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Pakistan:Punjab’s school experiments

By Syed Mohammad Ali
December 23 2013




Like our other leaders, the Sharifs have long been cautioned against adopting top-down approaches to development, yet this criticism has not been heeded. Recall the Sher Shah Suri-like ambitions of the current premier, when he bulldozed all objections to build a partial motorway from Islamabad to Lahore during an earlier stint, instead of spending the same amount of money in the railways system, which could have eased transportation difficulties for many more people across the country.

The Punjab chief minister is also prone to making similar decisions, the imprint of which is particularly evident in the education sector. During his last term, he had decided to become the founder of the Daanish School scheme, aiming to create ‘Aitchisons for the poor’. Many educationists pointed out that instead of spending vast public funds on a handful of Daanish Schools, the provincial government should distribute its scarce resources across a wider range of public schools. However, the chief minister discarded such advice.

Subsequently, he has become convinced by the transformative capacity of computers to overcome our lingering educational gaps. There is immense potential to use computers to store data and to facilitate better educational management, planning and supervision. The provision of computers to students directly to boost their learning outcomes is, however, a more contested notion. Yet, it is this very option of directly arming students with computers that seems to have gained favour with Shahbaz Sharif and his team of educational advisers.

During his last tenure, he had endorsed a free laptops scheme with the objective of distributing 100,000 laptops to high achieving public sector tertiary level students. The impact of this expensive scheme in terms of improving the capacity of tertiary students to become productive and to facilitate their entry into the workforce remains to be seen. However, the education minister of Punjab has given the go-ahead to initiate the ‘smart school system’ in 55,000 public sector schools. This new venture is impelled by the need to provide Android tablets to girls and boys of the eighth and tenth grades, on which their educational syllabus could be uploaded, doing away with the need for textbooks.

This ambitious plan to provide Android tablets to over a million students across Punjab would no doubt provide a lucrative business opportunity to private entrepreneurs. Yet, this idea instigates discomfort amongst educationists, who are pointing out very mixed results concerning improvements in educational outcomes through provision of Android tablets to students, even in countries like the US. The rationale for launching such an effort in a country like Pakistan is even less convincing, given the dismal state of physical infrastructure of our public schools, many of which still lack functional classrooms and other basic facilities like clean drinking water and toilets. It is thus reasonable to ask how our policymakers can justify spending so much money to purchase Android tablets instead of focusing on providing these basic facilities.

Moreover, Android tablets are certainly not a cost-effective replacement of textbooks and can be easily damaged. Sensible alternatives suggested to the Punjab government include providing Android tablets to all teachers instead of students, which can be used to facilitate teacher training and lesson planning. Providing functional computer labs with internet facilities at all public schools, instead of aiming to provide computers to individual students, is another suggestion which the educational decision-makers in Punjab could pay heed to.

Originally published by Tribune Pakistan 

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