The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented health, economic and social shock. In Afghanistan, this has affected all facets of modern life, including shutting down education institutions across the country in mid-March.
As part of lockdown measures, the Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector saw the closure of 300 TVET schools and institutes. Workplace closures had also meant that ‘apprentices’ under in-formal training – known as the Ostad-Shagerdi system – had lost both training opportunities and livelihoods. While learning loss is a concern for the education community as a whole, TVET systems are disproportionately vulnerable given the higher share of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the remoteness of many students. Prolonged disengagement could increase the risk of attrition and dropouts.
To mitigate the impact of school closures, distance learning approaches have emerged as a popular solution. Countries around the world have pivoted towards a mix of online, television and radio broadcasts to allow learning continuity for students. Despite high hopes, however, there is a growing recognition that the ‘digital divide’ is widening pre-existing gaps across wealth and geographical lines, often leaving the most vulnerable students behind.
In Afghanistan, many students – especially those in rural areas – have limited or infrequent access to communications infrastructure. A 2019 Asia Foundation survey found that household internet penetration remains low (31% in urban and 9.0% in rural), while the share of television (91% vs 57%) and radio (62% vs 42%) ownership is higher, but not universal. While most households have at least one member with a mobile phone, many students may not have access to these devices for educational purposes.
TVET delivery through a distance learning is further complicated due to its focus on hands-on training. While the theoretical elements of the curriculum are suited to media broadcasts, most TVET pedagogy relies on demonstration of practical work, specialized equipment and learning-by-doing.
Getting Ahead of the Problem
Faced with a complex set of constraints, policy makers at Afghanistan’s TVET-Authority (TVETA) developed an “Alternative Learning Plan,” to ensure its 60,000 students can stay connected to the TVET system.
The plan, supported under the Second Afghanistan Skills Development Project, adapted many of the global good practices to the Afghan context – emphasizing simplicity for quick roll out, localized solutions to account for ground realities, and provision through multiple modalities to reach and meet the needs of heterogeneous, hard-to-reach student groups.
First, it was clear that tech solutions were not the main answer for the large majority of students. Given that many students do not have access to digital devices or Internet connectivity, the immediate response prioritized paper-based approaches. The TVET-Authority quickly mobilized its curriculum experts to develop physical “chapter note” packages for priority trades with the highest student enrollment. These packages are designed to facilitate self-study, providing additional scaffolding through self-instructional plans, supplementary guidelines, and explanatory notes from teachers. The Authority has identified various ways of distributing them to the students, including establishing collection points such as schools in the provinces.
Second, to compensate for the lack of practical instruction, TVETA is preparing a collection of video tutorials to supplement the chapter notes. This involves filming high caliber “lead teachers” delivering both theoretical content and practical demonstrations. These are slated to be delivered through a range of television and radio broadcasts, and online channels, but also through the physical distribution of CDs and flash-drives directly to the students.
Third, as part of a broader shift to expand distance learning, TVETA also plans to roll out a learning management platform. The “e-learning platform” will serve as content repository, while a telephone-based helpdesk will provide support and information to students, families, and TVET teachers, and allow TVETA to track implementation progress.
While online platforms may mainly be accessible to urban students for now, these investments balance the need for an immediate response, while building capacity for future growth of the sector. Afghanistan’s TVET Strategy (2020 – 2024) envisions distance learning as key path to introduce flexibility to skills delivery and broaden access to underserved groups. This includes targeted interventions for women and girls, youth with low literacy, returning migrants, ex-combatants and those with disabilities.
The Human Capital Agenda
The skills sector can play an outsized role in fragile contexts. Access to marketable skills can provide young people an opportunity to access better livelihoods, in addition to strengthening social cohesion and resilience.
In the short term, TVET can be an essential part of the emergency response, providing skills required to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic. As countries emerge from lockdowns, the TVET sector will be central to their economic recovery strategy. Ms. Nadima Sahar, the Director General of the TVET Authority in Afghanistan is convinced that skills development is critical to the human capital agenda and national economic recovery and growth in Afghanistan given its large youth population, informal economy and nascent education sector.