Education and conflict: focus on Afghanistan

Education is a critical element in rebuilding shattered societies and restoring stability to areas affected by conflict. It can heal the psychological wounds of war, curb youth unemployment, deliver decentralisation and democracy, build peace and promote economic and social development. However, despite its importance, the role of education in post conflict reconstruction is mired with challenges and often remains overlooked by donors and policy makers. Overcoming these challenges is a matter of urgency and a crucial step towards achieving the UN Millennium Development Goal target of universal primary education for every child by 2015. “Over 100 million children still don’t attend primary school. And, of these, 50 per cent are in countries which are either suffering from conflict or recovering from it”,says New Security Foundation Chairman Dr Harold Elletson. "There is an urgent need to explore innovative ways to deliver education in conflict and post-conflict regions".

As computer technology becomes cheaper, more connected and more powerful, it offers unprecedented potential for the provision of high quality distance learning, even to the most remote and hostile conflict zones. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, Chairman of UNGAID is known to be keen to develop new initiatives to tackle some of the most pressing challenges for education in regions affected by conflict. He has pioneered a new virtual resource, the MOG Enabler, and is looking at ways in which this could be used to provide advice on rebuilding education in areas blighted by conflict. The MDG enabler is GAID’s holistic online platform. It has been designed as a “one-stop shop” for policy-makers, planners, and development practitioners, allowing them to draw on best practice and to use a Strategic Planner tool to develop and implement national strategies and programmes.

Spot Light on Afghanistan

The recognition that education systems are never isolated from conflict, they rarely completely cease to function and that they rapidly resume operations with outside support as violence subsides are important factors in the growing interest in early education response. Although this topic demands urgent attention, humanitarian agencies are starting to recognise that schools can reproduce the skills, values and attitudes necessary for long-term stability and security. However, when conflict ceases, education systems must often be rebuilt in a context where qualified teachers are in chronically short supply. Many of them have been killed or have fled the country.

The conflict in Afghanistan has brought with it both serious disruption to education and an opportunity to build a new system, capable of taking advantage of the benefits technology can bring. After years of the grim regime of the Taliban and the continuing targeting by extremists of teachers and schools, particularly those attended by women, building Afghanistan’s education system remains a daunting task. Success may depend crucially on technology-supported initiatives.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) pilot project is active in Afghanistan and is working to overcome the many challenges by providing innovative interactive textbooks and instructional material using the now infamous XO laptop, a low cost but highly rugged and versatile netbook. The XO laptops allow world class content to be brought to community schools in remote areas undergoing active conflict (see text box). Schools in these areas teach in shifts of 2.5 hours a day. Blending regular classes with distance education using the XO laptop allow schools to extend learning time, as the students take the laptops home. Using an offline digital library system also provides students with access to vast amounts of relevant learning resources.

Higher Education

Donors offer only minimal support to secondary education in areas affected by conflict. This is despite evidence that secondary and higher education suffer a more rapid decline during conflict and a more gradual recovery from it. The most common experience of youths in post-conflict reconstruction is one of exclusion. The slow progress in re-establishing secondary and tertiary educational opportunities, and the marginal status of most adult education programmes and accelerated learning opportunities, add to this frustration at a time when involvement in conflict often leaves youth with a new sense of empowerment. The efforts of educators, such as Professor Dr Wolfgang Finke in Afghanistan, provide a critical source of stability and progress in this fragile country.

Here, Professor Dr Wolfgang Finke describes his own experience of setting up higher education in war-ravaged Afghanistan. A German expert in Business Information Systems, he currently lectures at Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Professor Finke is used to lots of people eating their breakfast in his “office” - the breakfast room of the Balkh University guest house in Mazar-i-Sharif, which serves as his personal workspace. It is here that he holds meetings and carries out some student testing. “Owing to the extreme lack of space at Balkh University, only Heads of the Department and the Rector have their own offices,” he says.

Lack of space also causes problems in the university’s dormitories – they are too crowded. “Afghan universities are obliged to offer free room-and-boarding for students who live more than 30 kilometres away and the number of students is rising sharply,” Finke explains. Currently around 55,000 students attend university courses across Afghanistan.

Apart from lecturing at the Faculty of Economics, the Professor of Business Information Systems supports a network of around 60 lecturers and IT administrators across Afghanistan. His main focus is on the introduction of a new curriculum for a Bachelor Degree in Management and Economics at several Afghan universities that  cooperate with the German Ruhr University Bochum.

Finke is convinced that Afghan universities could benefit from e-learning projects – if they went beyond the use of content management or delivery systems. Students would no longer have to leave home to come to lecture halls, breakfast rooms or dormitories. More women might be reached – under Taliban rule, they had been banned from schools and universities. However, in many Afghan institutions, the implementation of e-learning still seems to be at an early stage.

IT Challenges: The Professor’s Experience

In Wolfgang Finke’s experience, major problems include Internet access and connectivity. “Transmission bandwidth is insufficient and getting access is difficult and expensive,“ he says. “Most students only get access in Internet cafés in the cities.”

Moreover, there are not enough PCs available even though the “pet project of every donor organisation”, as the professor puts it, seems to be to donate PC hardware. “They often have a poor understanding of how to manage PC pools and just donate the equipment.”

The operating systems and applications in use cause problems, too. “Instead of using Open Source software, people in general rely on Microsoft Windows systems which often are bootlegged and virus infested,” Finke says. “I try to help students at Balkh University to use Open Source software. I even got some support from the German military at Camp Marmal: They provided 150 CDs with the latest Ubuntu Linux software for my students.”

The PC lab set up by the US-Initiative ANGeL (Afghan Next Generation e-Learning, funded by USAID) at Balkh University uses Ubuntu Linux and MS Windows in parallel.

A ‘Good Example’ – Training is Key

For Wolfgang Finke, a “good example of how to get it right” are the projects of the Technical University Berlin in Afghanistan. “The team led by Dr NazirPeroz teach IT administrators before PC hardware is installed, they set up ready-to-use-PC-labs and provide on-going support and further education. Their pool for Balkh University is set up exclusively with Open Source software.”

Still, the level of online learning is comparatively low: “At the moment, people are learning how to use PCs. There is not yet an integration of PC and Internet resources with course work and content. The use of PCs for learning purposes is limited as long as content cannot be accessed via the Internet.”

However, the situation varies. At the Universities of Kabul and Herat, computer labs and networks with Internet facilities seem to be in operation. It appears that these institutions have attracted more support by international organisations than less prominent universities in other parts of the country.

Cultural and Educational Challenges

After decades of isolation, Afghanistan still suffers from a lack of qualified personnel.

According to Wolfgang Finke, many professors got their education in the former Soviet Union with its centrally planned economy. “Their knowledge is incompatible with the western system and curricula,” he says. “And while they usually speak several languages, they frequently do not speak English and consequently have problems acquiring new knowledge by reading western-style text books in English.”

When it comes to assessment and testing, cultural differences between the western lecturer and his students become apparent. “Students will demand to get the exam questions weeks before the exam – as well as the solutions. And they will complain if they do not achieve the highest marks possible. It seems to be difficult, if not impossible, to deny passing grades.” As a result, graduation certificates do not give any clues about the capabilities of the alumni.

Despite all the difficulties facing him, however, Professor Finke still enjoys working with his students and colleagues. “They are extremely friendly and helpful. I admire their extraordinary personal commitment and the strong drive of the young generation of Afghan students. 50 per cent of them speak English fairly well. With sufficient and long-term support from Germany and other countries, Afghan universities will be able to achieve a lot.”


Links

The UN GAID MDG eNabler: http://www.un-gaid.org

OLPC Afghanistan: http://www.olpc.af/

Professor Finke on the Internet: www.wffinke.de

More information on the German Bachelor Training in Management and Economics for Afghan Lecturers can be found here:
www.development-research.org/projects/iee-a-afghanistan/bachelor-training-in-management-and-economics-for-afghan-lecturers.html

For further reading on the Afghanistan project of the Technical University of Berlin, please visit: www.flp.tu-berlin.de/ziik/ziik-v-menue/ziik/parameter/en/

For the website of the Afghan-German Management College, please click here: www.afgemaco.com





 

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