Online learning in Pakistan

Published: November 16, 2012

The writer is associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University

The cover story of the November 12 Forbes issue will be about Salman Khan. No, not the one that most Pakistanis are familiar with. This is not the action-oozing heart-throb from Bollywood but the founder of the Khan Academy, a quieter but more effective hero. The Khan Academy provides free, easy to understand ‘micro-tutorials’ to anyone in diverse topics, ranging from cosmology to art history, mathematics to healthcare. Over the last six years, the Khan Academy has made a tremendous impact, reaching 190 million viewers of its lectures. Among the viewers is Bill Gates, who often quotes Khan and talks about how he uses these lectures to teach himself and his children key concepts in science, arts and mathematics.

The Khan Academy is not the only venture of free, online and accessible learning for the masses. Another endeavour, called EdX, includes premier higher learning institutions like MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and UT Austin. This initiative offers university courses, taught for free by faculty for anyone who wants to take the course. Whether it is introduction to circuit theory or a complex topic in finance, anyone can be a part of the experience. Enrolment in these courses often tops over a 100,000 students. These and other similar efforts have started to reshape the landscape of higher education as we know it. A course offered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, can now be taken by anyone in China, Chile, Cameroon and Cambodia simultaneously. How this may reshape the existing models of higher education, both in the developed and in the developing world, is a discussion for another time. Right now, I am interested in analysing what this may mean for Pakistan, both in terms of benefitting from it and also in learning from these endeavours.

First, Pakistani students and non-students, academics and non-academics, can all benefit from quality, free and accessible education. The Khan Academy provides easy-to-understand tutorials on topics of fundamental and applied knowledge in a variety of areas. Conspiracy theorists and water-car supporters can all benefit from some general understanding of thermodynamics. Same can be said about students who may wish to take a course offered by EdX. Yet, there is also a catch. It is important to realise that online learning can certainly complement but not substitute higher education in Pakistan. The instructors may not realise the training of our students; there are language barriers and certainly, most courses do not incorporate the local cultural, environmental and social context. This may not be relevant in theoretical physics but advanced topics in a variety of disciplines, including public health, agricultural sciences, economics and certainly, policy and humanities need to keep context in mind. The tendency to jump on the online learning bandwagon without analysis of the content of the course would be counterproductive to say the least and can be disastrous for our already struggling higher education sector.

In addition to benefiting from the content of these courses, there is also a lesson and a tremendous opportunity. We cannot deny that we have an education crisis in the country. Our universities are overcrowded, yet a large portion of society has no access to quality education. But we also have entrepreneurs, innovators and certainly, a fair share of scientists and engineers who believe in a better Pakistan. I believe that there is a tremendous opportunity for our institutions to think outside the box and create opportunities for access. I believe that it is high time that our institutions can engage and encourage their best professors, with the help of entrepreneurs, mobile phone companies and field experts to create content in Urdu, English and regional languages, aimed at general and field-specific education at all levels, including higher education. Many universities have a national outreach programme but let’s not just focus on bringing the students to the universities, where we have little room and only a select few make it; let us also take the university to them.

We have to recognise both the importance of education and the educational crisis we are currently facing. Denying either would not help our cause, as it has not helped in the last 65 years.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2012.

Reader Comments (13)

  • Anita
    Nov 16, 2012 - 11:09PM

    Online learning would work better if the government did not block youtube and other sites. How do we learn if the Govt decides one bright morning that it is going to block all internet? It may happen.

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  • Asad
    Nov 16, 2012 - 11:10PM

    The issue raised here is critical — we do have an education emergency. We need to accept it and do something about it. Clearly the 18th ammendment has not helped us in creating a federal level emergency. Sad but we need new solutions, not further dissolution of ministries and govt bodies.

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  • Big Man
    Nov 17, 2012 - 1:37AM

    We have an online learning initiative in Pakistan that no one talks about. Its the Virtual University, which disseminates virtual education by virtual teachers to virtual students.

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  • Ali Ashfaq
    Nov 17, 2012 - 8:45AM

    A very valuable suggestion in fact specially about the learning in local languages

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  • gp65
    Nov 17, 2012 - 1:05PM

    @Anita: “Online learning would work better if the government did not block youtube and other sites”

    True. Less load shedding to allow people to use their computers reliably would also be useful.

    On a more serious note, countries like India and Pakistan certainly need to use innovatie methods to improve learning outcomes and distance learning that effectively leverages good teachers to a wider audience is definitely desirable but given the paucity of computers among the target audience one has to consider other media such as TV or using tapes by great professors and widely disributing them to classrooms.

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  • Rashid Qureshi
    Nov 17, 2012 - 1:06PM

    Before we get our hopes high, Salman Khan is Bangladeshi. So….

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  • Nov 17, 2012 - 1:22PM

    If you are motivated you can educate yourself from an Internet course but there will be a missing element of vital community and the intellectual joy of being together. Online education is a monologue and not a real dialogue. People think that lawyers learn a lot about the law from their clients and the patients teach doctors much of what they know about medicine.

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  • Rahid Qureshi
    Nov 17, 2012 - 1:52PM

    Salman Khan is Bangladeshi

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  • Huma
    Nov 17, 2012 - 5:07PM

    @Rashid: Absolutely. We should not look up to any Indian, Bangladeshi, Israeli, American, British or any one else from anywhere else — we should look up only to our own luminaries in education. This is exactly why we are the # 1 nation in the world in education.

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  • Humaira
    Nov 18, 2012 - 10:04AM

    Wait a minute! Salman khan is a Bengali – half Indian (mother) and half Bangladesh ( father).
    And none Pakistani.

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  • jr
    Nov 23, 2012 - 2:46AM

    Free and accessible seems to be the mission of websites like Khan and MathTV.com.

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  • Akif
    Nov 23, 2012 - 11:47PM

    It is important to understand the success of Khan Academy. The core area of Khan Academy is Maths and Science. The reason of success is to the point short concept based tutorials and know they developing exercising also. Contrary to VU though great initiative from Govt. the lecture mode is very boring. I have may DVD on different topics but could not listen to any of them because they are so boring. I think if you have to make online eduction the content should be simple and very engaging and should not be more the 10 min. Not like any other university lectures

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  • Jan 10, 2013 - 1:08AM

    Sabaq Foundation (www.sabaq.pk) is a non-profit based in Islamabad and offers FREE online Math videos specifically targetted to Pakistani students in 9th and 10th classes. These videos are delivered in Urdu but for English medium public schools in Pakistan. Sabaq.pk supports Federal, Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan education boards.

    Please check it out and also spread the word so others can benefit from this totally free service.

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