BR Research: What was the idea behind establishing Sabaq Foundation?
Iqbal Mustafa: I am a software engineer and an entrepreneur. I like to identify problems and coming up with their solutions. When I returned to Pakistan in 2011, I wanted to do something in education for Pakistan/ for the betterment of education in Pakistan. My family has a background in education – my mother was a primary school teacher in a government school; my aunt was a principal at a village school. Being a technologist, I was really impressed with Khan Academy, a US based, free online tutorial website with 30 million monthly visitors from around the world. That portal simply fascinated me and I felt left with no choice but to initiate a similar project in Pakistan, a country marked by low literacy rate due to lack of state of the art infrastructural and educational facilities in its far flung areas.
My team and I first thought about translating Khan Academy’s video tutorials into Urdu, but the idea was dropped due to the differences in culture, syllabus, and teaching style of the two countries. I wanted to develop/come up with a portal whereby Pakistani students could get access to international standard teaching resources mapped according to the local syllabus in their mother tongue Urdu, free of cost. Thus, we initiated this project in 2012 by the name of Sabaq Foundation.
BRR: What is the process behind producing the tutorials?
IM: We have a highly qualified pool of faculty members. All of them are at least M.Sc’s or M.Phil’s from renowned universities. They are all paid employees and work full-time for Sabaq Foundation. Our aim is to make world-class video tutorials, by combining state of the art software tools and content rich conceptual lectures. To accomplish that, the faculty members are provided a one-month vigorous training on how to produce a good quality video all by themselves.
The whole process has a lot of intricacies. We have hired at least two faculty members for teaching every subject. The first step is the topic mapping for every subject. For that, the text-books of the respective boards are followed. This is then followed by a comprehensive research of every topic. Various text books including Matric/O Level as well as academic websites are consulted to prepare every topic. Then the lecture outline is prepared. Every video lecture needs to be, conceptual, concise and yet content rich. Hence, our videos incorporate fully-labeled, animated and colorful diagrams where needed.
The video making process goes through multiple levels of evaluation i.e. self-review, peer-review and then a final review and any video that does not come up to the standards is redone.
We have two types of lectures: concept videos and problem solution. So far we have covered the Science subjects (Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology) and also plan to cover other subjects. Moreover, the video uploading for Matric Arts Math is also in the pipeline. As soon as we are done with F.Sc. Courses and AS level, we plan to start working on making videos for primary and secondary level students. Our aim is to become the household name in Pakistan for providing world class videos to students from grade 5 through 12. Although most of the topics of O-level and matriculation coincide, the reason for starting from matriculation is that it caters to a wider chunk of Pakistani students.
BRR: How did you envision this kind of project is needed in Pakistan?
IM: We thoroughly analyzed Pakistan’s education system. The under developed far flung areas are completely deprived off from quality education. And then there is the cancer of after-school tuition which has plagued our society. The parents are sick of it since its cutting the strings off their purse. The children also hate it since it leaves them with no time for social and extra-curricular activities. However, the poor teaching standards in schools leave them with no choice. This is a clear indication of a failing Pakistani education system breeding in a whole new “after-school tuition industry”. This industry is cunningly exploiting the students by filling in the gap created by our educational institutes.
Unfortunately, not enough attention is being paid by our government to fix this issue. Sabaq Foundation however, comes up with its solution by providing free video tutorials on its website www.sabaq.pk. From our website, the students can access free video lectures 24/7 that compete with international teaching standards.
This solution also has special appeal for girls, whose parents are uncomfortable sending them to tuition centers after school. Most of these videos are way better than the teaching at tuition centers, which base their value on getting their students good marks in board exams through solving guess papers and selected contents. What we say is that we will not only help students get good marks but also help them actually understand the concept so that they have better chances of succeeding in their academics and their careers.
BRR: Do you have a feedback loop established with the students?
IM: We have not conducted a full fledged survey so far, but there are a few numbers that suggest the website’s growing usage. In about a year, over 200,000 unique students have watched Sabaq’s video tutorials online. Most of this activity has been generated in the last 6-8 months. About 2,000 students are visiting the website every day. This number is expected to increase when the school season goes into full swing. About 45 percent are returning students, and 55 percent are new users. Average user time spent on the website is about ten minutes, which is the typical duration of one video. Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi are the three-largest cities from where the major chunk of our visitors comes.
www.sabaq.pk is a read-only platform so far, but we do plan to incorporate a comment/Q&A feature in it. That however will require a log-in. We also have an active Facebook page by the name of Sabaq Foundation to interact with our visitors. People can also send us emails. To help make the tutorials more effective, we are soon going to incorporate ratings (stars) on every video as well.
For independent evaluation of our work, we would like to acquire consultancy service for our assessment studies where the learning experience of about 10,000 students from different demographics is analyzed. We do not have the capacity or finances for such study, so we would like some donor to take it up. We are not just interested in finding the efficacy of our tutorials; we also want to better understand what kind of problems students face.
BRR: How does the foundation operate? Where does the funding come from?
IM: So far it is self-financed. The foundation is housed inside my software company’s building. Our goal is to keep our tutorials completely free no matter which channel we use. We however, are devising ways to enable this Foundation bear its own costs at least. For that, we soon plan to launch our DVDs, only so that our Foundation can sustain itself.
BRR: Please tell us a little more about the DVD channel?
IM: Our DVDs are priced at a break-even amount of Rs. 300 for a set of two DVDs. They will cater to the far flung regions of Pakistan that are devoid of internet facilities. Our DVDs encompass the afore-mentioned subjects for all five boards of Pakistan along with O and AS-level. Moreover, we are also trying to convince the government to inculcate these DVDs in their syllabus along with the textbook.
BRR: Which governments have you talked to and what has been the response so far?
IM: We have spoken to federal government as well as the provincial governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh. The response has been quite encouraging so far. In fact, the Punjab government has already incorparated our video in their elearn website. The money involved is peanuts as compared to overall education budgets. It will roughly cost Rs. 200 million for the Punjab government to make these DVDs a part of their syllabus. We do not have the capacity to spend that money out of our own pocket. This is the slowest path but if it hits, it hits the jackpot.
BRR: What are other channels to push the free video tutorial content?
IM: We are working with private school chains in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. We have signed a lot of MoUs recently. Tameer-i-Millat Foundation, PITB and Read Foundation are one of those. These chains reach a lot of students and form the education ecosystem in the country. We also plan to do the same with the leading education providers like Beaconhouse School System and The Citizen Foundation. These schools have appreciated our efforts for teacher training as well as student learning.The purpose of partnering with these schools is also to study the impact created by our videos and to get firsthand feedback from students.
Instead of launching our DVDs through book stores, we are going for a more cost-effective cash on delivery method. For Rs.300, a student gets teaching material per subject for the entire year and saves up on hefty tuition fees. We are continuously enhancing and improving our website’s features. Moreover, we are also putting in our best effort to initiate vigorous social and print media marketing campaigns to spread our word as far as possible.
BRR: Since most of your content is online, how much of an issue is the limited internet usage in the country?
IM: We started online-only, but pretty soon we realized the problem of lack of internet facilities in Pakistan. But there are solutions. You can plug & play the tutorials from DVD on the desktop PC. Since majority of students do not even have PCs, the DVD allows them to play the content on DVD players, which have become really cheap over the years – it costs about Rs.1500 now. Our videos are also compatible with mobile interface – we test that all the time. We are also trying to have an hour-long TV show on broadcast media, where people could watch a couple of tutorials for mathematics or physics with the topics progressing during the year. Through TV, we can reach out to a big chunk of our audience.
BRR: What are your thoughts on curriculum design in Pakistan for the science subjects?
IM: The matriculation curriculum has topics that are really advanced, but the content is insufficient. Secondly, the textbooks don’t teach the application of the knowledge in practical life. That is why, teachers find difficulty in explaining them. The quality of the science curriculum has improved in recent years, but they are still not up to the mark.
BRR: With the rollout of 3G/4G network technologies, what impact do you see on digital learning?
IM: We are actually very hopeful. There is criticism that 3G rollout to rural areas is not mandatory. I feel that since there are not many computers in rural areas, the heaviest users of this technology are going to be in rural areas. They don’t have Wi-Fi availability, unlike the urban areas and that is a golden opportunity for mobile operators to cash on.
We have also gone over the idea of developing an Android-based mobile app or having a partnership with a telco to have a paid service for rural areas. But the market is not there yet. Cheaper smart phones can help there. We would love to have more broadband penetration.
BRR: Where do you see Sabaq Foundation five years from now?
IM: Blended learning is the future. There should be multi-media learning material introduced in schools, which the students can take home as well. We are going to venture into other subjects and produce their video tutorials as well. At some stage, Sabaq will involve other partners, wherein Sabaq 2.0 may allow the platform to be used for let’s say vocational training.
Most of our services will remain free, because we plan to remain a non-profit organization. I feel that education is the only thing in Pakistan that can provide a level-playing field to everyone. Our aim is to become the household name in Pakistan for providing world class videos to students from grade 5 through 12. The abject poverty and the lack of infrastructural facilities in rural areas has already made education a distant dream and our aim is to make that dream come true.