A model for educational technology development from … Afghanistan?

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building new things in Afghanistan
building new things in Afghanistan

In response to a recent EduTech blog post on “the 'ideal’ educational technology devices for developing countries”, I received numerous responses that effectively said: “We already know what this ideal device is: the mobile phone”. While the use of mobile phones in education is a regular topic explored on this blog, and the mobile phone is a device that I regularly recommend that ministries of education consider when planning for technology use in schools more than they currently do (in my experience few education authorities do consider utilizing phones as tools for learning in any real way), I would not go so far as to say that it is the ‘ideal’ device for use in educational settings in developing countries. Context is always king.

It may be true that, in many cases, the ‘best device is the one you already have, know how to use and can afford’.  In some contexts, mobile phones conform to this definition quite well (although many school systems around the world do continue to ban or severely limit their use on school property). Depending on the context and usage scenario, others do too, including the two that I used to compose the first draft of this blog post: a ballpoint pen and a notepad (the old fashioned kind with actual paper, not the one that comes bundled with Microsoft Windows).

Because I often prominently highlight the potential of mobile phones to be used in educational contexts in developing countries in the course of my work at the World Bank, I am often asked for specific examples of this use. Here’s a rather interesting one that you may not have heard much about:

Over the past few years, I have been pitched project ideas countless (scores? hundreds?) of times by people who cite market research on the total number of mobile phones in a given population in a particular developing country as a justification for developing mobile apps in a given sector. Fair enough, I have even done this on occasion myself: I recently came across a presentation of mine from 2010, for example, where I quoted from a UN report that maintained that there was greater access to cell phones than toilets in India. That said, all too often the same people then go on to propose the development of (or demonstrate an app already developed) which can only be used only by the small percentage of small percentage of people who possess a smart phone.

Vendor/developer: You need a smart phone to use our content (or service). That is the only way it can be fully experienced.
Potential customer:  OK, what you have developed sounds very interesting.  We won't use it, though, because we can't – we don’t have smart phones. Some day we undoubtedly will, but today we just have our old low end feature phones. Do you have anything that works on them?

There is a compelling school of thought that, in certain cases, innovation results as a response to scarcity. Those familiar with the current context for education and schooling in places in many challenging environments around the world – in ‘fragile’ states, for example, in conflict zones and refugee settlements, in very poor and/or remote communities  – are well aware of how scarcities and constraints of various types can compel folks to look for creative solutions, utilizing or ‘hacking’ what they already know and have, in ways that other people have perhaps not considered – nor needed to consider.

While there have been important and significant gains in education in Afghanistan over the past decade, the education system there is still characterized by many such scarcities and constraints. There aren’t enough qualified instructors. There aren’t enough schools. There aren’t enough textbooks and other learning resources in local languages. Disproportionate numbers of girls are not in school, and there can be quite severe constraints on women’s freedom to seek employment outside the home (including as teachers). For these (and of course many other) reasons, a lot of international donor agencies provide assistance to the education sector in the country.

Recognizing the difficulties and limitations to attempting to work in schools in Afghanistan if they wanted to reach out to some of the most difficult-to-reach communities of potential learners, the folks at Paiwastoon (who had previously been involved with a piloting of the One Laptop Per Child initiative in the country) looked around and asked themselves: What’s widely available outside of schools that might support learning? What can deliver audio, video, quizzes and mini games for low literate users? Their answer: mobile phones. Not high end mobile phones, nor the lowest end models with only black and white displays, but rather the inexpensive, non-‘cutting edge’ devices from firms like Nokia that one sees throughout the so-called ‘developing world’ which have a color screen and a memory card slot. Because Paiwastoon is a tech firm (there aren’t many of them in Afghanistan, but there are a few -- the World Bank is actually helping to support the emergence of many more), the folks there looked for some sort of application that could be run on low end phones that could provide educational content and activities to learners in their homes. Because there is not a deep, rich local talent pool of either programmers or designers of educational content creators on which they could draw, they decided that, whatever technology solution was deployed, it had to be very *easy* for people to develop content for it. Given the vagaries (and expense) of being online in Kabul (let alone the rest of the country!), they needed something that could be developed and used off-line; many of the available and popular tools for mobile app development rely in some way on connectivity, whether to something in the cloud or even only to applications running a local web server in the same room, that might always be available.

After locating and trying out lots of development tools, they came across eXe, a freely available open source authoring application to assist teachers and academics in the publishing of web content without the need to become proficient in things like HTML. eXe is just one example of the curious (and powerful) global evolution of many open source technology tools that are eventually utilized in hyperlocal, very challenging environments in developing countries. It was first developed in New Zealand for use in tertiary education there. It has since spread to and been adapted by the Ministry of Education in Spain, as well to education communities in Germany and Italy. The popular WikiEducator site, which is probably well known to many readers of the EduTech blog, was originally an experiment of sorts to explore the hosting of OER content developed by the eXe community.

Paiwastoon developed a mobile app for feature phones and plug-ins to extend eXe to develop content to be viewed using the app. This was the sort of bootstrapped, highly iterative (prototype --> test --> improve --> test …) application development that is typical of many such efforts in developing countries where local developers are also local users and who fund their efforts creatively, receive small amounts of funds in fits and starts. The result has been Ustad Mobile, which is essentially the mobile app player of eXe. In the words of Paiwastoon’s Mike Dawson, by not requiring the use of smart phones and other ‘high end’ technology devices (although people can use such things if they wish), "this tool enables us to escape the shiny device trap", developing education content locally, with development done by low-skilled local staff, in accordance with local resource constraints.  More concretely,

The Ustad Mobile (‘mobile teacher’) Literacy mLearning project emerged out of recognition that the ideal vehicle to make literacy education software widely and inexpensively available to the people of Afghanistan wasn’t the computer — it was the mobile phone, the only ICT device available at an affordable price to the majority of Afghans, including those who are non-literate and living far from urban centers.

With a grant from the U.S. State Department, Paiwastoon developed Ustad Mobile Literacy, an application that runs offline on the simple feature phones available in small mobile shops and bazaars throughout the country. In less than a year, Paiwastoon adapted the entire national literacy curriculum —from the first letter of the alphabet through grade 3 literacy and numeracy, in both Dari and Pashto. It can be installed as easily as a dictionary or any other simple app on any phone with a memory card.

Ustad Mobile Literacy has been approved by the Ministry of Education and is now being used by literacy classes of adult women and Afghan National Army recruits in Kabul. It takes users from the first letter of the alphabet through grade 3 literacy and numeracy and includes hours of narrated instruction, reading comprehension exercises, quizzes, educational games, and video clips for visual learners.

This application is not intended to replace actual teachers, but rather to add value to their work. However, if no instructor is available, Ustad Mobile provides the opportunity for learning on the user’s schedule, which can be especially beneficial to Afghan women.

The built-in metrics functionality of Ustad Mobile enables reporting of a user’s learning time and quiz scores over bluetooth to her or his teacher’s phone. With an additional basic monthly data package (costing around 5.00 USD), a teacher’s phone can easily transmit statistics from remote project sites to a secure online database, enabling real-time monitoring of education and training projects from anywhere in the world.

My point here, in excerpting from the Ustad Mobile literacy project web site, and indeed in discussing this particular application and group, isn’t meant as an ‘endorsement’ of a specific particular product, tool, initiative or organization. As the fellow at the World Bank who focuses on the use of educational technologies of all sorts in low and middle income countries around the world, I am not in the business of ‘endorsing’ such things, and I am well aware of the folly of trying to advocate for the use of *one* particular gadget or piece of software. I have never been to Afghanistan, and so can’t vouch for the efficacy (or lack of efficacy) of what is discussed here in practice.

Rather, it is to highlight the approach taken by one particular group, in one particular place, operating within a certain set of constraints, to help expand learning opportunities to people who may not otherwise have access to them. The project does seem to embody a number of the principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments previously discussed on the EduTech blog, which is one of the reasons I am discussing it here. Is this sort of thing *the* answer to educational challenges in challenging environments like those found in Afghanistan? Certainly not. That said, the story of the development of Ustad Mobile does highlight one potentially useful way that local groups in such places – and folks further afield who might like to help such groups – might seek to go about seeking answers to such challenges using new (and ‘old’) technologies. Where such groups are successful, their efforts will most likely provide only a few pieces of a much larger, still (much too) incomplete puzzle. But such contributions are undeniably important, and potentially quite valuable.

Might it be possible to export this – the tool, the model, the approach – to other places? I don’t know. To my knowledge (and I am admittedly outside my area of competence here), there aren’t many ‘technology exports’ from Afghanistan to the rest of the world. Might this be one?

You might also be interested in the following posts from the EduTech blog:
 [-] Educational technology and innovation at the edges
 [-] 10 principles to consider when introducing ICTs into remote, low-income educational environments
 [-] Why we need more (not fewer) ICT4D pilot projects in education
 [-] A different approach to scaling up educational technology initiatives
 [-] In search of the ideal educational technology device for developing countries
 [-] … and, more generally, posts on the use mobile phones in education

: The image used at the top of this blog post of new things being built as part of the World Bank's Strengthening Higher Education Program ("building new things in Afghanistan") is (c) Sandra Calligaro / Taimani Films / World Bank. It comes via the World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license .


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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