Connecting EdTech Investment with Education Needs: Lessons from Pakistan’s National Distance Education Strategy

Reviewers: Laila Friese, Molly Jamieson Eberhardt, and Jillian Makungo

Pakistan has demonstrated resilience and adaptability in addressing educational challenges through the use of education technology (EdTech). The country faces several educational challenges, including some of the highest numbers of out-of-school children in the world and learning poverty* for those in school. Leveraging its vibrant EdTech ecosystem, Pakistan’s federal regions and provinces experimented with a range of ‘multimodal’ distance learning approaches in response to the pandemic. Yet there was no consensus on how effectively these interventions addressed Pakistan’s educational crisis. Adding to the challenge, approaches to distance learning had to be rewired to strengthen resilience against climate emergencies when Pakistan’s 2022 flood had a catastrophic effect on education and infrastructure across much of the country.

Aiming to steer investments in EdTech according to the educational needs of learners across varying infrastructural and educational contexts, Pakistan’s Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MoFEPT), along with provincial education departments, developed the National Distance Education Strategy (NDES) — with technical assistance from EdTech Hub. 

How did the government develop an evidence-based strategy that put learning first and resonated with the varying needs and realities of Pakistan’s provinces and regions? In this blog, MoFEPT and EdTech Hub recount how prioritising evidence and engagement helped MoFEPT design a distance education strategy that envisions technology as one way to address Pakistan’s complex educational challenges — and not as a silver bullet.

*According to the World Bank, learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10. In 2019, three out of four school-going 10-year-olds in Pakistan could not read a simple sentence. 

To read Pakistan’s National Distance Education Strategy click here.

What is Pakistan’s National Distance Education Strategy (NDES), and how can it be implemented across unique settings?

Pakistan’s NDES envisages “a resilient education system that uses distance education to expand access to education, improve learning and strengthen the enabling environment to achieve education for all.”

By aligning the use of EdTech with educational priorities, the strategy plans to use technology as a tool to strengthen education for the most marginalised in periods of stability and in response to education disruptions at times of emergencies. This marks a break from historic policies that positioned technology as a tool to create digital skills. The strategy also acknowledges that there is a real danger of exacerbating existing inequalities in education if the digital divide is not recognised and if technology is prioritised over learning. Taking these factors into account, the strategy is based on four learning goals: 

  1. Increase access to education for all 
  2. Improve learning outcomes for those in school
  3. Improve resilience and learning continuity in emergencies
  4. Improve the enabling environment through governance, partnerships, and evidence.

While much of Pakistan shares the same learning goals, each province and region present unique educational priorities and implementation realities. The NDES is positioned as a guide in keeping with the decentralised and devolved nature of education service delivery in Pakistan (in line with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan). As a result, each province is free to implement the core ideas in this strategy differently. The range of implementation options also helps account for variations in each province’s education priorities, as well as stark differences across each province’s implementation context. These disparities increase further in marginalised communities, including girls, socio-economically disadvantaged children, children with disabilities, and children in rural areas.

To account for these disparities, MoFEPT, in consultation with provincial education departments, civil society, and other stakeholders, developed a roadmap that includes initiatives at an ‘initial stage’ that focuses on building institutional capacity and governance. The roadmap then extends to an expert phase that focuses on scaling and research (see diagram to the left). This required careful consideration of evidence, as well as consistent coordination with key stakeholders across the country. What can we learn from MoFEPT’s process?

How did MoFEPT develop an evidence-based strategy for diverse implementation contexts?

EdTech Hub’s experience in working with ministries of education across the world has highlighted that while there is no one ‘right way’ to develop a distance education strategy,  evidence and multi-stakeholder engagement must be prioritised. Below, MoFEPT and EdTech Hub reflect on six lessons learnt around putting this into practice.

1. Government ownership is critical. Establishing an in-house team in a ministry helps create clear ownership of strategic design, delivery, and implementation.

MoFEPT developed an in-house team made up of policymakers, educational technology specialists, and education experts. This step not only helped establish clear roles and responsibilities during the design phase, but also identified a focal point to help facilitate the cross-sectoral partnerships required to implement the strategy. Similarly, 

While external partners like EdTech Hub and the World Bank provided technical assistance, developing a digital education strategy requires government ownership to help lead effective design, delivery, and implementation.

2. Ministries need not work alone. Partnerships can help provide the evidence needed to shape an effective strategy.

A good practice for strategy development is to use recent, robust, and reliable data to inform approaches — including education sector analyses and data on ICT infrastructure. But realistically, many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have several evidence gaps around the use of EdTech.

In Pakistan, literature about the learning crisis (see, for example, ASER and UNESCO) and learning continuity during Covid-19 already existed, but there was limited evidence about the EdTech ecosystem as a whole. MoFEPT engaged with development partners and research organisations. For example, UNICEF Pakistan commissioned EdTech Hub to research the context of EdTech in Pakistan and policies shaping it, as well as the extent to which existing EdTech interventions reach marginalised learners (girls, rural children, socio-economically disadvantaged children, and children with special educational needs). While this process helped shape the situational analysis of the strategy itself, it also provided opportunities to engage with cross-sectoral stakeholders at a very early stage of developing the strategy. Their perspectives were used to identify gaps in both policy and practice.

To inform implementation plans for existing interventions, MoFEPT commissioned independent evaluations of distance learning initiatives rolled out in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These evaluations focused on disadvantaged districts / regions in the country, drawing comparisons across students based on rural, urban, gender, and socio-economic background. Insights from these evaluations informed the framework and parameters of the NDES.

3. Technology does not come first. Use evidence to ascertain learning problems before thinking of ways of using technology.

Technology is not always the answer, so devising plans to use EdTech must be only part of the puzzle to solve educational challenges. Through using available evidence to develop a situational analysis, MoFEPT determined Pakistan’s key educational challenges: access to education (particularly for marginalised learners), poor learning outcomes for children in school, and limited options to address learning loss. MoFEPT acknowledged that EdTech is not a silver bullet, citing the EdTech enabling environment as a foundational problem that can impact the potential of EdTech. After mapping these problem areas, MoFEPT prescribed a corresponding learning goal for each.

(Table showing: MoFEPT’s Learning Goals)

Ongoing and planned EdTech interventions were aligned with each learning goal, helping MoFEPT distinguish the different ways in which EdTech interventions can help address Pakistan’s educational challenges.

4. There will often be evidence gaps. Address these by including clear plans for research and development.

MoFEPT understands that using EdTech to address the learning crisis requires a fundamental change in how technology is perceived and used in education — a  shift from embracing EdTech with uncritical optimism to taking evidence-based action. To realise this change, EdTech Hub suggests stakeholders ask themselves five questions: 

(Diagram showing: EdTech Hub’s Challenge to the Sector for an Evidence-Driven Future)

Although MoFEPT has invested in independent evaluations wherever possible, evidence must be generated continuously. To support this process of evaluation and adaptation, each intervention in the strategy includes a research and development component. The research component prescribes a plan to generate evidence and use it to iterate design, while the development component proposes an implementation plan. For cases where evidence is unavailable from the Pakistani context, MoFEPT highlighted  case studies on similar interventions rolled out in other LMICs.

5. Plans for implementation must be context-specific. These can be developed by prioritising the buy-in, support, and effort of many stakeholders.

Since education in Pakistan is devolved to the provinces, extensive provincial consultation was integral to developing the strategy. The aim was to provide a national vision and guide that each province can interpret and utilise in its unique approach to improving education. Although MoFEPT’s in-house team led the strategy development, MoFEPT ensured that perspectives from Pakistan’s provincial and regional departments shaped the strategy. 

Early drafts of the strategy were shared through Pakistan’s National Education Development Partners Group, with input gathered from provincial governments and donor partners. Instead of hosting a central workshop in Islamabad, MoFEPT prioritised visiting each province and region: Azad and Jammu Kashmir, Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh. Government consultation across the country helped ground elements of the NDES within each province’s and region’s particular needs and priorities.

While the provinces assured MoFEPT of complete alignment of their plans with the strategy, clearly, provincial and regional governments will be at different stages of distance education development. In addition, each province / region has unique educational goals for which it wants to use technology. Not all of these can be achieved at once, and the development of technology and distance education throughout the education system must be undertaken in stages.

6. National priorities can impact the potential of distance learning. Develop system resilience by remaining agile to respond rapidly to urgent national priorities.

While the strategy’s development was underway, Pakistan’s devastating 2022 floods led to an increase in learning poverty, as well as infrastructural damage. As a result, MoFEPT expanded the resilience component to address the unique needs of responding to climate emergencies. The existing partnership between MoFEPT and EdTech Hub made it possible to rapidly generate evidence on the feasibility of using EdTech during climate emergencies. EdTech Hub’s research in this area has contextualised global evidence on education in emergencies with the experiences of flood-affected communities, government education officers, and development partners in Pakistan.

Drawing on EdTech Hub’s rapid research along with other key pieces of literature (see (Barón et al., 2022; Sarwar, 2023), MoFEPT developed an ‘Outline Access Plan’ as part of the NDES — a template for Pakistan’s provinces and regions to use in emergencies. The access plan contains plans for data collection to inform learning responses (particularly around access to alternative learning modalities), coordination mechanisms (roles and responsibilities at the national, provincial, district, and school levels), as well as a response framework (response priorities), and a guideline for budget allocations.

What can we learn from MoFEPT’s experience?

How did Pakistan develop an evidence-based strategy that focused on educational challenges and met the diverse needs and realities (infrastructural and educational) across its provinces and regions? MoFEPT’s experience of developing the NDES highlights how prioritising evidence generation and committing to stakeholder consultation is vital. Prioritising evidence does not mean that evidence must already be in the hands of ministries. This would not be realistic. Rather, priority evidence gaps can be rectified through partnerships and responded to through planning future evaluation and iteration prior to scaling. However, evidence alone cannot anchor a strategy in the realities that inform implementation. In this sense, it is essential to consistently engage stakeholders across multiple sectors to shape a strategy that resonates with their experiences.

As a result, the evidence-informed use of technology in education is a continuous process. MoFEPT recognised this by establishing clear plans for research and development. To support this aim, MoFEPT and EdTech Hub continue their partnership to generate evidence on some of the distance learning interventions that fall under the NDES in the hope of enhancing opportunities to better serve Pakistan’s most marginalised learners.

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