ISLAMABAD – In the world’s fifth most populous country, where only a small fraction have access to the internet, officials are using a fairly rudimentary tool for distance learning – the television.
When schools were forced to close to avert the spread of the coronavirus, Pakistan stood up an educational channel. Programmed with content for kindergarten through high school, each grade gets one hour of curriculum per day, so the students have to watch in shifts.
Now, for millions of Pakistani schoolchildren, that single channel is their only access to education. And even that channel isn’t available to everyone.
Pakistan already struggles to keep millions of children in school, and as partial lockdowns continue, educators warn enrollments could drop further. Some private school students were given study plans and extra coursework, but most Pakistani children – those who attend public government schools – were sent home with no further guidance.
“They said ‘Keep them busy,’ but they didn’t provide us an outline to study, anything,” said Kainat Nisar, a 24-year-old university student who suddenly found herself in charge of the education of her five nieces and nephews between the ages of 4 and 14.
The children watch the government channel for their allotted hour, but Nisar, as one of the most educated people in her family, is left to keep everyone engaged for the rest of the day. A typical day has the younger children outside on the roof hunched over workbooks while the older children share use of the family’s only laptop in a backroom.
“You are teaching your children on your own; you’re on your own,” she said.
Pakistan has some of the world’s worst education indicators. More than 40% of Pakistan’s school-age students don’t attend school, the second-highest rate in the world. And even for those who do attend school, literacy rates suggest many are not learning. Less than 20% of Pakistani third graders can read and comprehend a short passage.
Now, educators, experts and officials fear the months-long closure of schools in Pakistan with minimal distance learning is set to exacerbate the problem.
The national Pakistani curriculum is taught in Urdu and English – the country’s official languages. But most Pakistani children grow up speaking a regional language at home and struggle to absorb information in the classroom. Lessons largely consist of rote memorization with teachers reciting the content of textbooks to classes of 30 to 40 children. The students chant back what the teachers just said.
“It’s almost like we think kids are USB sticks, and we are just downloading this information onto them and that will make them educated,” said Nadia Naviwala, a global fellow at the Wilson Center and an expert on the Pakistani education system. She warns Pakistan’s education crisis is preventing the country from advancing economically and undercuts efforts to battle extremism.
These larger problems in Pakistan’s education system, Naviwala says, are reflected in the government television channel created during the coronavirus pandemic.
The channel “Teleschool” is uneven in its quality. Some programming is incomprehensible and fast-paced, while other broadcasts are better than the content children get in the government school system, according to education experts.
In one recently broadcast English lesson for kindergartners about the letter “u,” a young female voice narrates an animated story about a village of huts destroyed by a mudslide after a greedy man cut down all the trees. As the story is told, the words “hut,” “mud” and “cut” flashed on the screen.
But during another broadcast, a second-grade science lesson on the eyesight of owls delved into how unique proteins in the birds’ eyes sense different light wavelengths, subject matter far beyond the comprehension level of a second-grader.
Pakistan’s education minister, Shafqat Mahmood, acknowledges problems with the content. “We know it’s not perfect,” he said, but explained his ministry was left scrambling after the lockdown was announced. The country had never had an educational television channel before, and because of the low rates of internet access in the country, setting up online lessons with video conferencing and interactive lectures would have been impossible. Only about 36% of Pakistani households have broadband internet access, according to government figures, and according to the World Bank only 15.5% of the population used the internet in 2017.
“We believe it has been very successful,” Mahmood said of the Teleschool channel. He said the feedback he has seen from parents and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. But, he said, “it doesn’t replace the classroom.”
Mahmood also acknowledged that the channel wasn’t reaching Pakistan’s poorest families and said his ministry is trying to develop educational radio programing.
Pakistan’s schools will be closed through the rest of the school year, officials announced this week, despite the easing of other lockdown restrictions. Coronavirus infections, meanwhile, are steadily increasing. As of Monday, the heath ministry recorded nearly 42,000 infections. More than 900 have died.
Imtiaz Ahmed, a headmaster at a school in Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said hardly any of her students have been able to see the program. Like most government school students in Pakistan, the children at Ahmed’s school are mostly from poor families of farmers or day laborers, and they cannot afford a television set.
Once schools reopen, Ahmed said, it will take months to bring students back to the level they were at when the lockdown began. And she said she expects fewer students to return as more families will put their children to work for additional income.
Partial coronavirus lockdowns in Pakistan have put millions out of work and are estimated to have pushed up to 10 million Pakistanis into poverty, according to government estimates.
Saima Ali, a middle-class housewife, said her family’s finances have taken a hit from the lockdown. Ali went to government schools as a child but insists on sending her children to private schools, where she believes they receive a better education.
“It’s expensive, it’s a lot for us, but we must by hook or by crook,” she said of scraping together the fee payments.
“We have a saying in Urdu: The most important wealth you are giving to your children is education.”
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Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.