Can E-learning Solve the Education Crisis in Pakistan?

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In Pakistan, school is compulsory for every child between 5 and 16. In reality, the law is not enforced, and the country will not meet the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education by 2015.

Pakistan’s Education Crisis

Over the past decade, education has been a low priority for the Pakistani governments; and economic poverty, natural disasters and religious extremism have further worsened the situation. With 5.5 million out-of-school children, Pakistan has the second worst performance in the world when it comes to enrollment (after Nigeria). Of course, disadvantaged girls are first to drop out: in 2013, 66 percent did not receive any education at all…

For children enrolled in government schools, the prospects for the future are almost as bleak. Public education is in a disastrous state, and student achievement is outrageously low. 36 percent of the 10-year-old pupils cannot read a sentence in English, which they are supposed to learn at 7; and, in the underdeveloped Balochistan province, only 45 percent of the primary school graduates can solve a two-digit subtraction.

The Whole System is in Danger of Collapse

Pakistan is confronting an acute education crisis, and the whole system is to blame. The curriculum does not meet international standards; and the lack of investment is blatant at both the federal and state levels. In 2013, total allocations for education amounted to just 1.9 percent of the country’s GDP. This was the lowest rate in South Asia, and only seven other countries put less money in their education system.

In practical terms, this means that the teachers are not paid enough, neither are they well-trained. It is not surprising, then, that Pakistan has to deal with a massive shortage of teaching staff. To make the public education system work, there should be at least 100,000 extra instructors…

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Britannica SmartMath

Bilal Shahid is a Director at Tech Implement, an innovative IT company founded in 2005 in Lahore. For this e-learning specialist, the country’s education crisis is a shame because it affects the least fortunate — those who cannot afford to go to private school.

In 2012, he decided to take action and approached the CARE Foundation, the largest education NGO in the country. Shahid intended to carry out an experiment to improve the children’s skills in mathematics. The Tech Implement team would take the Encyclopedia Britannica’s e-learning tool called SmartMath, map it to the Pakistani syllabus and use it to train the students.

Displaying the questions as a game with stars to reward every right answer, this tool is especially appealing to the youth. Furthermore, SmartMath is adaptive and driven by the students’ actual progress. When they are consistent at answering questions correctly, they move to the next level. But if they don’t reach the proficiency target, they spend more time on the topic. SmartMath can even suggest remediation.

Leaning Against the Wind

In 2012, Shahid’s idea to bring an e-learning tool to the classroom was bold, as many people in Pakistan were still wary of ICTs. But the CARE Foundation that manages 225 public schools throughout the country welcomed the initiative. In August 2012, they started a pilot in five Lahore schools; by April 2013, they had expanded the project to 23 other institutions.

However, the teachers were not thrilled. They did not take e-learning seriously and were concerned that SmartMath would replace them in the future. Tech Implement spent a lot of time explaining that the tool was actually designed to assist them in their teaching practice. It took a while, but eventually everyone agreed to play the game. And, once the schools’ computer labs were properly equipped, the project could begin.

Or so they thought…

“They Were Scared of Holding the Mouse”

The beneficiary students were aged 8 to 13, and they all came from low-income families. With no computer at home, they had no idea how to use it. Some were even scared of holding the mouse! Again, Shahid and his team put the project on hold, this time to train 2,500 children in the basics of computer literacy.

Soon, the students were able to take their hour-long SmartMath session. And it was only a matter of weeks before they showed significant improvements. By the end of the academic year, they scored 8.73 in math, whereas other students got an average of 4.25. Moreover, the majority passed their final exam!

After two years of experimentation, SmartMath has therefore proven to be a viable solution to Pakistan’s learning crisis. And today, Tech Implement wants to scale up the project and train 15,000 additional students by 2015!

What do you think? Could e-learning solutions really help enhance students’ performances in a country like Pakistan? Are they sustainable in the long run?

Connecting Dreams of Poor Indians with Apna Tech Trees

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Around 70% of the poor in India are from rural areas where there is a lack of basic social and infrastructure services, such as healthcare, roads, education, and drinking water.

Yet, despite the presence of over 300,000 NGOs, which are working in sectors spanning the gamut from agriculture to minority rights, India’s growth has primarily benefited its urban elite and middle class population who are engaged largely in the fast-growing services sector.

Inclusive, sustainable growth needs to be achieved in order to reduce poverty and other social and economic disparities, and also to sustain long-term economic growth. This is possible only by establishing a strong connection between rural and urban India for equitable social and economic opportunities. Relevant scientific and technological interventions can help in accelerating the process.

Connecting Dreams Foundation Approach

Our experience and extensive fieldwork led us to arrive at the hypotheses that in rural India most of the problems and solutions are within a 10 km radius of each other. That means a challenge in one village has a solution in a neighboring village, and its only due to limitations of transportation, access, appropriate technology, education and social meetings that people don’t share solutions amongst each other.

We believe that the solutions to some of the big challenges in rural India lie within rural India itself and the best we can do is to get the villages connected with each other by providing an appropriate technology – thereby making the villages into village smart grids.

Therefore, we have come up with Apna Tech Tree (ATT). The ATT is a village enterprise with a people centric design – a touch screen PC with broadband and a trusted portal run by local village women groups in partnership with NGO’s.

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ATT enables community centric learning using video conferencing and voice over internet to communicate, share best practices and challenges with people of neighboring villages and with experts in the areas of healthcare, banking and education. You can see a video of ATT in action here.

ATT offers solution that creates connected village or village smart grids. The ATT’s have the capability of speaking – interacting with local grids, experts and also showcasing – broadcasting customized or locally curated content. Currently ATT offers solutions and content in Healthcare, Livelihood and Education sectors where experts in the above fields are connected over video conferencing to the village community once a week and help in them in resolving their key issues.

Just listen to our happy constituents:

Rani Siddhu, Village Citizen: “Even though we can’t read or write, but we can at least listen and learn and this ‘Apna Tech Tree’ has been a big help for people like me and for our children who now use knowledge and information to achieve something better and make a good life.”

Sharmishtha Tyagi, Village Coordinator: “This ‘Apna Tech Tree’ is a boon for the children as well as for the women. Earlier the ladies in the village didn’t know much as we can’t go out of the village but now because of this tree, we can get any information and solve our issue right at our doorstep.”

Rabita, Village Citizen: “Although we are uneducated, we have the will to learn anything that is new. This ‘Apna Tech Tree’ has made us realize the importance of information and its accessibility through which we can improve our and our children’s lives in a simple and easy way.”

You can learn more about Connecting Dreams Foundation (CDF), a non-profit foundation working towards architecting social transformational interventions and campaigns using technology that create positive impact across the globe, online and on Facebook.

Respect Myanmar Diversity: Use Unicode Fonts

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Burmese is the dominant language of Myanmar, but its had a long and winding journey in the digital realm, and now there is a tension between two competing systems to represent it online.

Unlike Latin script or pictograph scripts like Chinese, Burmese doesn’t use spaces between words and generally doesn’t fit into nice, tidy blocks that are easy for computers to render on a screen.

Almost all languages have fonts that adhere to the Unicode standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text. In Myanmar the development of Unicode compliance had a very slow start, and until recently, there wasn’t a strong Unicode standard.

To help Myanmar enter the digital age, a group of individuals produced the Zawgyi font to represent Burmese script. Most of the tech elite learned to type using Zawgyi, and like the American Qwerty system, the network effects – from keyboards to typing classes – has made Zawgyi the most widely used font. However, its popularity doesn’t mean Zawgyi is the best font to use.

Technologically, Zawgyi is a nightmare for backend software development, as it requires extensive customization to present the font correctly. The font itself also needs to be installed on computers or mobile phones, which can be a technical hurtle for novice users.

But culturally, there is an even greater imperative to use Unicode instead of Zawgyi. Zawgyi is useless for typing other ethnic Myanmar languages that use Burmese script, like Sanksrit, Shan, and Mon. Myanmar already has a rocky history (past and present) with ethnic minorities, and we should not use any digital tool that excludes them or presents a barrier to their digital voice.

Unicode fonts support 11 languages that use the Myanmar script, including Burmese, Pali, Sanskrit, Mon, Shan, Kayah, Rumai Palaung, and four Karen languages. Unicode is now standard on Android devices, which are and will be the most popular way to get online in Myanmar, and over 30% of Myanmar government websites use Unicode.

So it is time for all of us to use Unicode fonts to communicate in Myanmar, so we can truly communicate with everyone.

Myanmar Will Be the First Smartphone Only Country

Today, Myanmar has the same mobile phone usage as North Korea, Eritrea, and Cuba – less than 10% – with only the urban elite owning smartphones, and mobile networks limited in scope and functionality. Yet technology restrictions are ending, and three mobile operators are racing to roll out services to 60 million across the country.

Ooredoo aims to have 3G coverage for 50% of the population by year’s end, with Telenor and Myanmar Post and Telecom with their own ambitious targets. By the end of 2015, most of Myanmar’s population will live within range of a 3G or better mobile network system.

The people of Myanmar will not be connecting to this network with basic or feature phones for three reasons:

1. Smartphones are cheapWhile new iPhones are still several hundred dollars, there is an explosion of cheap Android handsets available in Myanmar already. $50USD can buy a Karbonn Smart A50S, Spice Smart Flo Edge from India or one of many no-name Chinese-made phones. And that’s today.

With the $25 Firefox phone coming out soon, we’ll see even cheaper, full-featured smartphones flooding the low-end market. By the end of 2015, expect smartphone prices even in developed markets dropping to sub-$100 prices.

2. Burmese are savvy

Mobile phones are also more than just a communications device; they are an aspirational status symbol. And Myanmar is not some remote backwater. Wedged between India and Thailand, with trade and cultural links to both, Burmese are quick to pick up innovations and aspire to join the ranks of Southeast Asia’s elite countries. They are not going to be satisfied with feature phones. Only smartphones will matter.

In fact, looking around Yangon today, I haven’t seen a single feature phone. Even the bus drivers and market sellers have smartphones of some type. They may be used or cheap Chinese knock-offs, but they are not basic phones. Offical surveys say that Android smartphones are 95% of the Burmese market already.

3. Services will be smart

Talking with Ooredoo and Telenor, they are focused purely on smartphone applications for their networks, as is the nascent technology start-up sector. None are looking at feature phone applications nor are they considering SMS text messages or even USSD as their communication system.

Even the international NGOs are moving quickly to develop smartphone applications for their constituencies. And once mobile money becomes widespread, they will even move “cash” payments from physical to virtual currencies.

What does this mean for you? First, adjust your perception of what a developing country looks like. The 60 million people of Myanmar are rushing into the future, practically overnight, and they will have the same technology in their hands as you do.

Next, realize that there will be big money to be made in multiple little niches. With almost 60 million people coming online, there will be massive opportunity to satisfy consumer and business needs – both obvious ones we are familiar with in other countries, and those unique to Myanmar.

Finally, what are you waiting for? The people of Myanmar are not waiting for you.

The Status of ICT in Cambodia

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On June 26, 2014, Cambodia’s MPs approved the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) for 2014-2018. This ambitious document is the country’s blueprint for economic policy, and since it contains a full section dedicated to ICTs, this is a good opportunity to take stock of the current state of this increasingly strategic sector.

1. Why has Cambodia made the development of ICTs a priority?

Simply because ICTs can have a transformational impact and pave the way to Cambodia’s sustainable development. They can boost the economy both in the short and longer run. In 2009, the World Bank showed that using ICTs enable companies to increase their productivity but also that a 10 percent increase in the Internet penetration can contribute to 1.38 percent of GDP growth. On top of these economic benefits, ICTs can also improve the life of the most disadvantaged by granting them a better access to basic services.

2. How is the Cambodian ICT sector doing?

There is a paradox. Traditional information and communication services are of poor quality. Public postal services are unreliable; mass media do not reach 15 percent of the Cambodians; and only 3.96 percent have a fixed phone line. When you look closer, though, the picture is different. It turns out that Cambodia has been closing its technological gap by moving straight to mobile and Internet. In 2008, 3.8 million people had a cell phone; in 2014, there are 20.2 million SIM cards in circulation, which is a 130 percent penetration rate (regional average rate reaching 89 percent).

The Internet sector is also doing well. Six years ago, fewer than 10,000 Cambodians had a web connection, and it was extremely slow. Today 2.5 million people have Internet access at home, and an additional two million Cambodians go online daily using their smartphones.

3. How to explain this leapfrogging development?

There are two main reasons. First, the coverage is good in most regions, and this is because both the public and private players have invested in the telecom infrastructures — up to $209 million by 2015. Moreover, in the past decade, Cambodia has experienced a 7-8 percent economic growth per year. As a consequence, standards of living have risen, and the emergence of a middle class has attracted many operators. With the competition being fierce, both mobile and Internet subscription prices have been reduced.

4. To which extent have ICTs impacted the Cambodian society?

It took only a few years, but ICTs have already transformed the Cambodian society. On the economic level, they have boosted entrepreneurship: 2011 census showed that the tech industry was among the fastest growing in Cambodia. Moreover, ICTs have had a positive impact on other economic sectors, such as agriculture. In central Cambodia, for instance, Oxfam has been implementing an “e-agriculture” program. By providing rural women with a mobile phone, they have given them a tool to plan when to harvest, integrate with the national market and eventually increase their revenues.

On the social level, ICTs have proven they can be impactful as well, in particular by expanding the access to basic services. In 2014, for example, Women’s Media Center of Cambodia launched a radio show in order to promote maternal care in the countryside. To make sure they reach everyone, they decided to develop an Interactive Voice Response system. And it has worked: in only three months 4,500 people called to get information.

However, the most striking impact has been political as ICTs have helped further strengthen the Cambodian democracy. During the 2013 elections, many voters would check Facebook and YouTube to get not-censored reports. Despite some irregularities, the opposition party obtained 44 percent of the votes. Eventually, Cambodia’s Prime Minister who has been incumbent since 1985 had to agree to share some of its power.

5. Which challenges will the Cambodian ICT sector be facing in the coming years?

Among the many challenges, two stand out in the short run. First there is no consistent legal framework, which affects the industry as a whole. In September 2012, the government established the Telecom Regulator of Cambodia. However, since the Telecom Law has not been passed yet, the rules rely on a collection of somehow volatile and often flouted decrees. The second challenge lies in the current market saturation. In a country of only 15 million people, there are seven mobile companies and 24 Internet operators. Since Cambodians have no brand loyalty, experts believe the market will have to restructure soon, and this may cause some business turbulence in the coming years.