000 cities, towns and villages. Fibre access increased from 40 cities to 1000 towns and cities. Bandwidth costs decreased from a stifling $87,000 per month for a 2 MB line to $2000 per month and later to $900 per month.
A satellite was placed in space (Paksat 1) and some of its transponders set aside for education. These were used by the Virtual University that we established in Lahore and which now has over 100,000 students. This laid the foundations of one of the best digital libraries in the world, where every student in every public sector university has free access to 65,000 textbooks from 220 international publishers and some 25,000 international journals.
A silent revolution occurred. Such nation-wide free access to literature is not even available today in Europe, Japan and the US. Video conferencing facilities established in all public sector universities have brought high quality education right to the doorstep, since they allow live interactive lectures to be delivered from top universities in the world to students in Pakistan.
The national focal point of this distance learning initiative selected by the HEC is the Latif Ebrahim Jamal Science Information Centre located at the University of Karachi. Over 2,000 lectures from professors based in the US, UK, Europe and Australia have been delivered through this mechanism during the last three years.
A major advance in distance learning was the availability of MIT OpenCourseWare free of charge to the world. This provided over two thousand excellent undergraduate and postgraduate courses in various disciplines delivered by the MIT faculty. There are about 20 million website visits by students from 215 countries to benefit from these courses annually and an astonishing 100 million users have benefited from them so far.
We set up a mirror website of the MITCourseWare in Pakistan to facilitate downloading when I was chairman of the HEC. These Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are also being introduced by Stanford and other universities. One such initiative, ‘Udacity’, was initiated by a Stanford professor last year and attracted 160,000 students to register for the course on artificial intelligence.
The fastest growing distance learning initiative, ‘Coursera’, was started by two Stanford professors of computer science and has already enrolled more than two million students worldwide. Harvard University has also followed the same path, teaming up with MIT to start online courses under a programme termed ‘edX’. These will be available free for developing countries.
Apple-iTunesU also offers access to websites of the leading universities in the world including Cambridge, Oxford, Yale etc, where free video lectures are available. The Khan Academy based in California has been providing school and college level materials for many years, many of which are dubbed in Urdu by a group based in NED University, Karachi.
Recently a meta search engine has been developed at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at Karachi University to quickly search through all these materials, and arrangements have been made to make these materials available to students and academics in Pakistan free of charge through internet and television.
The Latif Ebrahim Jamal Science Information Centre is the HEC designated national focal point for the video conferencing and distance learning programmes. The formal inauguration of educational TV is expected to occur within a couple of months. This will be a huge leap forward for education in Pakistan, and I am thrilled to be a part of this exciting initiative to help bring quality education to the doorsteps of some 100 million youngsters of Pakistan who are below the age of 19.
To get out of the present mess, we must change our course to a knowledge economy, as was done by China, Korea and many other countries. It is only then that we can shrug off the shackles of foreign aid.
A comprehensive 15 year road map for socio-economic development, involving the use of technologies for agricultural and industrial development was prepared under my leadership. It covered various key sectors, including engineering, agriculture, textiles, pharmaceuticals, telecommunication, information technology etc. It involved massive consultations with thousands of professionals from industry, academic experts, our diaspora abroad, government and the private sector.
The 300-page document entitled “Technology Based Vision and Strategy for Pakistan’s Socio-economic Development” was approved by the cabinet on August 30, 2007 and a ministerial level committee was formed for the implementation of this road map. Unfortunately the new government that came into power in 2008 had other priorities and the document has been lying in government archives, gathering dust. With the new government that comes into power there is hope that it will be revived.
The four pillars of progress today are education, science and technology, innovation and entrepreneurship and provision of quick justice. However, these cannot be put in place without an honest, technologically competent and visionary government. The world’s leading science journal in its editorial in 2008 criticised the Pakistan Peoples Party for its dismal record of supporting science and technology and advised the government not to go back to the Stone Age that had existed prior to General Musharraf coming into power. Alas, this is precisely what has happened. The enemies of Pakistan lie among us.
However, winds of political change are now blowing across Pakistan, and there is renewed hope that we may yet pull ourselves out of the disastrous mess that we have landed ourselves in.