UpSkill is an initiative which intends to fill all the voids in a graduate’s CV and intends to help them get all the necessary knowledge which is relevant to their field. UpSkill, is Pakistan’s first e-learning portal. It is founded by Ali Abbass along with Abdul Basit and Zeeshan Jahangir.
UpSkill will offer MOOCs to Pakistani students. The students can enroll in these online courses and can learn practical skills that will help them succeed in the local job market
We had a chat with Abdul Basit and Zeeshan. The chat helped us discover their amazing ideas and future plans.
Q: How was the idea born and how do you guys know each other?
Zeeshan: The idea was born out of our personal experience. I have done ACCA so when I went for a job and the company asked me whether I know how to audit; my answer was I have never done that practically, although I was aware of its theoretical knowledge. This is one of the most significant problems faced by our students. When they graduate they have no practical skills to work in the companies. They need to take these practical courses to cover the gap. UpSkill is born to address this need.
Abdul Basit: Ali and I are friends and Zeeshan was Ali’s roommate. So, it was a regular day when I was having a cup of tea with Ali. We were also discussing different problems and business opportunities. During the discussion we identified the need of an e-learning platform in Pakistan and Ali came up wth the idea of creating a such a platform After some days we started doing some arbitrary research on the idea and discussed it with Zeeshan as well, he was also readily convinced with the idea. That’s how it all started.
Q: How many team members do you have and what particular roles do you play?
Abdul Basit: Ali, Zeeshan and I are working on a full time basis. Ali Abbass- the founder has been leading the HR department in a private company. He is the CEO at UpSkill. Zeeshan has experience in marketing and finance so he is the Chief Finance Officer-CFO and Chief Marketing Officer-CMO at Upskill. Whereas I have experience working as a senior research executive at a private company so I am the Chief Operating Officer-COO. Other than these we have about 10 other employees who are working on a part-time basis with us.
Q: There are several international websites which offer MOOCs from world’s top universities, they have global virtual classrooms where Pakistani students can also enroll and learn. Why did you feel the need to have separate online learning portal for Pakistani students?
Abdul Basit: It’s a very important question. No one can deny that there are many websites which offer MOOC courses and Pakistani students can easily access them too. But the question is does the content of these courses align with the needs of the Pakistani market? The answer is negative. These international courses are not specific to the demands of our local market. Secondly, these courses are offered in English. The students, who are from Urdu-medium schools or from rural areas of Pakistan, cannot avail these courses at all because they do not understand high-level English.
At Upskill we will offer courses that are specific to the needs of students and the demands of our market.
Q: So who will offer these courses and how will you ensure that the content is focused to cover the practical aspects? Can you give examples of some of the courses?
Zeeshan: We are partnering with training institutions, different NGOs, field experts, corporate companies and the universities as well. The courses will be delivered by the professional experts who are actually working in the industry. E.g. we have a course named, “Social Mobilization”, this course is offered by an NGO that has been working for 5 years in this field. Then we have some other courses on Self-employment/Freelancing that will be offered by the well-known freelancer, Mr. Hisham Sarwar. We are also linked with some corporate companies who will offer courses particularly required in the job market.That’s how we are making sure that all the practical aspects are covered.
Q: Apart from partnering with training institutes and the corporate companies you are also partnering with some universities and instructors who specifically design theory based courses. How will these courses be different from the courses already being offered by universities?
Abdul Basit: Our partnering institutes will not finalize the content of our course. They will provide us with the content outline which will be evaluated and analyzed by our team.
We will ensure that the course focuses on the practical aspects of the theoretical knowledge rather than just the bookish information being imparted at most universities.
Q: Who are the curators of the course contents?
Abdul Basit: We have our board of directors who will finalize the content and strategically evaluate it. These directors include PhD subject specialists and curriculum strategists.
Zeeshan: Till now, we have signed MOUs with The Institute of Business Leadership, Guggu, The Missing P and Rozgaar Pakistan. These institutes/companies have officially joined us as partners whereas our agreements with some of the universities are about to be finalized. The response from these universities has been positive and we are quite hopeful.
Q: Have you been in contact with the Higher Education Commission Pakistan to bring the universities on board with you?
Abdul Basit: Yes, we had a meeting with one of the HEC Directors, Mr. Rizwan (Director Higher Education Planning and Development Department). The idea was appreciated. But actually the decision whether a university should join an online portal like ours is taken by the university itself and HEC doesn’t have a role here.
Q: So how did you approach the universities and different institutes? Did you find the process difficult?
Zeeshan: The process wasn’t very difficult, the universities and the institutes were also very collaborative. We did our proper home-work, we visited different education expos where we talked to the university representatives, and we took appointments and then went to these institutes to discuss our idea.
Q: Did you face any other hardships? How did you deal with them?
Abdul Basit: Since we did our research well, things went quite smoothly for us. Although there was a laughable incident, when we presented our idea on Plan X demo day 2015, some of the students came to our stall and asked if we are creating a university like AXACT. Then we clearly explained our idea to them.
Q: So they misunderstood your idea and kind of related it to a virtual university. How do you differentiate yourself from a virtual university?
Zeeshan: A virtual university offers its own degree. We are not a virtual university nor are we offering any degree. We are offering certified courses from a number of different universities/training institutes and field experts.
We have a specific vision in mind which is imparting practical knowledge.
Q: Can you please explain the process of how a person can enroll in a course on UpSkill? What would be the duration of these courses?
Abdul Basit: It’s simple. After a person logs onto our website he can create an account by filling in the details. Then they can find the course of their interest and join that.
Zeeshan: The duration of the courses will vary from 4-6 weeks. As we also have corporate sector working with us, so when a user registers on a course on UpSkill, his profile would be linked to the relevant company and would be updated as he completes the course. The company will keep a check on the student’s progress throughout the course. These companies’s may also provide job opportunities to the students with good profile so this way UpSkill is also increasing students chances of employment.
We have designed UpSkill to be a collaborative learning platform. The students on UpSkill are connected to the fellow learners through UpConnect. At UpConnect all the students enrolled in a particular course can ask questions from each other and from the instructor and therefore share knowledge.
Q: Do you have any feature that differentiates you from other MOOC offering websites?
Zeeshan: Yes. We have well studied our international competitors, we found out that there’s a very high student dropout rate. One of the reasons is that students suddenly lose interest in the courses and become inactive. e.g. To counter this UpSkill will blend scientifically approved principles of learning with best quality content to boost individual learning. So we will introduce a “gamification” e.g. if a student asks a question on UpConnect and any of his fellows provides a good answer to that question then some points will be added to his profile. This way student will receive achievement points, badges and level-ups. The points will be increase if user engages a lot. This way the students are likely to be more active and take interest, so this feature will differentiates us. This way the students are likely to be more active and take interest, so this feature differentiates us.
Zeeshan: We have “Fremium” and “Premium” courses. The students can enroll in the fermium courses without any cost and they just have to pay for the certificate in these courses. And if a student does not want the certification then it is entirely free for them. However, in order to enroll in the premium courses, the students will have to make an advance payment.
Q: Would the certifications be provided by UpSkill or by the universities/institutions?
Abdul Basit: UpSkill is only a medium, the certifications would be provided by the relevant universities/institutions.
Q: What would be the mode of payment?
Abdul Basit: We are working on it but most probably it would be through EasyPaisa; as it is available everywhere.
Q: What about the revenue, would it be shared with the universities/institutes you are collaborating with?
Abdul Basit: Yes, we will be sharing the revenue with them for the courses they are offering.
Zeeshan: We will be launching within next 2-3 months. There are 110 million youth in Pakistan which is accounted as the largest youth bulge of world and, out of which 30 million are internet users so our target is all those students. We aim to attract at least one million users within first year of launch.
Q: Do you have any investors or are you self-funding your startup?
Abdul Basit: We do not have any external investors right now. Zeeshan along with being the CFO is our investor as well.
Q: How much progress have you made with the idea?
Abdul Basit: Some of the partnerships have taken place as we mentioned earlier while other collaborations are under way. The website is in its developmental phase.
For website development and software management we are working IRAD Solutions, they are providing us tech services.
Q: What is your long-term goal?
Abdul Basit: Well, in the long term we want to expand in South Asia and become one of the largest E-learning platforms. For this purpose we will have different universities from South Asia on board with us. These courses will help Pakistani students understand the South Asian market and be able to compete there as well. We are very clear about our vision; the content of courses will be customized according to learners expectations and will be available in Urdu translation for the Pakistani students.
The job market is an extremely competitive place which requires refined and skilled people. UpSkill is focusing on providing the relevant practical experience to the local graduates and undergraduates who can thrive in the market. Good Luck to them for their upcoming venture.