By Dr Ahmar Rashid, Dean, Faculty of CS and Engineering, Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology
The COVID-pandemic caused havoc in terms of human loss and economic disruption across the globe – its impact on our education system was equally devastating. The upheaval caused by the pandemic accelerated the dire need to prioritize online education. While Pakistani educational institutions responded to the disruption remarkably well, we must use the immediate post-COVID era to bolster our e-learning infrastructure in preparation for the next inevitable disruption. Furthermore, online education is key to building a knowledge-based economy and supporting the realization of Vision 2025.
There is enormous potential for e-learning in Pakistan. The economies of scale created by our large population make it viable for investors to put money into education technology, commonly referred to as EdTech. The country also has a wealth of highly skilled ICT professionals to produce the required solutions, augmented by an up-to-date and relevant local curriculum. Most importantly, our students are eager to adopt technology in their studies that complement the rest of their digital lifestyles.
Online learning also allows us to level the playing field between the privileged students, primarily trained in urban schools, and the under-privileged ones, typically from rural areas. Coming from radically different backgrounds, they learn at very different paces. While conventional education models treat everyone equally, the e-learning model allows for greater customization and personalization, making it beneficial for students who struggle to learn in their current setting. Therefore, e-learning promotes inclusion by delivering lessons to remote areas where students have difficulties accessing a physical classroom. It also allows the government to optimize education spending without compromising the quality of education.
The vast amount of data produced by the education system offers an unparalleled yet untapped resource for boosting learning outcomes. Analyzing data from exam results, enrolment figures, teachers’ performance reviews, etc., provides a unique opportunity for educators to identify gaps and re-design curriculums that better respond to students’ needs. This data analytics also helps policymakers in the education department promote fact-based policies and practices.
The next step is to create an enabling environment for e-learning to thrive in the country. EdTech tools such as HD video, AR, VR and other collaborative platforms require an advanced digital infrastructure to be in place. As educationists, we are happy to see the government prioritizing the rollout of next-generation 5G, which will significantly boost e-learning. The Pakistan government has announced a policy framework in preparation for 5G’s eventual launch by April 2023.
One of the most valuable and relevant consequences of this 5G infrastructure upgrade for online education is enabling high-capacity, low-latency online video streaming, a highly-effective educational tool for the next generation of students. It would facilitate a blended learning approach bringing together online video, audio and graphics in the learning process to complement the traditional teaching techniques. These techniques have been shown to keep learners highly engaged, while educators benefit from access to a diverse range of high-quality educational content to support their lectures.
Video conferencing is also an ideal platform for students to connect with each other and teachers in real-time, regardless of location. This is where collaboration matters. Universities and the government should leverage the technology and expertise of ICT firms to accelerate the digitization of our education system. We have seen the benefit of such partnerships here at the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology (GIK Institute). Last year, GIK Institute and Huawei announced a partnership to establish smart classrooms on campus to expedite a digital learning environment. Huawei also pledged to support GIK Institute in upgrading its IT infrastructure and overall digital transformation.
GIK Institute also hosts Huawei ICT Academy, a school-enterprise cooperation project that works with higher education institutions to help build that talent ecosystem. Our partnership with Huawei recognizes that an enhanced ICT skills development program is crucial if Pakistan is to hit its digital transformation goals. This is especially true for advanced 4IR technologies such as 5G, AI and IoT. Huawei, in particular, is ramping up 5G training in collaboration with universities where the technology is available, offering 5G training certificates and partnering on building innovative real-world projects in 5G. We expect to see similar programs in Pakistan when the technology is rolled out next year.
The ambitious Pakistan Vision 2025 and the Digital Policy of Pakistan, which envisions a $20 billion ICT industry by 2025, is an essential pillar of our country’s economic transformation. Educational institutions have a vital role to play in this national project. By elevating our academic standards, we can make a real difference in advancing our society in collaboration with the ICT ecosystem.