The changing face of higher education

Thursday / Jan 24 2013

Newspaper : The Express Tribune

With the growing world population having already crossed the seven-billion mark and with a much larger number of young persons seeking admissions to colleges and universities, there is pressure to expand the higher education sector by building new institutions.

Technology is, however, opening new exciting opportunities through distance learning that did not exist a decade ago. In 2001-02, when I was heading the ministry of science and technology, we rapidly improved the information technology (IT) infrastructure in Pakistan. Internet access was rapidly expanded from 29 cities to 2,000 cities and to other towns and villages during this period. Fibre was expanded from a few dozen cities to 1,000 cities and towns. The cost of bandwidth for a 2MB line was reduced from a ridiculous $87,000 per month to only $2,000 per month and later to $900 per month, making this the cheapest rate in the region. A satellite was placed in space (Paksat 1) and a couple of transponders were set aside for distance learning courses of the Virtual University.

The rapid improvements in the IT infrastructure had a positive impact on a number of sectors with the higher education sector also benefiting from these advances. In 2004, when I was chairman of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), we started to look at various ways to provide high quality education to our university students. A digital library was established that provided free access to 25,000 international journals and 65,000 textbooks and monographs from 220 international publishers to our university students. Such a facility is not available for free nationwide even in the US, Europe and Japan. Today, all Pakistani public-sector universities and many private-sector ones, too, have excellent state-of-the-art video conferencing facilities with lectures being delivered by top professors from the US, Europe and Japan, and questions being asked by students from Pakistan in live interactive sessions. Some 2,000 lectures have been delivered in the last three years under this HEC initiative.

It is time for Pakistan to now benefit from a large number of excellent online courses that have become available internationally for distance education. These can be of particular use to our college and university students. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was the first to open up its courses to the world through the MIT Open Courseware initiative. This was quickly made use of by the HEC in 2005 when a mirror website of the MIT Open Courseware was established in Pakistan to facilitate quick downloading. These courses were carefully vetted and thousands of CDs based on these courses were distributed to university departments. This material from the MIT is the same as that used by the university’s faculty in undergraduate and graduate courses.

Another exciting initiative is known as Udacity. This began somewhat serendipitously when Dr Sebastian Thrun, an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University, along with Google’s director of research decided to offer introductory online courses on artificial intelligence. An astonishing 160,000 students registered for these classes. Two other courses that were also initiated by Stanford University attracted over 100,000 students for each course. This led to the start up of Udacity, which provides online courses to college students.

However, the fastest growing distance learning initiative is that of Coursera, co-founded last summer by two computer science professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, of Stanford University. The enrolment for Coursera has already crossed two million.

The HEC needs to carefully look at these and other online courses and utilise them fully. We are now seeing a paradigm shift in the manner courses are delivered in colleges and universities. Students have growing access to excellently recorded courses and they come prepared to the lectures with the classroom witnessing more of a discussion session between the teacher and the students, so that the students can clarify concepts and discuss anything that they may not have understood in the online course. Pakistan must not be left behind in this fast-evolving technologically-driven scenario.