By creating educational content for Pakistan’s recently launched Teleschool initiative, Osaama Shehzad and Haroon Yasin are making up for missed lessons due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Osaama Shehzad and Haroon Yasin both work in the field of education in Pakistan, and over the course of the last year, attempted new things in their respective occupations with the aim of benefiting a larger number of people.

Shehzad quit his job as a university instructor to join an edtech company, hoping to reach out beyond the 20 students that were in his classroom. Yasin, who runs a digital learning mobile app called Taleemabad, tried to televise the app’s content on local television, but faced delays due to red tape and censorship guidelines.

Osaama Shehzad

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, changing educational landscapes across the globe. As schools were shut and students asked to start learning from home, the government of Pakistan launched Teleschool, an initiative that broadcasts educational content for K-12 students on national television daily.

For Shehzad and Yasin — both of whom are Qatar Foundation alumni, having graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q) and Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q) respectively — this was a unique opportunity to directly reach students without any middlemen.

The launch of the initiative allowed Taleemabad to fast-track its partnership with Pakistan’s federal education ministry and screen its cartoon-style animated videos on television.

Knowledge Platform, the edtech company where Shehzad creates science content for students from Grade 6-12, was also onboarded as one of the several organisations feeding content into the Teleschool channel. Content worked on by Yasin and Shehzad is now broadcast every day from 8 am to 6 pm, reaching an audience of 50 million on Pakistan’s national television.

The Teleschool initiative is effective in reaching out to communities that have a television but cannot afford an internet connection or a computer. However, both Shehzad and Yasin agree that broadcasting lessons on TV is not without its challenges. Yasin explained:

It’s very different to engage a broadcast audience, compared to a digital or in-app audience… The viewers can switch the channel at any moment, so you don’t want to be too obvious while you are teaching.

Since television is primarily used for entertainment, putting educational content on it pushes the content creators to make it more fun and engaging than they would for other platforms. Yasin added:

If you [as a child on the receiving end] don’t like it, you get to walk out. That’s a dream come true for children because they get to pick what they want. And it puts the educators in their place… For far too long, we have built classrooms in which students have to stick to ‘dead’ sessions even if they don’t enjoy the lesson.

The one-way communication of television is also a challenge, as it doesn’t allow educators to test the skills and knowledge of its recipients, Shehzad points out, adding that Knowledge Platform has created online assessments which they encourage Teleschool audience to take after tuning into lessons, although there is no way to enforce this.

Haroon Yasin

Talking about virtual classrooms in general, Yasin also warned against overusing the “golden word – e-learning” to ensure the boundaries between technology, fun, and learning are not so blurred that students either start resenting them collectively or not doing anything else, such as playing outdoors and spending quality time with the family. He said:

Edtech companies can be overbearing and we don’t want to develop an allergic reaction to e-learning that will be hard to recover from… Let’s take our foot off the accelerator for some time, as too much learning is also something that can be a trap for children.

Going beyond the confines of conventional schools

While Pakistan has some well-reputed private educational institutes, its public education system struggles due to the country’s overpopulated nature and large number of out-of-school children.

Shehzad’s employer Knowledge Platform has been working on designing new learning solutions for its clients in the education sector by blending traditional methods of learning with technology.

According to Shehzad, prior to the pandemic, many schools in Pakistan still used conventional methods of teaching focusing on routine learning, instead of using visuals and technology to explain the concept. However, that might be changing as schools push their teachers to rethink their teaching methods using technology, something Shehzad had been advocating for before the crisis began. Shehzad said:

Many communities were not open to technology. They thought of technology as something that is disrespectful and can bring shame—that it might take their children out of their hands because of what they see over the internet… But now, schools are forced to make PowerPoint presentations, join Zoom, create cloud files, or set up email accounts. All these things are breaking mental barriers to technologies, so half of my job is done. The circumstances are already doing it for me, so I don’t have to break the mindsets.

Yasin and his co-founder Ahwaz Akhtar created Taleemabad in 2015 while they were still students at GU-Q. They were driven by a passion to improve the state of education in Pakistan by using interactive, play-based learning methods, and incubated their project through the World Innovation Summit for Education, a global initiative of QF aimed at transforming education through innovation.

As the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted traditional teaching methods, the engaging content of Taleemabad has come into the limelight. The app has witnessed an unprecedented surge in users over the past few months, with over 2,000 new users joining every day. The team expect to have about 1.3 million users on the platform by the end of 2020, exceeding their target of one million.

The app is now used not only by underserved or out-of-school children – Taleemabad’s initial target audience – but across the socio-economic spectrum in Pakistan. Yasin noted:

I think we have become pretty agnostic in the last four to five years about just making sure that quality and engaging learning — which might not be available even to kids studying in expensive private schools — becomes accessible for all. And that has evolved our vision for Taleemabad.

Over time, and particularly during the ongoing pandemic, the Taleemabad team has learned that their content does not need to be limited to the national curriculum, as it is used for learning by people of all ages and backgrounds, ranging from mothers who never went to school to English-speaking families who just want their children to learn Urdu.

Taleemabad is currently expanding its content to include videos about social-emotional learning and ethics, as well as general awareness about coronavirus for children. The team is also working on translating its content in various regional languages, with upcoming videos in Pashto set to target students from Afghanistan too.

Shehzad also noted the importance of using e-learning’s wide scope for outreach in promoting well-rounded content that is not restricted to structured classroom-style learning or purely topics within curriculums. Knowledge Platform also teaches lessons in financial literacy and micro-entrepreneurship.

While nobody can be certain what education will look like post-coronavirus, Yasin and Shehzad both agreed that it won’t be the same as before. Shehzad added:

When students go back to classrooms, if teachers try to teach in the same conventional ways, there will be uproar. Coronavirus might have shifted the evolution of education into a revolution.