Combine federal aid funding, gung-ho American entrepreneurship and the “serendipity” of relatively widespread WiMAX coverage in Pakistan and you might just have a winning formula for bringing desperately needed improvements to public education in this impoverished, but strategically vital, country.
Phil Cruver, president of KZO Education, a Herndon, Virginia company that develops content and technology for online interactive learning, believes WiMAX will be “absolutely critical” in ongoing efforts to pull Pakistan’s public education system up by the bootstraps.
Cruver hopes the Web 2.0 learning technology his group developed can play a part, helping deliver quality education at very low cost in a country where the need is great and resources scarce.
“The literacy rate in Pakistan is only about 50%,” Cruver points out. “And for girls, it’s lower. The country has about 1.3 million teachers now, but it needs double that number in order to meet the standards [in education] that are needed.”
His idea is to deliver interactive streaming video-based learning over the WiMAX network. KZO (pronounced kay-zoh) has already launched pilot projects in Islamabad, on its own nickel. It hooked up two schools—one boy’s, one girl’s—to a WiMAX network operated by Wateen Telecom.
The ultimate goal is to leverage available resources, building distance learning modules around lessons delivered virtually by the best teachers in the country and abroad. While teacher training is still crucial in Pakistan, Cruver says, “what we want to do is show what can be done online.”
KZO will focus in the pilot projects on technology education, where the company has ready-made content and expertise that it’s already selling to corporate clients. But there is no reason the same approaches could not be applied to other areas of curriculum, he says.
It’s early days yet, however, and there is no funding in place to bankroll a full-scale roll-out of the KZO technology using WiMAX, but Cruver is optimistic funding will be found.
KZO appears to have the right connections. The company is also a subcontractor to American Institutes for Research (AIR), which is delivering Links to Learning: Education Support to Pakistan, or ED-LINKS, a five-year program funded by The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to the tune of $90M.
ED-LINKS is primarily focused on improving teacher education, but it’s a multi-faceted program. KZO’s current involvement is directly with students. It operates an exchange program in which groups of Pakistani highschoolers come to the United States for two weeks on a cultural and educational exchange.
While in America, the Pakistani youngsters go through an intensive program of technology skills training, provided by KZO using its interactive e-learning tools. The students also get a crash course in American culture and history.
The technology that KZO uses to deliver the educational component in the ED-LINKS exchanges—and is starting to use for distance learning in Pakistan—was developed by KZO Innovations, a subsidiary. The company claims its platform goes well beyond other streaming video-based e-learning products, of which there are several.
The KZO technology can use video from almost any source, including professionally-produced lessons and recorded teleconferences. The real differentiator is its Web 2.0 features. Users can text message in real time while the video plays. They can also add tags and other annotations to the video while it’s playing to index and extend it.
A user accessing the content on the Internet months later can use the tags to drill down to particular parts of a lesson. Annotations could include commentary on the content by earlier users and links to related material elsewhere on the Web. “We’re calling it Learning 2.0,” Cruver says.
KZO Innovations is headed by Cruver’s son, Wes, a child entrepreneur. When he was 11 years old, Wes Cruver started Kidz On Line, a Washington-area company that helped foster technology skills training. He’s now 26. He and other Kidz On Line (KZO) employees formed KZO Innovations a few years ago to develop the KZO intellectual property for commercial applications. The e-learning platform is one fruit of that effort.
Because the KZO technology is built around streaming video, using it for distance learning does require broadband Internet access, which most developing countries, including Pakistan, do not have. But while the rest of Pakistan, including its economy and its under-funded and notoriously corrupt educational system, face huge challenges, telecommunications is one bright spot.
At least three companies already have WiMAX networks up and running. In major cities, such as Islamabad, the capital, there is even some competition. Prices as a result have come down recently. KZO is only paying about $21 a month for 1 Mbps service at the two schools in its pilot, Cruver says.
Wateen, part of the Abu Dhabi Group based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is offering its Wateen Home service in 22 Pakistani cities, including Islamabad, Karachi and Rawalpindi. It was first to market, launching service in 2006.
Since then, the country’s largest cellular operator, Mobilink, a subsidiary of another Middle East company, Egypt’s Orascom, has launched its Mobilink Infinity service in Karachi. It has plans to roll the service out to other cities, including Lahore and Islamabad.
Wi-tribe, a wireless broadband-only company, again with roots in the Middle East, launched this year in Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi. All three use mobile-capable 802.16e WiMAX technology in the 3.5 GHz band.
WiMAX in Pakistan appears well on its way to becoming a key component of the country’s telecom infrastructure, one that leap-frogs it over better developed countries. But WiMAX still faces challenges, says Babar Bhatti, the U.S.-based chief editor of TelecomPK, a blog covering the industry in Pakistan.
Power to the people
There were some “speed bumps” along the way for Wateen, Bhatti notes, including early complaints about poor performance and malfunctioning customer premises equipment. Those have apparently been resolved.
The cost of the CPE, $50 to $80 in Pakistan, is another obstacle in such a poor country. Operators are, not surprisingly, targeting businesses first, then high-end mobile professionals. Education is way down the list.
Cruver has no beef with the Wateen service. “It was so quick to get service,” he says. “We paid for it, and it was up and running within 24 hours.”
The biggest problem is rolling power blackouts that can take the network down for hours at a time. But as Cruver says, they’re part of the environment in Pakistan and participants in the pilot project have low expectations.
Even with the power outages, the KZO schools have already signed up hundreds of students for a social networking component of its platform. And the minute power comes back on, teachers rush to download lesson plans, he says.
When KZO first got involved in Pakistan, WiMAX wasn’t on its radar. “To be very honest, we didn’t know there was a WiMAX,” Cruver says. “And it’s just serendipity that Pakistan has the first nationwide WiMAX network.”
Or it’s on its way to having a nationwide network. For now, service is only available in major population centers, and coverage is spotty outside city cores, Bhatti says. Within two years, however, WiMAX will begin to appear in smaller cities. It likely won’t reach rural areas anytime soon, but could be used to backhaul wireless local loop (WLL) traffic from rural and suburban services using 900 MHz, Wi-Fi, and other technologies.
That’s good enough for Cruver. He’s convinced WiMAX is the key, enabling his company’s technology to solve the teacher shortage problem in Pakistan. He claims to be getting interest in and positive feedback on the fledgling project from funding agencies, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and an unnamed “publicly traded company”—possibly Cisco, an early KZO Innovations customer.
“First, we have to get operating data [from the pilots] to show some success,” he says. “And then we can go from there.”
Bhatti, meanwhile, says KZO’s initiative is the only one he knows of using WiMAX for educational applications in Pakistan. Mobilink, however, is partnering with UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) to deliver literacy training for girls using cell phones. That project could eventually migrate to the company’s WiMAX-based Infinity service, he speculates.
Gerry Blackwell is a veteran technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet. Read more of his series on global WiMAX here.