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The ABC gets mobile

Masood Momin
A new literacy app for mobile phones, Ustad, is the Afghan government’s latest attempt to fulfill the target of ensuring 48 per cent of the population aged over 15 can read and write within three years. The digital…
30.07.2012  |  Kabul
Muzhgan, a first-year literacy student in Kabul, meets her new digital teacher. (Photos: Momin)
Muzhgan, a first-year literacy student in Kabul, meets her new digital teacher. (Photos: Momin)

In an adult education centre in Kabul’s 10th district, minds are being targeted through mobile phones. Muzhgan, a young Afghan girl wearing a black headscarf, has just been given a free cell phone and is engrossed in its bright lights and mystery. She is not in conversation with family or friends but is rather learning to read and write.

"It's a joy to receive this," she says after her first successful attempts to use the 'Mobile Teacher' software system currently being rolled out by a commercial provider and the Ministry of Education. "Before now I had problems in two subjects, Dari and mathematics. This will boost my progress by 50 per cent," estimates the first-year student of literacy.

Presented to the public this month, the program was developed by the Ministry of Education, together with Paiwastoon Networking Services, an Afghan IT consultant.  The Ustad Mobil (mobile teacher) software, developed with $70,000 of USAID funds, is designed to tackle one of the worst rates of literacy in the world, .

A 2011 UNESCO study estimated that only 26 percent of all males aged over 15 in Afghanistan were literate, with only 12 percent of adult women able to read and write. Thirty nine percent of the population aged 15-24 is considered illiterate.

Riding the wave of mobile penetration

The new app is designed to tackle illiteracy by riding the wave of mobile penetration in Afghanistan, where four major operators now share 18 million subscribers. This translates into 65 percent penetration, according to a 2012 report by Research and Markets, a communications think tank. Mobile phones are simply the fastest point of access to illiterate adults across the country.

Ustad shows symbols and words and also clips of a teacher writing these on a board, with voiced commentary. (Photo: Paiwastoon)

A similar pilot project was recently introduced to great effect in Pakistan, whereby 1,500 registered women would be sent daily literacy lessons by SMS from a central office. The Afghan equivalent, Mobile Teacher, will provide national curriculum courses in both national languages, Dari and Pashtu, as well as mathematics.

The free app can be installed on all mobile phones with a memory card slot and a camera. Individual lessons, which will also be made available on the MoE website, will teach new syllables and phrases.

“This is the first time audio-visual literacy learners have the chance to receive lessons on their cell phones,” Mike Dawson, CEO of Paiwastoon, told Afghanistan Today.

The company has experience in the field, having previously managed the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program that handed out 3,000 laptops to women and children in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Baghlan and Jalalabad.

“For rolling out Ustad Mobil - we are looking to talk with the phone companies and the media to make people aware of the programme.  We interviewed phone shop owners about the software and they are willing to install it for people like they install other software on mobiles,” says Dawson.

Digital assault on illiteracy

Mobile Teacher is being trialed in literacy stations in three regions. In one such centre in Kabul’s 10th District, 22 mobile phones, pre-installed with the Ustad Mobile app, were handed out to students.

Nasima, taking her first literacy class, feels reassured by her mobile teaching assistant. “Before I had problems in mathematics but Ustad has improved my sums,” the adult learner told Afghanistan Today. Meanwhile, Wahida Mahmoodi, a vocational teacher at the college, says that Ustad can reduce the need for a physical teacher by 50 percent.

“Before I had problems in mathematics but Ustad has improved my sums.” Nasima, first year adult learner, Kabul. 

But some students, unfamiliar with mobile phone or technology, will struggle. Tradition weighs in too. “In our society it is difficult for a female literacy student to go to a mobile phone distributor and ask for the installation of apps like Ustad Mobil. It is also hard to go to a net café,“ Wahida Mahmoodi, a teacher at the 10th district college charged with evaluating Ustad’s progress, told Afghanistan Today. She suggests that the architects of the programme additionally donate a Desktop for permanent use for all students at the centre.

If the government is to reach its ambitious target of a 48 per cent literacy rate for over fifteens by 2015, it will need projects like Ustad to be succesful on a nationwide scale. And the literacy drive can be susceptible to disruptions, as other projects have experienced.

UNESCO’s Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE), together with the Afghan government’s Enhancement for Literacy (ELA) strategy, has pledged to provide 600,000 youths and adults (60 per cent of them females) with literacy courses in 18 provinces. But an ongoing discussion between the US and UNESCO over Palestine’s membership application being accepted by the United Nations agency last year, has led to a dramatic cut in funding that affected the Kabul office.

Ustad press launchRepresentatives from Paiwastoon Networking Services and the MoE unveil Mobile Teacher.

Sarwar Hussaini, Director of Literacy at the MoE, says his office will do everything it can to promote the Ustad app and publish it on CDs and DVDs for distribution. “I urge all those engaged with literacy to standardize the use of the app amongst the public,” Hussaini said recently at Ustad Mobile’s launch.

But that may not be enough. Unless mobile phone companies get behind it, the software approach is in danger of being another isolated project that doesn't quite take off.

Reflecting that reality is the ongoing effort of the much larger LIFE literacy drive, an umbrella project which brings together four Afghan ministries, three UN agencies and several major international development partners, with funding from the Japanese government. But for all the good will, there are huge challenges of implementation, and millions of Afghans still cannot read or write.