Hitting Pakistan’s education emergency where it hurts


    Innovative ways of addressing the country’s education deficiency



    Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore were host to a one of a kind event recently. Some of the most innovative minds in Pakistan came together to solve one of the most alarming problems that the country is facing today; the educational crisis. Athar Osama helped shed some much needed light on the situation.


    Q: What gave birth to the ILM Apps Challenge Hackathon?

    A: The ILM Apps Challenge is an initiative of ILM Ideas — an entity funded by DfiD — and Pakistan Innovation Foundation. ILM Ideas, obviously, has been around for a few years and has already invested educational innovation both of the traditional and the new kind to help address the education emergency. However, despite all the efforts 25 million kids remain out of school in Pakistan including seven million primary school aged kids. As time passes, we almost recede farther and farther behind in addressing this challenge. Providing education to every kid is now a fundamental right accepted by the Pakistani constitution. More importantly it is about providing economic opportunity, alleviating poverty and deprivation, and creating good citizens for Pakistan.


    Any attempt to address this problem head-on must take into account the scale necessary for make a difference. We at Pakistan Innovation Foundation, truly believe that the magnitude of our challenges is such that innovation is the only way forward for Pakistan. Imagine a country of 300 million people 25 years from now living on a land, perhaps, smaller than California and with agricultural productivity one tenth of California? Life is not going to be kind to us if we don’t take control of our destinies today and harness technology and innovation to address our problems.

    The ILM Apps Challenge exactly fits in that aspiration. It seems to use new technology — and new media — to address solutions that could hopefully be scaled to address problems that traditional solutions have not been able to do. In the process, it will create necessary technology and evidence necessary for this scaling to happen.

    Q: ILM Apps Challenge is Pakistan’s first educational hackathon and it’s pretty unconventional. How did you guys come up with the structure?

    A: This is truly Pakistan’s first learning innovation hackathon. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, something like this has not been attempted anywhere else either; because of its specialist nature, we’ve had to slightly modify the structure of a typical hackathon.

    Whatever gets produced here — even if it’s ‘just’ a game — is quite serious stuff. Is it enough to just say that I am creating an app that will teach kids science? Shouldn’t we really know how to teach science before we can make that claim?

    The spontaneous structure of the hackathons where ideas get identified on the spur of the moment and then voted upon may not work in such a specialist environment. In a spontaneous hackathon not the best ideas get selected nor is it necessary that the team selected has the best talent to take the idea forward.

    We wanted our contestants to think deep and hard about the idea and pedagogy. We also gave them a little more leeway to tinker with the team composition and to bring teachers, educationists, and educational psychologists even at such a late stage. There is also a strong capacity building element to this. We’ve brought in the best speakers — game developers, app developers, educationists, etc, — literally people who I wanted to hear but couldn’t to come and speak and impart whatever they can. Some of these talks shall be available on our website for others to benefit from too but the idea is to provide best possible support to these contestants so that they can create what needs to be created to address this very challenging issue.

    Q: How is the ILM Apps Challenge working to achieve its goals?

    A: The ILM Apps Challenge will address the educational emergency in two phases. The first phase, which lasts until end-August 2014, will identify up to ten winning ideas for addressing different aspects of access, quality, and governance issues that could be ready for deployment in a relatively short period of time. The second phase that begins in August 2014 shall fund these ideas for further development and then deployment in real-life settings — such as schools, communities, or whatever the target for the intervention may be — so that their efficacy can be tested and validated and challenges and bottlenecks in deployment identified and addressed.

    Among the key objectives of this challenge is to invite and inspire those communities of practice — such as developers and designers of mobile apps, games, and local content creators — who have something to offer but not necessarily see the educational ‘market’ as a viable and sustainable to try a few things but also to address the huge gap in evidence collection so that, initially, a handful of tried and tested solutions can be made available for others to deploy.

    This is just the beginning of what is a very difficult problem to address but if we can achieve these two things we would have set into motion a series of activities that could have a real impact on the literacy challenge in Pakistan.

    Q: What do you see the hackathon accomplishing in the future?

    A: The purpose of the hackathon was to bring those who had submitted ideas and interest in being part of the solution together and provide them with an environment — trainers, mentors, judges and all — to help quickly refine their ideas. Einstein used to say that when I am trying to solve a problem, I spend 99 per cent of the time thinking about it and one per cent of the time practically solving it.

    The Hackathons provide an opportunity to teams of app and game developers, designers, educationalists, and others to think very carefully about the problem they are trying to address and how they propose to address it. I feel 20 per cent of the total progress on these ideas shall be made in these three days and this 20 per cent is the most important.

    Many teams will also attempt building – creating wireframes, character sketches, and proof of concepts — of whatever they are proposing to create but the most important contribution based on our experience is the refinement and further refinement of the ideas and in working through the target market, pedagogy, and sustainability issues.

    Q: You guys have around 16 winners, with another few wildcard teams to be announced soon. What did a team need to have for them to win?

    A: Simply speaking the winning teams will have to convince the judges of three things. First, they have the best idea(s) to address Pakistan’s educational emergency (or a part of it, such as, access to schools for out-of-school kids or quality of education in the classroom). Second, they have the capability to deliver the solution within reasonable time and cost that they are proposing to deliver. And third, that they have the motivation to deploy it in real-life situations (such as a number of schools) and see it all the way through.

    We have a number of very exciting ideas that take easily available technology and new media and seeks to use it in creative ways. Obviously, the winning solutions would have to keep into account Pakistan’s challenging environment — lack of electricity and infrastructure, bandwidth, and poverty, etc, — and would have to have an eye towards sustainability and scalability.

    Finally, teams that go the extra mile to create something are likely to succeed more than those that don’t. In the end, this is a competitive process where some teams will go forward and others not and you have to better your opponents performance to progress further.

    Q: The next phase takes off in July and August. What happens then?

    A: Once we have our twenty teams, we take then through a month-and-a-half long process — the product development boot camp — where will continue to work with the winning teams to further refine their ideas. We have already identified gaps and weak areas that need some interventions. For instance, we hope to have teams work with those experts in educational pedagogy or assessment or experiment design or gamification, or storyboarding, etc. Similarly, we would like our teams to interact with real teachers and educationists so that they could create realistic applications. The teams will also work over the next month-and-a-half to further develop their prototypes to convince a jury that they are really capable of creating a near-perfect deployable product by the end of the year. We hope to work with ILM Ideas and our partners in three cities to achieve that.

    Q: So where do we go from here? What’s in the future for ILM Apps Challenge?

    A: I think the ILM Apps Challenge is a great first step towards creating a sizeable community of developers and designers interested in applying their skills and knowledge to educational domain. It has brought several well-established private-sector players that were either not looking at the educational market or only exporting educational content abroad to consider the Pakistani market as well. If it is able to lower the entry barrier for these quality players and create a supportive eco-system for the entrepreneurial among us, it would have achieved its objective.

    As a social scientist, I am especially thrilled to be part of this bold new experiment to create more evidence in support (or against) new and innovative approaches to address our educational emergency and hopefully this methodology will find support in other domains such as healthcare, governance, criminal justice, etc. We hardly have solid evidence on what works and what doesn’t work when technology is applied to education beyond maybe a very small number of cases. Evidence-based policy and results-based development is really the way to go and the ILM Apps Challenge is geared towards achieving that.

    Come next year, we should have learnt a lot more than what we currently know about how to (and not to) deploy technology and new media to support education in our very peculiar environment. Ideally, we should be ready to scale up a few of these interventions to the district and provincial level.

    I am confident that this systematic approach to entrepreneurship and experimentation is the only way forward if Pakistan has to address the challenges it faces today and pre-empt those massive ones it is likely to face in the mid-to-latter part of this century.