The story of AKU-EB cannot be completed without Dr Camer Vellani whose relentless efforts in establishing the AKU Examination Board and its assessment philosophy helped us get where we are today – celebrating 10 years of our mission. Dr Camer Vellani is currently serving as the Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at the Aga Khan University, member of the Board of Directors of AKU-EB as well as the Advisory Committee. Let's hear what he had to say during a recent interview with AKU-EB.
Please tell us something about your professional and academic background and your association with AKU?
“I was fortunate to have a good nurturing environment in childhood.. After completing secondary school from Karachi Grammar School in 1953, I was admitted to the University of Wales, School of Medicine and graduated in 1960. After post-graduate training in Medicine, Respiratory Diseases and Cardiology I returned to Pakistan in 1966. Unfortunately, at that time, doctors were needed but there were no jobs in West Pakistan and I was ineligible for vacancies in East Pakistan. I was lucky to get a job at Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Karachi as a locum consultant physician for 10 months. I was keen to do research and so returned to Britain where I got the opportunity at University of Edinburgh to work for a doctorate degree in the Departments of Medicine and Medical Physics. I returned after MD and more experience in 1975 and was fortunate to be appointed Assistant Professor at Dow Medical College.
“During those four years, I realized it was difficult to contribute to sustained change in medical education and health care due to lack of supportive systems. By November 1979, the “Aga Khan Hospital and Medical College” project was being conceptualized. I was taken on board with the commissioning team to assist in the development of the Medical College.
“The greatest part of my education began when I came back to Pakistan and realized the conditions of societies in developing countries. I have been very fortunate to have worked in institutions and be involved in planning academic programs, and especially honoured to have served as Rector of the Aga Khan University.”
While being engaged with AKU at different levels, what was the scenario in the education system in general? What did you see as the biggest problems in the sector?
“Through the years, it became clear to me that education in Pakistan was in a rut and couldn’t come out of that rut; it was basically stuck. The most powerful contributor to this state was the examination system. The certification examinations for school and medical education examined reproduction of textbooks and not the substance of knowledge. And the textbooks, especially for schools, were not always accurate but that’s what children had to learn and reproduce otherwise they wouldn’t get the marks required for a certificate. Malpractice, cheating and unfair means were employed widely to get the scores – scores mattered – as if they really conveyed useful information about an individual’s ability, character, performance and civility or anything. No consideration was given to what kind of skills developed in youth could support the welfare of future generations – what mattered was the certificate to get a job or admission to higher education – the stakes were very high.”
What is the role of assessment in planned education and in the rational development of one’s abilities?
“Planned education has a lot of potential, particularly in early childhood. But what does an education system actually mean? Is it really assisting the whole process of human intellectual development? Is it really nurturing the growth of all sorts of abilities and talents? Is it just knowledge that’s important? And who decides what knowledge? And why should one have that knowledge? There has to be some rationale somewhere.
“Besides the curriculum, students learn many other things in the process, so the way learning occurs matters. And the lever that guides learning and intellectual development is assessment that makes sense and can test the reasoning and thinking abilities of a student. So if you have rational assessment then educational development will also be rational.”
With an International Examination Board already operating alongside many Public Sector Boards, what was the need to have one more examination board in Pakistan?
“Affordability and contextual considerations of operation, including development of teachers and assessors to guide improvement of education widely in Pakistan, drive AKU-EB in ways that are not possible for the international examination board. In addition, preparation and presentation for the international board examinations are very expensive and so available to the elite. AKU-EB’s goal is to improve access to quality education across Pakistan including students with lesser means who deserve equal opportunity to develop their learning abilities. The fact that the Board provides quality and rational examinations based on Pakistan’s national curriculum is what sets it apart from other boards in the country.”
How is AKU-EB different from other Boards?
“It’s the breadth of learning; the freedom to explore and question for which one requires thought and understanding. It is the stimulus to critical thinking and the opportunity to acquire knowledge through inquiry. It is striving to instill conceptual understanding.
“AKU-EB strongly rejected rote learning and reproduction of just required facts to get scores. Fact is not knowledge; knowledge is information that you understand and apply. AKU-EB was established to guide the teachers to strive for better understanding of concepts for themselves as well as for their students. It rejected ramming information into minds and encouraged assistance in developing knowledge that could be applied. So the teachers also had to start learning differently along with the students. The Board provided opportunities for teacher development through custom designed or need-based workshops. And now through the Middle School Assessment Framework, which has provided the opportunity for a longer lead time to certification, broader education and better understanding of communities and facts can be acquired rationally by both students and teachers.”
How did the philosophy of rational assessment helped address the problems in teaching and learning?
“The nature of the question papers – AKU-EB introduced space limited, understanding-based questions which solved the problem of rote learned answers with no understanding; the practical examinations which aid application of concepts; the listening exams that help improvement of language and comprehension skills. And then participation in other activities and interactions stimulated in schools also have their effect on broadening education, which is a very important objective.
"AKU-EB has set a very strict standard to ensure transparency at all levels. The issues of unfair means and malpractice were dealt with the use of technology. For written responses, e-marking allows no room for bias since a candidate’s response remains completely anonymous, identified only through a bar code. Each response is scored by several examiners and their scores are monitored for consistency by Chief Examiners. Therefore, unfair scoring is detected at once. Then the School Performance Reports that are generated out of these results help the schools to further improve their teaching and student learning outcomes.”
How do you feel about the progress of EB as it celebrates the 10 years of its mission? Do you think it has achieved what it was initially set up for?
“I am very pleased with the progress. Led by Dr. Thomas Christie’s expertise in educational assessment the dedicated effort of sound leaders and staff of EB has achieved much more than expected. The Board’s mainline service of educational assessment has certainly initiated change in the education sector. Improvement in examinations and education was the reason for establishment of the Board. And because of that there has been unexpected additional progress in testing and assessment that has expanded the scope of its expertise further. It was fully expected that the students would be better prepared for higher education. That has certainly happened. Students realize it, alumni have reported it, and higher education institutions where they are studying have also realized it. We expect that AKU-EB will continue to maintain its quality and will grow to enhance its impact widely for the benefit of society.”