The Covid-19 epidemic has created many challenges but also opened up many opportunities for developing countries such as Pakistan. One of the new opportunities relates to distance education.
There is increased awareness of the excellent internationally available courses at school, college and university levels from top institutions of the world, many of which are available freely or at nominal cost. These can dramatically help boost educational standards since the biggest hurdle in raising standards of education in Pakistan is the quality of faculty at school, college and university levels.
We have about 1.5 million students enrolled in the higher education sector but there are only about 15,000 faculty members at the PhD level. To reach a ratio of one PhD level faculty member for every 20 students, we need to have another 60,000 PhD level faculty. Clearly, our present allocations to the higher education sector do not allow the level of investment needed to send so many students for doctoral training abroad.
The situation in colleges is even worse, this being the most neglected sector of education. School level education poses an even bigger problem with the pathetic state of government schools in the country. The answer to these issues is however available, if we only have the will to apply it.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provide the solution, if properly used. MOOCs have been available from MIT in the form of MIT Opencourseware for over 20 years and subsequently other universities have also started offering these courses. They include Stanford, Harvard, Yale, University of California and many other universities. FutureLearn, based in London, is a digital education platform founded in December 2012 by the Open University and SEEK Ltd. It now includes 175 UK and international partners and offers courses in many disciplines.
Similarly Udemy, founded in May 2010, is an American online learning platform that has more than 50 million students and 57,000 instructors, with teaching courses in over 65 languages. Khan Academy founded in 2008 by Salman Khan is also a US-based company that offers school and college level practice exercises, instructional videos, and a personalized learning dashboard to teach maths, science, computing, history, economics etc.
Realising the importance of these teaching platforms, and after permission of the companies concerned, we have downloaded most of these materials and integrated them on a single platform. This therefore provides students with a single source free access to tens of thousands of excellent courses at school, college and university levels. This integrated version of MOOCs (iMOOCs) has been developed at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences, University of Karachi under our supervision. It is available at www.lej4learning.com.pk This exciting initiative allows any individual anywhere in the world to benefit from these materials. Many of the school level courses are dubbed in Urdu.
What is needed now is for the federal and provincial ministries of education to make it mandatory for all schools, colleges and universities to adopt and adapt these courses so that we can quickly implement a “blended education” system that allows us to learn not only from our own teachers but also from the best teachers in the world.
In a related six billion rupee project funded through the Knowledge Economy Task Force of which Prime Minister Imran Khan is chairman and I am vice chairman, a system of blended education will be implemented by the Virtual University in order to uplift university education. It should prove to be an important step forward to introduce this powerful system of education on a wide scale in Pakistan.
With the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us, the face of businesses and industries are changing rapidly, and posing new challenges to our systems of education that a blended system of education can address effectively. According to McKinsey Global, there will be a 100 trillion dollar impact of new and emerging disruptive technologies by 2025, of which Artificial Intelligence alone will have an impact of $15.7 trillion. Artificial intelligence is now transforming almost every sphere of human activity, ranging from medicine and agriculture, to industrial manufacture, transportation, home appliances and warfare.
IBM’s computer, ‘Watson’, is already helping nurses diagnose cancer with an accuracy four times greater than humans. Lawyers in the US are worried if they will be able to find jobs because IBM Watson can offer legal advice within seconds with 90 percent accuracy compared with 70 percent accuracy of human lawyers.
It is predicted that by 2030 the stage of ‘singularity’ will be achieved and computers will become far more intelligent than humans including acquiring the ability to acquire knowledge by themselves, learn from their mistakes and improve their abilities at lightning speed. Artificial intelligence is already being used for recognizing minute changes in facial expressions when persons are lying, thereby making life difficult for criminals.
American entrepreneur Elon Musk established the company SpaceX which is able to launch rockets to space at a fraction of the cost of what it was costing NASA. About three years ago, the value of the shares of the electric car company Tesla, founded in 2003, overtook the value of shares of Ford, founded a hundred years earlier, and it is now widely recognized that the combustion engine is now on its way out. Within a decade, most petrol/diesel cars and buses will be replaced by electric vehicles.
Nanotechnology emerged accidentally when it was found that remarkable changes of properties in materials occur when their sizes are reduced to between 1 nanometer (nm) and 100 nm. Gold for instance becomes blue-green, red or purple in colour, depending on the particle size, if its size is reduced to the nanoscale. Nanotechnology is finding many applications in medicine, agriculture, food, water purification, cosmetics, electronics, new materials and many other fields. Nano agriculture-related products are now estimated to have a market of $20 billion that is expanding rapidly.
‘Metamaterials’ have been developed that bend light. Materials covered with such materials become invisible, and these are already being used for cloaking tanks and weapons. Two professors at Manchester University shared the 2010 Nobel Prize for discovering a carbon material that is 200 times stronger than steel: ‘graphene’. Graphene is having a profound impact on new electronic devices such as mobile phone batteries. The lithium ion batteries made out of planar sheets of graphene now last 10 times longer than conventional batteries.
The emergence of such new technologies is now opening up new and fantastic opportunities for the developing countries. It is imperative that we prepare our children for the new era of the Knowledge Economy, where natural resources have diminishing importance. It is here where the blended education programmes mentioned above can help us leapfrog into the future. Our ministries of education need to act with a sense of urgency and move quickly to a blended system of education.
The writer is the former chairman of the HEC, and president of the Network of Academies of Science of OIC Countries (NASIC).
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