“If Pakistan wants to keep up with its current level of school education, it needs to build a new school of 400 students every hour,” said a speaker at a recent World Economic Forum meeting. Improving the standard of the public school system in Pakistan is a daunting task. In Punjab, there are over 60,000 schools, 325,000 teachers and 10 million students enrolled in public sector schools. There are an additional seven million out-of-school children in Punjab.

We, at the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), started rolling out a series of IT-based initiatives to help improve school education in Punjab. The results have convinced us that these initiatives are worth replicating. As a first step, we have started digitizing school textbooks, making them freely available online. Importantly, in digitizing the textbooks, we have focused on converting them into interactive learning resources, where each section of a textbook is embedded with video lectures, illustrations, simulations, games and exercises. Our interactive textbooks enable students to learn on their own and minimise dependence on the availability of a subject expert or evening tuitions.

The platform is designed to be an open platform, such that people can add new contents on the e-Learn website and help us continuously improve the quality of e-books. Over 5,000 video lectures, animations, simulations and interactive assessments have been added to these textbooks. They are also being made available locally in the computer labs of public sector schools in Punjab. We plan to freely distribute CDs of this content.

We have also been working on strengthening the monitoring of public sector schools in Punjab using technology. The Punjab government employs thousands of monitoring officers, who randomly visit primary schools to report on the quality of facilities, enrollment, teacher and student attendance, staff presence, etc. This data serves as the basis for a quarterly assessment by the chief minister.

About six months ago, we equipped 1,600 monitoring officers with Android tablets and trained them to file their reports digitally. Each report carries the GPS location of the school from where it was submitted and includes pictorial evidence of school facilities and staff presence. This has eliminated fake reports and has made the analysis instantaneous. Our system automatically analyses the incoming data in real-time and fires off SMS alerts to relevant officials if a performance indicator falls below a threshold e.g. teacher attendance, school enrollment and staff presence.

Furthermore, this has enabled us to take a stab at collecting data about two critical indicators: quality of teachers and student learning outcomes. Conducting a standardized province-wide test for over three million students is logistically challenging. Currently, standardized tests are conducted every few years. We need a testing system that continuously feeds the results back to the government for timely analysis and corrective measures. To achieve this, the tablets carried by these field monitors also have an additional application that enables them to pull up a question from a large bank of questions and test the teacher and students on the spot. The aim is to provide continuous feedback to the education department about the quality of teaching and student attainment.

We are also building an SMS/USSD-based system to test students on large-scale using mobile phones. It is designed as an interactive messaging platform to send short multiple choice questions to students and analyze their answers in real-time. It can instantaneously test and compare the learning outcomes of thousands of students across Punjab. Since we use cell phone numbers of parents to conduct the tests, the initial response has indicated that parents have welcomed this initiative. We are currently developing a large database of SMS/USSD questions for grades four to eight. Our initial experiments with around 300,000 students in Punjab have been encouraging.

Finally, we are developing an automatic test-generation software for the Punjab Examination Commission, similar to the systems used for SAT, GRE, TOEFL, etc. These systems are designed to automatically generate many different permutations of question papers for an exam. Hence no single exam can be leaked. This also naturally minimises the chances of cheating within an examination centre. Automatic marking of these computer-generated exam sheets eliminates the problem of variable grading quality and errors in tabulation.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge and works as the Chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board. He tweets @umarsaif

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