Umar Saif is Founder of Saif Center of Innovation (SCI) in Pakistan.Umar Saif is Founder of Saif Center of Innovation (SCI) and is a member of the Global Agenda Council on Pakistan. 

High dropout rates and low enrollment rates are formidable obstacles in Pakistan for achieving universal primary education.

Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world. Moreover, of the 6.8 million primary school aged children out of school in Pakistan, 60.3% are girls, who are often forced to drop out of school due to poverty, cultural constraints and absence of schools closer to their homes.

Pakistan has some of the weakest rates of primary school completion for girls in South Asia. Only 53.4% of girls in Pakistan manage to complete primary education, compared to 57.1% in Bangladesh and 94.3% in India.

This issue is much graver in the case of females in rural areas where transportation infrastructure is not well developed. A recent study reported that dropout rate for girls in rural areas in Pakistan increases from 23.1% to 37.7% if their school is greater than 2 km away from their house.

Once out of school, girls have very limited opportunities to access educational material or instruction. As a result, when they drop out of primary school, they slide back into a state of illiteracy and innumeracy. There is a great need to improve this situation by providing low cost, easily accessible out-of-school instruction to girls at the primary level.

Over the years, mobile phones have become the most important source of information and communication in Pakistan. They are becoming ubiquitous even among low-income households. In fact, Pakistan has one of the highest mobile phone penetration ratios in South Asia (65.4%) and some of the lowest tariff rates in the region.

Mobile phones can facilitate learning anywhere and at any time. Female students who cannot attend schools due to cultural constraints or geographical inaccessibility can listen to lectures and study from home. Semi-literate girls who drop out of school can use educational content to stay in touch with instructional material and retain their numeracy and literacy skills.

Mobile learning (or M-learning) initiatives in the developing world have yielded positive results: In Pakistan, UNESCO’s initiative to improve literacy retention through SMS in Punjab has been quite successful. The University of the Philippines Open University already has formal SMS-based mobile courses in English, math and sciences. In rural India, project MILLEE successfully uses mobile games to improve English language skills of primary school students. These successes point towards the suitability of cell phones as a medium of instruction for students of this age.

Increased access to education is a focus area for the Global Agenda Council on Pakistan this year. Use of technology, especially M-learning platforms, can be a key enabler to primary education in Pakistan.

Image: mobile phones are displayed at a shop selling second-hand mobile phones REUTERS/Erik de Castro