Mobile Literacy Programme in Afghanistan

Country Profile: Afghanistan

Population

30,552,000 (2013)

Official Languages

Dari, Pashto

Youth literacy rate (15 – 24 years, 2015, UIS estimation)

Female: 46.33%
Male: 69.59%
Both sexes: 58.21%

Adult literacy rate (15+ years, 2015, UIS estimation)

Female: 24.15%
Male: 51.99%
Both sexes: 38.16%

Statistical sources

UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS)

Programme Overview

Programme TitleMobile Literacy Programme in Afghanistan
Implementing OrganizationAfghan Institute of Learning (AIL)
Language of InstructionDari
Programme PartnersCreating Hope International (CHI)
US Afghan Women’s Council at Georgetown University
Georgetown University
The US Afghan Women’s Council (USAWC)
The UNESCO Chair at Georgetown University

Overview

The Mobile Literacy Programme in Afghanistan was a one year pilot project aimed at imparting literacy skills to communities, specifically targeting women, through a combination of classes and literacy tasks using mobile phones. It was carried out by the Afghan Institute for Learning (AIL) in conjunction with Creating Hope International. Modelled after a similar UNESCO/Bunyad Foundation pilot project in Pakistan, it was adapted for the context of Afghanistan and the specific challenges of its learners.

The programme is based on a combination of mobile phone technology and classroom teaching. It seeks to improve the literacy skills of women living in villages in rural Afghanistan by offering them a means of communication with peers and family. Participants are provided with a mobile phone, which also aids in their development of literacy abilities outside the classroom.

Due to the situation of education for women in Afghanistan, the imparting of literacy skills is very important, and this programme heralds a new means by which to do so. The project has been implemented in two villages at AIL’s Learning Centres, reaching out to 25 women from each. These centres were selected for the strong community cohesion that is present in the villages, which supported the implementation of literacy projects. The close proximity of the villages to one another also ensured consistent communication between staff.

Context and Background

Afghanistan is improving its economic stability and population life expectancy, and moving forward in terms of education and gender equality. The Taliban’s banning of education for girls significantly hindered women’s literacy, but since they lost power, education for women has become increasingly important: it is reported that 39% of the country’s students are now female.

Despite this improvement, Afghanistan continues to suffer from one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, estimated at 43.1% for men, and just 12.6% for women- a consequence of repressive governmental systems and over 30 years of war. Some efforts have been made to solidify an adequate education system, for instance through the implementation of primary schools open for girls to attend. Despite the announcement in 2007 of a National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan, women’s education does not formally extend beyond this measure. Women are also frequently denied access to public schools. This environment has left thousands of women unable to enter the education system and it is therefore very difficult for older Afghan women to develop literacy and vocational skills. In light of these problems, the project in mobile literacy has been a positive indicator of the potential for change.

Mobile phone use in Afghanistan has boomed from less than 1% of the population in 2001 to over 18 million active mobile subscriptions in 2012. The four major mobile services provide network coverage to at least 90% of Afghans. The extensive technological reach has prompted a number of organisations that can use this telecommunications infrastructure to reach out to under-served populations through various socio-economic programmes. These have included providing medical expert assistance to rural clinics through mobile applications, connecting farmers to market data, and extending financial services.

Programme

The Mobile Literacy Programme was implemented in conjunction with the AIL literacy course. It was designed to cover the material of the literacy course, which typically took 9 months to complete, in just four months. Rather than serving as a replacement for the literacy course, it was designed to reinforce classroom engagement and to encourage the consistent development of skills outside the classroom.

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The first AIL centre was located in a rural village, based on the communal decision to develop a learning centre. The second centre, located in a village which lacked a public school, had an education centre as well as appropriate training provided for teachers set up through AIL in 2006.

The project was inspired by the Pakistan UNESCO/Bunyad project,which recognised that one of the major reasons for a lack of literacy retention amongst the youth population is due to the fact that slipping back into a non-literate environment is easy once the course has finished. In Pakistan, literacy skills were shown to be maintained through integration of ICT, which motivated the students to continue to develop their skills.

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

The AIL Learning Centres, which initially opened in Afghan refugee camps in 2002, offer many educational opportunities. They provide courses ranging from income generation skills, such as sewing and carpet weaving, classes from preschool all the way up to the university level, training for teachers and administrators, academic and professional development courses, and workshops on human rights and leadership. Their mission is to empower Afghans through the expansion of educational opportunities and fostering of critical thinking skills, self-reliance, leadership and community participation. Teaching literacy is a fundamental focus of the AIL Learning Centres. The learners range from 10-50 years old, with mobile literacy learners ranging from 14-32 years old. The majority of learners are from rural families and have lived in the area for generations.

Mobile Literacy

The Learning Centres of the Mobile Literacy Programme were created after AIL approached selected villages and offered to aid in creating a community organisation that could implement literacy teaching. The first Learning Centre was established by an esteemed local teacher, who approached the elders of the village with the plan after having found potential teachers and an abandoned house to serve as the school. The centre opened, originally offering three classes of literacy, Arabic and sewing.

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The success of the Learning Centre was noticed by surrounding villages who then wanted similar centres of their own. A nearby village that wanted a school for women and children, but had a lack of teacher training and funds to support a teacher’s salary, also set up a Learning Centre. Through appealing for financial and training support from the AIL, the quality of education was improved and developed. AIL’s support for the village projects began in 2006. In two villages, the implementation of the Mobile Literacy Programme became a reinforcement of the literacy teaching that had already been established, in the hope that it would aid the speed at which literacy skills were attained. Mobile phones and texting cards were provided for each of the female literacy learners. There were 25 learners in each class at each Learning Centre, adding up to 50 in total. There was a teacher, a supervisor and a project leader from the AIL administrative office in each centre. The students attended their literacy class six days a week for four months.

Ensuring that Afghan women and girls understand the benefits of developing literacy skills can be challenging at times. The use of mobile phones helps to bridge the gap between literacy development in the classroom and its continuous implementation in daily life and communication, as it becomes a tool for message assignments as well as for their personal lives. Alongside assignments to be written in notebooks, the learners were given additional work which was texted to their phones and typically involved questions and topics on aspects of their daily life. Establishing a daily foundation of literacy covering relevant topics helps learners to understand why it is practical and useful to use their skills in everyday life.

The project was originally designed for students who had at least a basic grasp of literacy but, in reality, it attracted a large number of participants who were not at all literate. However, by the end of the programme, almost all learners had made successful progress.

Literacy through texting

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Many different kinds of messages were sent to the learners. The primary message was a ‘fill in the blank’ sentence, which learners were required to rewrite with the word filled in. This approach ensured that the sentence was thoroughly read and practiced, and that the appropriate word was found. This was followed by open-ended questions meant to facilitate critical thinking and writing skills, which necessitated the repetition of the question being asked. Some were opinion-based or required further research. Another task was to reorder sentences into the correct structure, giving learners the opportunity to practice comprehension and grammar. Experienced teachers acted as mentors to the students and were enthusiastic about using the mobile phone technology to supplement learning.

The literacy lessons were imparted through standardised methods, such as reading aloud in class, writing in notebooks and memorizing words, and were reinforced through mobile technology. Bridging learning in and outside the classroom through mobile technology was very effective and encouraging for students, who were able to see immediate progress and feedback on their developing literacy skills. Literacy skills became less of a task without a clear benefit and more of a useful skill that helped them to communicate in daily life and to increase their understanding of the world around them.

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Staffing

For this project, two experienced literacy teachers were required, along with a project leader based in the AIL Central Office, and a supervisor of each Learning Centre.

ICT resources

All students were given a mobile phone with enough credit provided to complete the literacy assignments. The use of mobiles for personal use was encouraged under the assumption that it would both strengthen literacy skills and empower users.

Monitoring and Evaluation

The implementation of pre and post-tests ensured effective monitoring of the programme and student progress. The post-test measured the ability of students to come up with both short and long answers, compared with their ability prior to the project. Rather than measuring their ability to produce exact spellings or knowledge of words, it tested their ability to undertake tasks requiring literacy skills, such as following direction, reading questions and formulating response sentences that made sense.

Example questions are:

  1. Who do you respect and why?
  2. What did you do this morning?

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Impact

The students attended their literacy classes six times a week over a period of four months. The project proceeded as planned, successfully combining classroom literacy work with mobile literacy texting. By the end of the programme, 83% of mobile literacy students were able to complete the post-test using correct sentence structure and vocabulary, advancing to literacy level three.

An important factor in the programme’s success was its use of established venues and experienced staff, in communities that encouraged and supported the literacy programme, providing numerous motivated and enthusiastic participants.

The following are testimonials from learners demonstrating the impact the programme has had:

“Before this class, I didn’t have books and magazines in my house, but now I have three novels and eleven magazines and I keep them in a small library. This shows that I am one of the eager students of this class.”
“Now I am full of love of knowledge”
“Before these four months, I didn’t listen to the news or understand it. Now I always watch for the informative news because during the class we were looking for informative and scientific news for our messages.”
“Now I have self-confidence and I have decided to go to regular school next year.”

This is just a small selection from many quotes that clearly demonstrate the extent to which the Mobile Literacy Programme has had a positive impact on the lives of its participants. A lasting impact of the project has been the social opportunities that mobile technology opened up to participants, and that they were encouraged to go beyond the boundaries of lessons in the classroom. Feedback has shown that their new ability to communicate via mobiles allowed them to remain in contact with relatives from abroad and, furthermore, enabled them to become part of a new world of technological interaction. This was further impacted by the use of their new skills in understanding and interpreting the news and taking an interest in the world outside of their communities.

The programme was also empowering because it dispelled many myths and fears surrounding women’s access to information through ICT in Afghanistan. For example, parents who did not think their children were safe using new technology began to turn to them for answers to their questions, and also started using the technology for communication. It also allowed social interaction for women who were typically confined to their homes, and helped to encourage the development of Afghan communities.

Results

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The results of the project have reflected great success following its implementation and potential for further literacy programmes to use this approach. Students in the literacy programmes sent an average of 1,750 messages, using their mobile phones every day. The technology was used for both completion of assignments and communication with fellow classmates, facilitating further practice of literacy skills in daily life and socialisation. After four months of literacy courses, 83% of students were able to complete the final test using correct sentence structure and vocabulary, meeting the requirements for progression to literacy level three as determined by the Afghan government curriculum. Additionally, some students left the course with the ability to read magazines and newspapers. Therefore, learners, including those who began the course with a non-existent or very basic level of literacy, progressed significantly. The results of the project demonstrated that a literacy level that normally takes nine months to achieve could instead be reached in two months with the integration of mobile phones. Consequently,, two levels of literacy education were completed in four months. The improvement shown by the girls and women within a shorter time frame to move past the first level of literacy also represents considerable success. Students who participated in this programme have requested that it be expanded to all literacy courses and other AIL centres. There are now 83 literacy students waiting for the next Literacy Mobile Programme to commence.

Success

Aside from the pre and post-tests, there are further indicators of success:

Challenges

Solutions and Recommendations

By respecting cultural guidelines, teaching staff and administrators helped to ensure that the programme was accepted by the families of the women involved. Three women removed from the programme due to these concerns returned once the programme’s implementation and guidelines were explained to the families. Almost all of the girls who took part in the project overstated their literacy skills at the beginning of the programme but, despite this, they were found to have surpassed expectations significantly, showing that the programme was even suitable for participants with very low literacy skills.

To achieve greater empowerment of women and girls through education and technology, clear provisions must be made. These include:

Further steps can also be taken to encourage the use of ICT and literacy among women:

  1. Promote the expansion of cell phone ownership and usage by women in a culturally sensitive way, working through mobile network operators to help them see the business advantages of acquiring female customers.
  2. Promote country-wide expansion of cell phone ownership and usage with a focus on educational benefits; build greater awareness among the population and specifically among women.
  3. Develop user friendly mobile phone technology that aids literacy (for example, through a phone app which could be valuable to teachers in classroom context).
  4. Coordinate cell phone strategies for women to integrate mobile literacy into other programmes.
  5. Create greater donor support for mobile literacy.
  6. Encourage existing platforms for women’s education and mobility to promote the use of mobile literacy.
  7. Recognise and respond to energy requirements that accompany mobile phone technology use in rural areas.

Lessons Learnt

The pre-existing professional expertise and institutional stability of the people working for the Mobile Literacy Programme was a crucial aspect of its success. Given the experience of the teachers, no additional teacher training materials were required, aside from the list of questions to send participants through text messaging. A close teacher/mentor-student working relationship and teachers who were committed to AIL’s mission allowed these individuals to build strong community and family acceptance of the mobile literacy programme, the value of technology-mediated instruction and learning, and the overall benefits of literacy and education for women and girls.

References

Contact details

Dr. Sakena Yacoobi
Founder and Director, Afghan Institute of Learning
Email: sakena@afghaninstituteoflearning.org
Website: http://www.afghaninstituteoflearning.org/index.html

Creating Hope International
P.O. Box 1058
Dearborn, Michigan
48121 USA
Phone: 313-278-5806
Fax: 313-565-8515

Last update: 29 November 2013