70 percent of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries are unable to read a simple text Anxiety and depression are also on the rise The Uberisation of Education: Is it more important for kids to be clever or happy? The pandemic represents the worst shock to learning in recorded history. It has impacted the poorest countries the hardest, with what is termed ‘learning poverty’ - measured by how many children can read and comprehend a simple text by the age of ten - increasing by a third. The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update report - released in June 2022 – documents school closures, poor effectiveness in mitigating the pandemic and wider shocks on household incomes particularly impacting education and learning in Latin American and the Caribbean and South Asia. COVID-19 has devastated learning around the world, dramatically increasing the number of children living in Learning Poverty. With 7 in 10 of today’s 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries now unable to read a simple text, political leaders and society must swiftly move to recover this generation’s future by ensuring learning recovery strategies and investments.” Jaime Saavedra, Global Director for Education, World Bank Can answers be found in e-learning? The amount of venture capital invested in edtech – that’s any combined use of computer hardware, software and educational theory and practice to facilitate learning – soared over the past two years, totalling US$334 billion in 2021 (Source: TechCrunch). Although seeming to plateau in 2022, figures indicate a sustained increase in private, rather than publicly traded, companies. Sounds great, but other realities lurk in plain sight. A joint report from UNICEF and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) dated December 2020 reported that two-thirds of the world’s school-age children do not have internet connection in their homes. Learning poverty is not a result of Covid-19 but rather a long-standing problem in the poorest countries of the world. The State of Global Learning Poverty: 2022 Update report also confirms that socio-economically disadvantaged students were those disproportionately affected by learning losses during pandemic. “These estimates ring the alarm louder than ever on the urgency to prioritise education in recovery plans and beyond. We must invest in holistic and transformative policies that act on the multiple causes of the learning crisis, mobilise the international community, and put in place conditions so that no child falls behind.” Stefania Giannini, UNESCO Assistant Director General for Education Long live education Learning Poverty was a reality in Pakistan, long before Covid-19 struck. According to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), 30 percent of children aged 5 -16 were not enrolled in school in 2019. Looking at the country, province by province, offers no light relief. The figure sat at 59 percent in the largest and least populated province of Balochistan and 42 percent in Sindh, home to the economic capital, Karachi, and the province generating the highest tax revenues. But Pakistan has 3G coverage for 78 percent of its population and mobile penetration of 83 percent (GSMA Mobile Connectivity Index). This was where Haroon Yasin and his team at Orenda saw the beginnings of an opportunity to rectify the ongoing problem of low school enrolment. Since 2015, and with the support of Telenor Pakistan, the Islamabad-based start-up has been developing an educational learning app for use in schools: Taleemabad (long live education in Urdu). Tablets with preloaded content bring the same education via an offline solution to children living in slums or rural areas and with no Internet access. Meet Aqsa and Maria There are no better advocates of Taleemabad than the children and teachers currently using it. Both from Islamabad, Aqsa and Maria have been teaching using the platform’s resources for about a year and really appreciate the fun video content and activities. “It engages children in a very exciting manner,” explains Aqsa. “Students love to watch videos and they request them in every class. The lesson plans provided allow us to make the concepts easy to grasp.” “My subject is mathematics,” adds Maria. “Thanks to the platform’s content, my students show more interest now.” “I didn’t know about times tables before,” confirms Maria’s eight-year-old student, Zarina Asim, “Now I know my tables up to five!” “Learning Poverty isn’t a problem that can be simply resolved by pushing entire curricula online. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has proved this.” Haroon Yasin, CEO Orenda “You can't solve a problem with the ways of thinking that created it.” Albert Einstein But is it as simple as putting education online? Taleemabad has certainly helped address some issues behind such low rates of primary school enrolment, with rural communities often situated remotely and little or no possibility for children to travel to the nearest school. But if the platform is now strengthening its national rollout to include different curriculum content and hybrid models of teaching – and is in discussions with countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Afghanistan and India - it is because the barriers to education also lie elsewhere. Why are kids not going to school? Looking at the data more closely, nearly 25 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 16 in Pakistan have never attended school, but equally approximately 7 percent were once enrolled … and dropped out. Sociocultural factors are at play - including low maternal literacy levels and prevalent ideas about the lesser need to educate girls – but equally there are wide held doubts as to the benefits of education as families try to balance its cost and impact with the daily immediacy of generating an income and running a household. Parents are also quoted as reluctant to send their kids to school faced with the poor infrastructure and lack of equipment in place and the fact that a large percentage of public-school teachers lack basic training and struggle to impart knowledge to their students in an efficient, effective, interactive manner. “In school here in Pakistan, every child receives an alphabet book on their first day,” explains Haroon. “S is for scone … not samosa or saag! How can kids relate to something they have never seen, let alone tasted or smelt?” Faced with a school system that still teaches literacy, and by association maths, in English – the maternal tongue of no student – and all content based on a Western syllabus with its reference points in foreign lands, the team behind Taleemabad knows that to rectify a disastrous enrolment rate in Pakistan, it is not simply about building more schools or moving content onto tablets. “Our current education system is a product of industrialisation and a colonial past that centralised ideas before feeding them to the four corners of the world. Was that curriculum ever suited to life in Pakistan, let alone today? Children need to see the purpose of what they are learning. They can’t go to school for ten years to be told they don’t know enough. With Taleemabad we are creating a more unhinged form of learning, where children have the freedom to explore what they need to learn and apply it to their daily lives.” Haroon Yasin, CEO Orenda How happy are our kids? The influx of online media and communications tools into children's lives may also carry unwanted side effects. A heated debate is currently underway around the wider impact of Internet usage on kids, with US lawmakers asking social media networks such as Google and Twitter in early 2022 to turn over any studies undertaken as to how their services affect mental health. Moreover, a report released by the World Health Organisation in March 2022 states global rates of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25 percent during the 2021, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. It cites the young as most at risk, with “infancy, childhood and adolescence ages of both vulnerability and opportunity in mental health”, wherever in the world you may live. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought many changes. The past decades have also seen the fastest and most important technological advances of all recorded history. The world, society and the workplace are fast evolving, with most of tomorrow’s jobs unknown to us today. Children need to be prepared for a today that is different to yesterday and yet unlikely to resemble tomorrow. Accompanying this, children are exposed to threats such as climate change and military conflict, with children in poorer parts of the world often living such events in realtime and not just watching them on the news. But has declining mental health in children during Covid actually shed light on bigger problems? The surge in edtech platforms and an increased awareness of mental health isn’t necessary a bad thing. But aren’t apps treating the problem rather than the cause? Moving forward, shouldn’t education focus on developing the right content to develop both hard and soft skills in children? Maybe the question of what kids are taught is not a discussion unique to Pakistan. “We experienced terrible floods recently,” explains Haroon. “The TV and radio talked incessantly about how we were all under water. Before that it recounted daily deaths from a new virus. Families are suffering and children see their parents arguing but don’t understand. We don’t always talk to children about the things we need to be talking about.” School systems around the world – and their digitisation into online and remote models of learning – focus mainly, if not entirely, on enhancing students’ learning ability. A holistic education is founded on building children not just intellectually, but also emotionally. And that starts by giving them the practical skills they need for a world that is getting harder and harder to navigate. There’s an app for that … Faced with a crisis, the investment scene has been quick to mobilise. Edtech is a soaring business since the Covid-19 pandemic and so is the monetisation of mental health. Global health spending on mobile mental health applications will reach close to US$500 million in 2022*, based on an annual growth rate of 20 percent, with and an estimated 20,000 mental health apps on the market today (Source Deloitte Global). Maybe it doesn’t seem a large share of the estimated overall US$1.6 billion 2021 for health and wellness apps in which it sits, but many mental well-being apps have typically been free or low cost until now. And these apps are being brought to people of all ages via collaborations with social media platforms like Snapchat and Bumble. Equally, functionalities are being integrated into communication platforms like Microsoft Teams. * These figures do not include revenue from third-party Android marketplaces, hence not capturing a large portion of app revenues from China. “I have been teaching for twelve years. Events that form kids’ educational and emotional journey can have a cataclysmic effect on both their character and adult lives. Education is about reading and writing, but also teaching kids to discover their wounds and heal them.” Haroon Yasin, CEO Orenda The ‘Uberisation’ of Education: matching demand and supply. What’s next for Orenda and their Taleemabad platform? Having finetuned their expertise in educational content development over the past seven years – and Pakistan facing the challenge of having to build 81,200 schools over the next 20 years to educate all its children (Source: UNFP, 2019) - the team are now turning their hand to developing a new series of teacher training content. The ‘Uber business model’ that revolutionised urban transport is a multisided platform connecting offer (drivers) with demand (passengers). Taleemabad is seeking to bring the same model to Pakistani education, as the country grapples with another problem: the lack of opportunities for college graduates who often find themselves unemployed and back in their home villages. By offering these graduates the opportunity and training to become teachers, offer and demand come together in the most inaccessible parts of the country. In its beginning as a ride hailing app, Uber, after all, found success in a world where taxi services had become limited and expensive and - for many - inefficient. “We have been partnering with a company in Finland to develop this training content,” explains Haroon. “They put teachers at the heart and centre of their educational model. Isn’t that where they need to be? When you think about it, after taking an Uber, you don’t rate the journey but the driver.” What does tomorrow hold? The aftereffects of the Covid-19 pandemic indicate a long and painful recovery on many levels. And yet, the UN’s most recent Mental Health Atlas showed that in 2020, governments worldwide spent on average just over 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health. This comes at a time when health spending – across the board be it in rich or poor countries - is on a steady decline. The Save the Children report, Fixing a Broken System: Transforming Education Financing, released in October 2022 also documented 21 out of 70 low- and lower-middle-income countries spending more on external debt repayment than on education in 2020. Isn’t it time to revolutionise education methods to allow us to treat the roots of society’s worst ills? A brighter future is built on education systems that teach children not only literacy and numeracy, but also how to be confident, resilient and happy. #ListenUp Explore more AI tackles the challenges of growing data consumption and CO2 emissions in the telecoms industry. Bangladesh's future depends on more digital skills now.