Interview by AHSAN RAZA published in daily Dawn on 4th November 2013.
Unlike his father, Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan first, Bilal Musharraf has a global, and more focused agenda: Education First. He believes in an education that nurtures human beings in a manner that builds up on their own personal intellectual curiosity.
Bilal Musharraf was recently in Doha to attend one of the world’s biggest annual events on education — WISE (World Innovation Summit for Education) 2013 — and delivered his presentation on ‘Education for anyone, anywhere’. He is the Dean of Translation with US-based Khan Academy, a not-for-profit website that aims at changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere. Since 2004, it has created and uploaded more than 5,000 lessons on YouTube on mathematics, history, healthcare, medicine, finance, physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, economics, cosmology, organic chemistry, macroeconomics, microeconomics, computer science, and even history and art.
These videos have been watched more than 300 million times. More than 10 million learners use the website every month from 200 countries and more than a billion practice exercises have been solved on the platform. The website has translated and uploaded more than 1,000 videos in Urdu on YouTube. Many more will come. But they will remain inaccessible to the public unless YouTube is unblocked in Pakistan.
Bilal believes that online learning can change the educational landscape.
“We’re living in times where thanks to the Internet, and thanks to telecommunication, it’s possible to make quality education universally accessible for everyone,” he told Dawn at the summit.
“This has been a dream which wasn’t possible 100 years ago but is now in the realm of the possible.”
Bilal is not a fan of the current educational system.
The current educational landscape that prevails is that we are pushing learners through an education system and ignoring the fact that they continue to have gaps in comprehension.
He adds that online education is making quality education and more personalised education is universally accessible.
Bilal graduated with a BS in Actuarial Science from the University of Illinois in 1994. He worked in the actuarial profession for a decade, pricing automobile insurance for the State of Massachusetts and pension plan valuation for a human resource-consulting firm.
He said that since he grew up in a developing country, creating socio-economic value for under privileged populations has always been a driving force.
In 2005, he started his MBA at Stanford University as he saw his career in venture capital, investing in early-stage high growth technology ventures.
“Creating economic value in developing economies has always been at the back of my mind,” he said, explaining his urge for doing the MBA.
While getting his MBA, he realised that commercialising applied research was behind creating economic value, so he also completed an MA in Education. By 2008, when the financial crisis hit, Bilal, who was working in the field of venture capital, decided to go into the education sector.
Can technology replace or minimise the role of a teacher in classroom? “It has a wide spectrum,” he said.
For places where people don’t have teachers, having open educational resources is better than not having a teacher but the ideal case scenario is a qualified, capable teacher who has access to technology that enables the teacher to provide personalised support. In circumstances where teachers are not available, online education provides an opportunity for self-directed learning.
Since Pakistan doesn’t have enough professionally trained teachers, online education is an opportunity for the people.
Bilal is a fan of online education, as he thinks it provides learners an opportunity for personalised education, which a traditional classroom doesn’t offer.
A teacher giving the same lecture to an entire class is forced to assume that each student has the same gaps in understanding and is digesting new content at the same rate.
Bilal does not see a teacher as an exclusive person. “Anyone can teach,” he said, when asked what kind of teachers can bring about a change in classroom.
I think we need to mobilise a desire for people to learn and then a desire for people to teach. It’s possible when we have well-established and credible aptitude tests.
He cites the example of the US where the Educational Testing Service (ETS), administrator of TOEFL, SAT, GRE and the GMAT, launched in the 1940s, gave students with aptitude, access to the best educational institutions regardless of their formal schooling.
For Pakistan, he said, there should be clear signaling between those who provide economic opportunity and those who are seeking it.
“The education system shouldn’t be held hostage to politics,” he said, handling the political question very technically, when asked to comment on Punjab government’s decision to ban a science book for Grade VI students of the Lahore Grammar School for containing details of the human reproductive process.
Doesn’t he like politics? No. He also refused to talk on Pakistani politics and about the issues concerning his father, Pervez Musharraf.
No politics, because I don’t want to be a public figure.
When he did his intermediate in 1989 and applied for admission to the Lahore University of Engineering and Technology, seven political parties’ student wings delivered him their pamphlets seeking his support.
That was the year, when UET students had completed their degree in seven years instead of four years.
That was the turning point of his life. In that year, his father was moving to the UK for a military course, and Bilal moved to the US, where his uncle was already settled.
He said the private sector can play a vital role in vocational education. Companies like Engro and other large conglomerates can help establish a standardised exam for assessing knowledge in subjects like math, the sciences and finance. It is in the private sector’s own interest to accurately identify knowledge and skill.
Bilal believes that online education is relevant for Pakistan.
“Pakistan is struggling with the same issues as other developing countries – not enough schools, not enough teachers. Young people do not have opportunities because of poverty and not being able to go to school. Knowledge has been bottled up and good quality schooling is available to very few people. Technology can provide the masses with a path towards personalised support and self-directed learning.”
Bilal feels that Pakistani schools are not nurturing a growth mindset that can teach how to learn and think critically.
So, how can we resolve this issue?
I think if we align the incentives of learners and the incentives of those who can teach, then people can be lifelong learners
“Learning never stops that’s what I’ve learned over time,” he said, vowing to be a life-long learner.
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