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AI as silver bullet? Bangladesh futureproofs its education with frugal innovation instead

Date: 11 July, 2023

Writer : Ashfaq Zaman
Source : South China Morning Post

Reading Time: 6 Minutes

11 July, 2023
Writer : Ashfaq Zaman
· · Reading Time: 6 Minutes

AI as silver bullet? Bangladesh futureproofs its education with frugal innovation instead

AI as silver bullet? Bangladesh futureproofs its education with frugal innovation instead

While the rich world agonises over the latest tech, Bangladesh is getting on with smart learning using low-cost, high-impact digital tools.

The world is being swept away by the latest technological craze again. Artificial intelligence (AI) is being marked as the great turning point, with many assuming it will lead to a new era of either abundance or destruction.
This hysteria has swept over educational circles as a moral panic descended on institutions; ChatGPT has become to writing and researching what the calculator was to arithmetic. Equally, starry-eyed commentators pronounce AI a silver bullet for learning personalisation that could level the playing field across the world.

The true impact of AI on education is yet to be seen. As an adviser of strategic communication to Bangladesh’s innovation initiative a2i, I can’t help but feel déjà vu.

Before AI mania, there was blockchain, billed as the great disruptive force that would redistribute wealth and bring trust and ownership online. In education, blockchain was seen as the panacea for many ills, from certification authentication to examination verification. Yet the impact of blockchain on education, while real, has been modest.

Rather than fixate on the latest hyped-up technology, we should direct our attention towards simple, cost-effective implementations that can genuinely transform the way we approach education.
In Bangladesh, we have a philosophy of “frugal innovation”, which requires low-cost changes to our education systems that deliver disproportionate results. One example was seen over the pandemic. Even though schools were closed for 18 months, lessons were not stopped for more than two weeks.

As soon as schools shut down, the government set about turning the free-to-air parliamentary TV channel into a remote learning channel. The result was astounding.
Before Covid-19, Bangladesh had a one-size-fits-all learning programme. Shifting education online meant each student’s learning became personalised. Circumstance, not design, triggered a shift towards personalised learning. This informed our vision for a “smart learning” approach in Bangladesh today.

Bangladesh moved much faster in adapting its public services for education than many developed nations. The reason is simple. In Bangladesh, as with other populous emerging economies, the stakes are far higher. With a well-educated and young digitally ready workforce, a nation can leapfrog stages of development. But a poorly educated and idle youth population can destabilise a nation.

Bangladesh has over 45 million young people aged 15 to 29. In line with its vision to become a digitalised nation by 2041, building a solid base of future-proof skills today will prove crucial. It should come as no surprise that nine out of 10 jobseekers in Bangladesh today are required to have digital skills.

Of course, the shift towards a more blended learning approach in Bangladesh did not start with the pandemic. The initiative to move towards a digitally enabled approach to learning started as far back as 2010.

The need to raise a digitally literate generation led to an approach to learning that focuses more on problem-solving than memorising facts. Schools are also pivoting towards assessing students in real time, and not simply under stressful examination conditions. This helps to improve learning feedback and allows teachers to provide a more personalised learning programme.

The approach extends to teachers and their training too. Reaching the large number of teachers across the country, especially those in rural areas, can be a challenge. Blended approaches have therefore been introduced, including online training through the MuktoPaath e-learning platform.

Training dissemination is monitored through a real-time dashboard, and it has been observed that more teachers from rural areas completed the courses compared to urban areas, showing the power of technology in increasing access to training.

While Bangladesh is a leader in pushing for an innovative, blended learning approach, it is by no means alone. Rwanda’s blended approach in training its healthcare workers has boosted HIV/Aids care. Students from Kenya’s Bridge International Academies, low-cost private schools that use a blended learning approach, consistently achieve much better results than the national average in their primary school leaving examinations. Blended education uses simple digital tools to achieve real social mobility.

The point is simple. In many instances, developing nations have no choice but to accelerate towards an educational system fit for the rapidly approaching future. Yet this has not been fuelled by an obsession over one particular technology. Rather, it has been achieved by a low-cost yet high-impact fusion of a range of digital tools.

When it comes to education, there is no silver bullet, not even for AI. Instead, nations like mine are focusing on the solutions that have been proven, not merely promised, to work.

Ashfaq Zaman is the communication adviser to Aspire 2 Innovate, the national innovation agency of the government of Bangladesh

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