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Mobile phone education: way ahead or damning indictment?

November 18, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: a scheme to give out mobile phones for purposes of educating Afghan women may be innovative and new, but is it a good idea?

I came across this story from several sources:

Nov. 3, 2012

Afghan women sit in a class and study using cellphones in Kabul. Afghanistan has launched a new literacy program that enables women, mostly deprived of basic education during decades of war, to learn to read and write using a cellphone. The phone is called Ustad Mobile (Mobile Teacher) and provides national curriculum courses in both national languages, Dari and Pashtu, as well as mathematics.

Yet another test programme that is shortly to be “rolled out” across the country.  Whether the roll out actually happens, as international funds and interest levels contract, is another matter.  But you may recall that I posted a piece earlier about the fact that many new Afghan schools in Helmand, built over the years by international exertions and money, were going to be shut down because the Afghan government would not be able to afford to maintain them.

I am struggling to understand whether new “Mobile Teacher” story this is a good or bad one and how it might fit – with its giving away of presumably 1,000s of mobile phones – with the overall challenges in the Afghan education system.

Is it good – a modern, flexible and adaptive system to bypass structural, resource and cultural differences within Afghanistan?  Or is it a damning indictment of the educational system which has failed, even after 11 years of development and effort to build sustainable schools and train sustainable teachers?  Has Afghanistan temporarily given up constructing a real education system and is applying short-term fixes based upon whoever can produce some funding for  specific projects?

I am uneasy about it – never mind the obvious limitations of the educational value and the tendency for the Taliban to close down (or blow up) the communications network.  This is good news for mobile phone companies and software programmers – maybe the idea comes from clever Western phone companies and software consultants.  It is superficially good news for Afghan women who get a free mobile phone and at least some very basic education.  But is this really the best way ahead for the educational future of the country?  How reliable are the phones?  Who replaces them when they break?  How many phones a year have to be given away?  How much would the whole scheme cost?  Who controls the allocation (and budget)?  In parts of the country it is not considered a priority for women to have education – empowering women in this way is great from a Western perspective, but how will it work culturally?  Will it cause friction and imbalance?

I genuinely don’t know the answers, but it jars with my gut feel – that, however difficult and costly, the resources should be put into proper and sustainable schools and teachers wherever possible.

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