Abstract: This NORRAG Highlights is written by NORRAG Advisor, Wajeeha Bajwa. She describes how the pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide in Pakistan, disproportionately affecting girls. Bajwa advocates for the scaling of ed-tech solutions and blended learning approaches in both the public and private sector as a means to sustainably redress supply side issues affecting girls’ education. To ensure girls remain in school in the meantime, she proposes the leveraging of traditional ICTs and pre-existing resources such as the Pakistan Post.
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted traditional teaching and learning across Pakistan, and the rest of the world, in March 2020. Since then, both public and private schools have re-opened and shut down thrice to stem the spread of the pandemic. Openings were however affected by partial closures recorded each time districts met a positivity rate threshold or COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in schools.
An Ed-tech Revolution
In this context, both private and public schools relied upon digital solutions to restrain learning losses and school interruption for students to varying degrees. Ed-tech companies such as Taleemabad and Sabaq in partnership with schools delivered virtual education. Furthermore, blended learning approaches that were piloted in 200 public schools educational authorities who noted an intention to scale. Of these, 75 were institutions for girls.
Despite these notable efforts, digital divides have been prevalent prior to the pandemic in that internet, computers and mobiles remained out of reach of the poorest populations. As mentioned in an earlier blog post only 16% of the population had access to smartphones in 2016 and 53% of the population used basic mobile phones without internet connectivity as of 2018. Only 22% of the population had internet access in 2018. Yet, a GSMA estimate expected half the population to own a smartphone by 2020.
The pandemic has magnified the divides, disproportionately affecting girls. Due to sociocultural reasons even in cases, where access to digital educational technologies are available, they may be the last in the family to gain a chance to use it in a country where the average family size is 6.6 individuals. Here, we may then consider that the coverage of Ed-techs such as Taleemabad is 500,000 whereas Sabaq counted a coverage of a hundred thousand at the start of the pandemic. Additional Ed-techs such as Tele Taleem similarly indicate a coverage of up to 300,000 students. If we assume half of the platform users are girls, we still find a noticeable gap in the demand and supply of digital educational services.
Usage of traditional Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)
Whereas students from more privileged segments of the Pakistani population have been able to continue learning, girls from poorer households across the country, and in remote areas have had their education curtailed entirely. In a country with a 33 percent dropout rate between classes (as of 2017), 6% of girls are estimated to not return to schools in the context of the pandemic. For those who have not dropped out but do not have access to digital technologies, there has been a reliance on traditional forms of education such as tele-education and radio for the delivery of lessons. Pakistan’s premier television educational system that was launched in April 2020, released one hour lessons for each school grade over the course of the day. It also integrated an SMS system to promote an interactive learning experience.
Learning through Digital vs Traditional ICTs
Yet, digital education in comparison to radio or tele-education in emergency situations, has the potential to be a more active form of learning with an added advantage of learning metrics that may be tracked in real-time. Radio and television broadcasts of lessons are not not paced based on student’s understanding, and children often do not have the opportunity to ask questions on lesson content unless they have access to a mobile phone. Furthermore, if provision of digital education can be scaled up to reach more remote regions where school infrastructure and female teachers has been historically lacking, it may serve as a sustainable substitute for the provision formal education for marginalized girls. This holds all the more relevance in the context of the shut down of 10,000 low fee private schools during the first wave of the pandemic. Low fee private schools have traditionally assisted in redressing the educational supply gap in the country. Finally, digital education is crucial for equipping students with the computer skills required to function in the knowledge economy, whilst additionally equipping them with emotional intelligence and self discipline required to function in the knowledge economy, promising long-term gains in the creation of human capital as per priorities in the country’s National Educational Policy of 2017 to 2025.
Prior to the Pandemic, the formal schooling system served as a means to mitigate the effects of digital divide, particularly for girls. To prevent the interactions of digital divides, poverty and sociocultural norms on girls’ education, a diverse range of stakeholders in the country, including federal and provincial educational authorities, Civil Society Organizations, and the private sector have come together to devise and deliver innovative substitutes that have recorded a meaningful impact. Scaling of ed-tech solutions and blended learning approaches in both the public and private sector is essential and promises to not only strengthen the country’s pathway to participating in the global knowledge economy, but in sustainably redressing supply side issues affecting girls’ education. Yet, it is of utmost importance to ensure girls remain in schools. As infrastructure is developed and scaled for digital education, traditional ICTs must continue to be leveraged, and pre-existing resources such as the Pakistan Post maybe considered as an avenue to reach the poorest girls without access to digital or traditional ICTs.
About the Author: Wajeeha Bajwa is an Advisor at NORRAG. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org