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Sunday July 21, 2024

Modern challenges, modern solutions

Effective and ethical use of AI helps in improving teaching and learning process and offering numerous excellent benefits for teachers and students

By Asghar Soomro
June 22, 2024
The image shows a computer lab at a school in Khushab. —Facebook/Govt High School Khura Khushab
The image shows a computer lab at a school in Khushab. —Facebook/Govt High School Khura Khushab

Last month, Pakistan participated in the Education World Forum (May 9-22), an annual gathering of education ministers and experts from over 114 countries in London.

The theme of the conference was well aligned with the challenges of modern times. In recent years, with the advent of AI, we have witnessed a dramatic transformation in every field of life including education. So, it was undoubtedly a highly pertinent topic for discussion, especially on how to introduce AI in education. Three other themes included understanding and building human relationships and resilience; accelerating climate action; and policies for stronger, bolder and better education.

While the importance of AI has been established and is getting universal recognition, it is not clear how and when public schools in Pakistan will be able to make the most of this revolutionary technology. The effective and ethical use of AI helps in improving the teaching and learning process and offering numerous excellent benefits for teachers and students.

Specifically, AI helps teachers prepare lesson-plans and other teaching material; analyze students’ assessment tests; provide each individual student with specific feedback; adjust student-centred pedagogy; and enhance critical thinking skills through innovative and creative exercises.

Unfortunately, our schools are still not in a position to effectively equip students with traditional literacy skills, let alone promote AI literacy. From shoddy infrastructure to poor quality of teachers, multiple challenges still haunt the public education system despite so many tall claims about education being the top priority of every government.

Should the Sindh education minister’s twice participation in the Education World Forum be seen as his keen interest in exploring ideas with his counterparts from various countries for improving the province’s education status or just an opportunity for tourism? If the trip was something serious, it is hoped that he will soon share with us a clear plan for introducing AI in schools.

Those leaders who are serious about the future of their children not only participate in discussions but also make plans and show progress. Like the UK education secretary did in her inaugural speech, sharing some examples of how her country learned from Singapore’s experience. Years ago, when students from the UK were not among the top achievers on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for Math, ranked at 27th in the world, the UK turned to Singapore for advice on how to raise their math standard.

The UK then acted on the advice. Consequently, over a decade, from 2009 to 2023, the UK’s ranking has significantly gone up. Last year, it came 11th in the world. But, on the contrary, if we look at our plans since the country’s inception, one thing is clear: almost all our plans fell through. Why? Is it due to the poor quality of plans or lack of commitment on the part of our leaders? Unfortunately, it is both.

Incidentally, we are a curious case in education as we have extremely bad and good examples. While the troubling news about millions of students being out of school persists, it is worth pointing out that we rank second globally in terms of students enrolled in the Cambridge examination system. A few years ago, when I worked at British Council Pakistan, I surprisingly learned this fact from the CEO during his visit to Karachi.

Out of curiosity, I asked him who was on top. He told me it was Singapore. The only difference between Singapore and us is that the Singapore government covers the cost of the Cambridge examination, whereas here in Pakistan parents have to pay the bill for their children’s education. A large majority of such parents are middle-class, urban families who sacrifice their other needs to provide a quality education to their children

It is a worrisome trend where a small fraction of students is capable of competing at the world level whereas a huge proportion hardly understand basic concepts. Such education inequality not only perpetuates existing social stratification but also strengthens them. The idea of promoting understanding and positive human relationships within a classroom through sharing meals and sports is good, but what about those beyond school boundaries? So, with a hierarchal education system, social cohesion cannot be achieved.

In the era of AI technology, such divide is further widening instead of narrowing. In rural areas, the quality of the internet is not up to the mark. Also, during the long hours of loadshedding, the service either remains suspended or gets frequently disrupted. Affordability is another hurdle for poor students whose parents are unable to buy them good gadgets or subscriptions for online courses.

The situation for girls is even more difficult due to prevailing gender biases in society. The thinking that girls would be spoiled if given access to smartphones or tablets is destructive. Hence, the digital divide must be prioritized by policymakers as in the future the gap between the haves and the have-nots will increasingly hinge on access to technology.

Considering modern times challenges, let’s see how our ministers apply the knowledge gained from the forum in Pakistan for making stronger, bolder and better education policies.

The writer is an education expert and can be reached at: asgharsoomro@gmail.com