Monday October 18, 2021

Towards a STEM revolution

April 21, 2020

The novel coronavirus may have forced Pakistan’s schools to temporarily close, but when they re-open we can be certain that science and technology learning will be firmly back on the government’s education agenda as it seeks to build an internationally competitive knowledge economy.

The federal government wants nothing short of a STEM revolution for Pakistan’s schools, with Minister for Science and Technology Chaudhry Fawad Hussain announcing earlier this month that they will convert 456 schools into STEM schools this year and that this number will be doubled next year. However, as one of Asia’s fastest growing internet markets, Pakistan may actually have an ace up its sleeve as it seeks to meet the government’s STEM challenge.

In 2001, only 1.3 percent of Pakistanis used the internet, compared with over 36 percent today. There are over one million people coming online via their phones every month in Pakistan. Active social media users are growing rapidly – registering growth of 35 per cent year-on-year according to Hootsuite and We Are Social. Meanwhile, with 64 percent under the age of 30, Pakistan has a young population ideally placed to embrace the benefits of digital technology. And the coronavirus crisis will only further underscore the importance of technology to the education sector as more schools coping with closure turn to online learning.

Young people’s increasingly easy embrace of technology can help drive forward the early adoption of STEM in a number of crucial ways. Even before Pakistan’s STEM schools programme has been fully rolled out, online learning can help its students learn subjects that aren’t always available at their schools. Of course, there’s no substitute for face-to-face teaching, but where schools, whether through lack of staff or resources, struggle to teach a full range of subjects, such as computer science or advanced mathematics for example, they can look to online learning platforms to connect students to teachers around the world offering these subjects in virtual classrooms. By leveraging cloud-based classrooms, supported by staff on the ground in schools, it is possible for Pakistan to move quickly to widen access to internationally recognised, high-quality education.

Online tools can also provide the opportunity for Pakistani schools to introduce blended learning. These platforms, which provide teachers with entire subject courses broken down into individual lessons they can plan out, allow them to set tasks and track pupils’ progress online. Where schools lack a fully-trained teacher in a necessary STEM subject – for example where they might have a physics teacher who must teach biology and chemistry as well due to a shortage of staff – the course content and lesson plans provided by online platforms can be of great assistance.

Even when a school has fully trained teachers across all STEM subjects, using online tools to flip classrooms greatly reduces the time teachers need to spend on course preparation, marking and reporting, freeing them up to focus their efforts more strongly on teaching in the classroom and guiding the learning experience for students. For students, this means more face-to-face time with their teachers in class, and with many learning activities done online it means more time in school to collaborate with their peers, all of which helps increase engagement by bringing complex STEM subjects to life.

Blended learning is one of the priority areas – alongside IT and AI, biotechnology, and mineral development – identified by the National Task Force set up by the government to transform the country from an economy based around agriculture to a technology driven knowledge-based economy able to compete at the international level. The importance of education to achieving this was underscored by a Pakistan Alliance for Maths and Science report in November that revealed the quality of STEM learning in Pakistan’s schools remains low, citing data collected by the National Education Assessment System showing that scores in math and science are under 50 percent for every province and region across the country. The problem is particularly pronounced for girls and women, who Unesco found to be chronically underrepresented in Pakistan at all levels of STEM.

But students that can access online learning platforms will not only have a new window into STEM learning but also gain practical experience of collaborative, digital technologies that promote self-direction and independence in learning; skills that will be needed to navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the challenges and opportunities it brings.

All around the world, AI and automation are transforming the job market and rendering many of the jobs we currently know obsolete, whilst creating new jobs that could not have been imagined before. If Pakistan’s students are to gain the skills necessary to not only survive but thrive in tomorrow’s world of work, they cannot afford to lose another minute. Every day they are not receiving a quality STEM education is a day they will never get back. Online learning can be a powerful ally for Pakistan’s brilliant young minds as they stand ready to face a world that has just been turned upside down right at the beginning of what could have been – and still can be – a brave new decade.

The writer is CEO of Pamoja Education, an Oxford-based education technology company.