Sunday May 22, 2022

Not a distant possibility

November 29, 2017

The International Center for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS) at Karachi University has launched a visionary programme to bring quality higher education to the doorstep of university students. The ICCBS comprises two of the premium research centres of Pakistan: the Hussain Ebrahim Jamal Research Institute of Chemistry and the Dr Panjwani Center for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research.

The programme, titled ‘The Higher Education Network’, has two major components. One component involves eminent faculty members from the US, Europe and other developed countries delivering complete courses and lectures to students in Pakistan. These courses are taught live and there is a strong sense of interactivity that allows students from across the country to ask questions from foreign faculty members on issues that they have not fully understood.

The second component comprises tens of thousands of recorded lectures from MIT, Stanford, Yale, the University of California and the Khan Academy that are available from the school to the university levels and are completely free-of-charge. Funded by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the initiative has proved to be a major game-changer in Pakistan’s education system.

A major problem in providing high-quality university level education is the shortage of eminent faculty members who hold PhDs in their respective disciplines. Technology has, however, opened new possibilities that didn’t exist a decade ago. It’s now possible to have complete courses taught by the best professors in the West using video conferencing and other technologies. Such a programme has already been initiated across Pakistan and can be readily extended to other countries. The programme is led and supervised by me and my colleague Professor Iqbal Choudhary, the director of the ICCBS.

The Higher Education Network is an effort to bring scholars from around the world into a forum through which they can enhance the quality of the teaching and strengthen the learning environments of the developing world. The network is a distance learning programme that is available on a world-class ICT infrastructure. The project is conceived as a way of using technology to bring scholars, universities and students together in more effective and collaborative learning systems.

It has the potential to bring a much-needed renaissance into the higher education sector in the developing world. The higher education sectors of the developing countries are in desperately need of trained scholars to teach a basic undergraduate curriculum as well as deliver postgraduate lectures. However, these countries cannot afford to replace the local faculty with academics who are trained in the West. The project uses video conferencing technology and Webinar systems to enhance the curriculum of Pakistani universities.

Over the last five years, over 4,000 lectures have been delivered by professors across the world through this system. A focal point exists in each public sector university to ensure coordination. The video-conferencing facilities that were established in all public sector universities between 2003 and 2008, when I was the HEC chairman, are proving to be extremely useful. The generous support shown for this programme by the current chairman, Professor Mukhtar Ahmed, has helped take it to new heights.

The Higher Education Network is conceptualised by academics in Pakistan and is built on the premise that academics around the world and from a variety of disciplines would be willing to deliver courses and lectures to students in the developing world through the use of video conferencing technology.

The initiative, therefore, provides a platform on which a global network of scholars who have a sustained interest in the developing world can come together and share insights. These scholars are approached both directly by the programme directors and indirectly through academic organisations.

The model on which the project operates is based on the existing university infrastructure and technology. Unlike other models of distance learning, the project supplements but doesn’t replace traditional learning environments. Basic investment in building video conferencing technology, which this project heavily relies on, has already been made by the HEC. Through the ICCBS-trained staff, universities maintain network uplinks to a central server through which courses are broadcast in real-time. Enrolled students are expected to attend the lectures for the courses, engage with the lecturers and complete all assignments set by the instructor. Recent advancements in new technologies now allow the courses to also be taught through normal computers without the use video conferencing facilities.

The network launched an intensive online course titled ‘English for University Success (EUS)’ in January 2012. This course was developed by the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney in collaboration with the Aga Khan University, the Department of English at Karachi University and the Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers (Spelt). The course was designed to help university students who specialise in biology and chemistry to develop their language and literacy skills in order to fully engage with and contribute to the academic and professional requirements of their discipline.

The language training programme has now been extended to teaching Chinese, German and French through teachers from the Confucius Institute, Goethe Institut and Alliance Francaise, respectively. The Latif Ebrahim Jamal Science and Technology National Information Center serves as the national focal point for these distance learning programmes.

The second major component of the Higher Education Network programme is the development of a unique integrated form of massive open online courses (Moocs) at the ICCBS. These high-quality video lectures are available from the world’s top experts at school, college and university levels and can change the ways the classrooms will function in the future.

The MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) has also provided all the educational materials from its undergraduate and graduate courses online. Subsequently, Stanford, Princeton, Michigan, Yale, the University of California and many other institutions have launched similar courses .But many of these were largely commercial. Other important Moocs include Udacity, Coursera and FutureLearn.

In December 2013, after permission was granted by institutions – including MIT, Yale, Stanford and others – the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences at Karachi University initiated an integrated version of Moocs (iMOOCs) that offers school, college and university level courses to students free of charge. The programme was launched by the president of Pakistan in December 2013. It is a massive treasure of knowledge and can be accessed through the following website:

The Higher Education Network is a path-breaking means to propagate knowledge and it can prove to be a game-changer for higher education in Pakistan and other developing countries that want to benefit from this visionary initiative.

The writer is the former federal minister for science and technology and former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).