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For Afghan Women, Bright Screens and Uncertain Futures in Mobile Learning Effort

BY Naheed Mustafa | Wednesday, December 12 2012

Literacy program for Afghan women (credit: Aga Khan Foundation/ Sandra Calligaro)

You can bank with it, play games on it — and even, sometimes, talk on it. So why not learn to read on your mobile phone?

Mobile phones are in the hands of about 15 million Afghans and some 85 percent of the population lives in a part of the country with network coverage. Given high mobile penetration and low literacy levels for women, the Paiwastoon Networking Services recently developed the Ustad Mobil literacy program, using $80,000 in U.S. aid money.

Bringing literacy to Afghans, especially women, through mobile learning would seem to be a good low-cost solution that marries something people are already doing — using mobile phones — with something they need — i.e., learning to read.

But is an initiative that hits all the right buttons — women, literacy, low-cost, scalable — also a sustainable solution in Afghanistan, with its many and varied cultural and economic barriers?

Ustad Mobil is a simple-enough software that is ideally meant to be used in a classroom setting. Lesson one, for example, shows a graphic of the first letter of the alphabet — alif. We hear a man's voice sound out the letter, then use it in a series of words. Finally, we see a short video of a man's hand writing the letter on a whiteboard. A Kabul-based pilot program is testing the program with 100 participants, most of them women. The hope is that it will be available all over the country and that women will be able to use it independently at home.

The idea is straightforward — take a tool that uses a step-by-step approach to teaching literacy and put it in the hands of women through the kind of feature phones widely available in Afghanistan. A student can access lessons that have a variety of learning objectives from teaching letters to numbers to grammar. Each lesson is followed by a short interactive exercise. There are follow up multiple-choice quizzes to test letter recognition as well as a version of the game Hangman. Hanging men would, of course, be a bad choice in a country wracked by decades of war so the consequence for every wrong answer is a lost kite.

Using the app effectively and in its entirety, could, theoretically, take a learner to a third grade literacy level.

Solid statistics are hard to come by in Afghanistan. Official reporting is skewed for a variety of reasons including instability, lack of follow through, and corruption. That is the case for literacy as well. Look and you can find numbers that show anywhere from almost zero literacy for women pre-1978 to almost 18 percent for women today, depending on regional and economic factors. The most widely-quoted rate for women’s literacy is 12 percent, but even that statistic is at best a guesstimate.

While there is a tendency to point to the Taliban’s ban on women’s education as the reason women have not been taught to read, illiteracy was a problem in Afghanistan long before the Taliban existed and has remained a problem in the decade or so since the Taliban was ousted from power.

And so in the search for a definitive solution to a seemingly intractable problem, there’s a tendency to look to technology to save the day — especially in places where there are real challenges to even reaching the people who need help. That’s where a tool like mobile learning (m-learning) can seem like a solution.

M-learning programs have found their way to a variety of countries for various purposes — from learning English in Tunisia, India and Bangladesh to literacy enhancement in South Africa to nomadic education in Nigeria.

M-learning feels, intuitively, like it would be a good fit for Afghanistan — most women are illiterate and live in rural communities with few or no options for formal learning. It fits well with a conservative culture because women can learn without having to leave their homes. There’s also a sense that as the international presence winds down and instability grows, m-learning could serve as a second option if literacy programs simply become too difficult to administer on the ground.

But there’s a problem with all this. When it comes to m-learning, we don’t really have a clue.

Michael Trucano, the World Bank’s senior ICT and education policy specialist, says m-learning can be a good tool but we simply do not know enough about how well it works. He also points out that because it is fairly easy to put a mobile phone in a student’s hands, there can be a tendency for m-learning to crowd out other options.

“There is a lot of hype and rhetoric around mobile phones and how can we take advantage of them and use them but there aren’t a lot of good models out there about how to do (m-learning), there hasn’t been a lot of documentation,” says Trucano.

Add to this the fact that m-learning‘s effectiveness is notoriously hard to gauge. John Traxler, a world-renowned expert on m-learning and a professor of mobile learning at the University of Wolverhampton in the U.K., has written extensively on the best and worst of m-learning. He points out that evaluating mobile learning is "unusually challenging."

Trucano goes on to point out there are issues related to equity and technology — including gender — that are “real and complicated.” One of the most commonly observed problems with introducing technology for women’s use is that the men and boys in a household monopolize it whether it is a phone, radio, or computer.

Trucano says technology solutions need to mesh well with the local cultural context and fit the needs of the users in order to be successful. In Afghanistan, as in many deeply conservative societies, there is hostility toward any initiative that could be seen as giving women too much access to the outside world. What’s a better means to access than a phone?

Orzala Ashraf, an academic and an activist on women’s issues, has been teaching women to read since she was a teenager living in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan. During the Taliban era, she repeatedly returned to Afghanistan to help out with underground schools being run out of private homes.

Today, one of her key projects — an experiment really — is to work directly with a community in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan to build a local school. The hope is the sense of ownership will keep the local community engaged with the school and keep the kids, including the girls, in class.

Ashraf says before there can even be talk of solutions, there has to be a proper gauging of the problem. NGOs have been working on literacy for decades, spending what amounts to thousands of dollars per Afghan, and yet most people still cannot read and write. There is virtually no data to understand the problem.

Ashraf is clear that her issue is not with the Ustad Mobil app itself. She says the intention behind it is clearly a good one. But she says mobile learning is probably not suitable in the Afghan context. “There is a whole issue around culture and custom,” she says. “The mobile phone app might only be about teaching reading and writing but the reality is literacy would transform society, it would transform relations. The girl will not only use the phone to learn literacy, she will use it to communicate with the outside world.”

That may be fine for a tiny few, but most Afghans are just not ready for that. While women's lives have improved in some respects, particularly in urban areas, rural Afghanistan — which is where most of the population lives — has deeply held views about the role and rights of women.

Teaching adults to read is difficult in the best of circumstances, never mind a country where illiteracy is widespread. And while mobile learning’s effectiveness for illiterate populations is so far unknown, could Afghan women benefit? Maybe. But given the barriers, probably not.

Naheed Mustafa is an award-winning freelance broadcaster and writer. She's worked for a variety of media outlets including: CBC Radio, Radio Netherlands, and the BBC.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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