Can Technology Change the Education Landscape in Afghanistan?
July 26, 2017
Last week, a team of six teenage Afghan girls traveled to the United States to compete in an international robotics competition. But instead of grabbing global headlines for their remarkable achievements in engineering, all eyes were on an ugly and protracted visa battle with the U.S. in order for the girls to gain entry to attend the competition. Their perseverance paid off—not only did they receive their visas (after two failed attempts), they won a silver medal for courageous achievement. Their achievements sent a clear message—that technology has taken root in Afghanistan, and that innovation is not to be mistaken as being a field only for boys.
There are currently 3.2 billion internet users globally—approaching half the world’s population. Children are growing up in a world where social media and virtual communication are fundamental to developmental learning. As technology becomes more affordable, it also becomes more accessible as a tool for solving some of the world’s most challenging problems.
In Afghanistan, one of the biggest challenges is the education sector. Since 2001, improving education in Afghanistan has been a focus of investment for the international community. The country’s institutions and educational infrastructure have been devastated by decades of conflict, and reconstructing the education sector has been slow. Despite this, significant gains have been made: Today, there are approximately 14,599 general education schools across the country, over 8.6 million children were enrolled as of 2013 (of whom 39% were girls), and teacher trainings are regularly offered by a variety of national and international organizations. According to The Asia Foundation’s 2016 Survey of the Afghan People, education is one of the only sectors where the majority of Afghans feel that gains have been made.
Afghanistan’s education system is still marred with a lack of teachers, poor instructional quality, and a dearth of materials. To best prepare Afghan children for interacting with and contributing to the global community—as well as their own—innovative solutions must be designed. This is where technology comes in.
The Asia Foundation has recently begun using technology to improve Afghanistan’s standardized college entrance exam, known as the Kankor (read more about the importance of this exam in a recent blog post). Students prepare for the exam by attending after-school preparatory classes, and the vast majority of these institutions are fee-based private organizations. Even with preparation, only about 30 percent pass with high enough scores to make it into a public institute of higher education, a serious obstacle to Afghanistan’s overall efforts to strengthen access to education.
A new online mock exam series, developed by UStronics, provides a more accessible, low-cost opportunities for students to practice the exam. The mock exam has over 7,000 questions and 40 professional videos explaining complex math and science problems. This application was then loaded on to 1,197 tablets and distributed to 300 girls’ high schools across Afghanistan, making on-line Kankor preparation accessible to over 10,000 female students. The feedback from those who have taken the practice exams has been positive, and we hope has influenced higher graduation rates among the beneficiaries. The results of the exam, which took place this year in March, have not been released.
However, the promise of technology in the classroom is almost entirely dependent on reliable infrastructure. In many parts of the country, schools struggle to get access to the internet, and many, many schools struggle to get access to electricity. To ensure the students can use the tablets regularly, we also equipped the schools with solar panels to provide a steady electricity flow.
The high penetration of smart phones in Afghanistan (at approximately 80%) offers other opportunities to improve education. The Asia Foundation recently developed an Android mobile-based app, with age-appropriate workbooks, to improve primary level reading skills for students grades 1-3 in both national languages—Pashto and Dari—currently being piloted in four schools (comprised of 3,440 students) in more than 90 classrooms.
The app has audio instructions and visual examples that model how to read and write. The application supports children as they follow the lessons systematically and complete the relevant instructional exercises in order to move on to the next lesson. Since the internet is still not widely used (though penetration is predicted to increase to over 15% by 2018), the app can also be initiated through a chip loaded on a mobile phone.
The app is designed to be used on smartphones (usually belonging to parents, guardians, or older siblings), and can also be played on an HDTV by teachers in the classroom. This enables students to utilize the app and learn in a variety of settings—both at home and at school. Parents, siblings, and teachers have all been trained to use the application.
While technology can help teachers prepare students for real world environments, it is also important that the overall effectiveness of learning is determined primarily by the way a medium is used, rather than simply that a medium is used. Technology can be an instrument to help Afghanistan’s education sector develop further, but the key will always be quality instruction.
*Editor’s note: This article has been edited slightly from the original.
Claire Anderson is the communication and program development specialist for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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