Distance Learning for Afghanistan

Government ministry tackles education problem by offering “open university” classes on television.

Distance Learning for Afghanistan

Government ministry tackles education problem by offering “open university” classes on television.

Saturday, 10 March, 2007


Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Farzana, 28, teaches in a girls’ school in Balkh province. She herself has only completed a 12-year school education since she was unable to go to university, as there are far fewer places than applicants. When she heard that she might be able to get a higher education via television, she was enthusiastic.

“My students can’t learn much from me because I’m not a professional teacher. If I can do study courses on television, my life will change completely,” she said.

The fall of the Taleban regime saw a boom in public education, and thousands of Afghan children returned to the classroom. Many are now leaving high school and looking for new opportunities.

But according to the Ministry of Higher Education, the state university system can absorb only 30 per cent of those who wish to continue with their studies.

Afghanistan also has two private universities, the Afghan-American University and Kardan University, but fees of approximately 5,000 US dollars a year, in the case of the former , are well beyond the means of most Afghan families.

So the Ministry of Information and Culture, which has now absorbed the Ministry of Youth Affairs, has decided to institute the Open University, a system by which students can follow higher-level courses from the comfort of their homes.

The programme of study is not intensive: courses are offered just once a week, for two hours, on the national television channel which reaches most of the country. The government has also promised to rebroadcast the courses on local and private stations.

Gul Ahmad Yama, president of the Open University, said that the first year will be a trial period.

“For the time being, we will offer only literature and history through the Open University, but over time we will be able to cover other essential subjects,” he said.

According to Yama, the curriculum is similar to that of more traditional universities.

“Students are assigned text books at the beginning of the semester, they study at home, and they can contact lecturers via the internet if they have problems or questions,” he said.

The Open University will meet international standards, said Yama, and will use lecturers from Kabul University, the Afghan Academy of Sciences, and outside the country.

So far about 2,000 students have signed up for the courses.

Once the trial period is completed and the university opens officially, it will award diplomas to its graduates. “Those who register must pass exams, like all students,” said Yama.

All the costs will be borne by the Ministry of Information and Culture.

“This university is open to everyone,” said Yama. “We have suffered through many years of war, and now we need to spread education and culture throughout the country. The best way to do this nowadays is to use the media.”

Television learning is a novelty for Afghanistan.

Ghulam Farooq Khpalwak, a lecturer at the engineering department of Balkh University in northern Afghanistsn, approves of using technology to promote education. In his 15 years of teaching, he has not seen anything like it.

“The professors who are taking part in this project are quite capable. It will help them gain recognition and it will raise the [knowledge] level of students,” he said.

It is also a valuable lesson to Afghans, he added. “They will see that there are many ways of learning besides the classroom.”

But Khpalwak cautioned against placing too much hope in the Open University.

“This system will have problems of its own, and we should not rely on it too much,” he said. “We have a lot of difficulties in our own universities –shortages of textbooks and teachers. - and the Open University will be no exception.”

The Ministry of Higher Education is even more cautious about a project in which it is not directly involved. According to deputy minister Suraya Paikan, the Open University is not a recognised educational institution and the certificates it grants will not be valid.

“This programme does not meet the standards set for higher education,” she said. “The Ministry of Information and Culture can only offer informative programmes. They have no authority to be doing higher education.”

Paikan acknowledged, however, that the initiative could play a valuable role in making information more widely available to people in Afghanistan.

“If [Open University officials] ask, we will offer them our teachers for lectures,” she said.

Yama admits that the programme is not yet certified, but insists that the Open University will eventually gain recognition.

“We are taking all the steps needed to establish a university,” he said. “When we get to the stage of asking the Ministry of Higher Education for registration, we will have everything ready.”

Young people are eager for the programme, regardless of the debate taking place among educationists.

Nazar Muhammad, 30, a resident of Baghlan Province, has not been able to get a place at university.

“I am very hopeful that I will be able to study through the Open University,” he said. “And I can do it without giving up my job.”

But a televised curriculum will be of little benefit in those remote parts of Afghanistan that have no access to television either because they have no electricity or because the TV signal does not reach there.

Jamshid, 31, lives in the Sayad district of the northern province of Sar-e-Pul. He would very much like to continue his studies, but fears the TV courses will not help him.

" I want to study and I’m very grateful to the government for paving the way, but as long there is no television here, it will be of little benefit,” he complained.

Yama recognises the project’s technical limitations, but at the moment he can do little about them.

“The Ministry of Information and Culture is trying to extend its influence all over Afghanistan, but we have limited resources right now,” he said.

Still, there are some people who will not let difficulties stand in their way.

Norulhaq, who lives in the remote Kohistanat district of Sar-e-Pul province, is going to study no matter what.

“If the government gives us this possibility, why shouldn’t we welcome it?” he asked.

“If we wait until television comes to our village, we will never have any opportunities. I am going to buy a generator and a digital antenna. I want to study now!”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR reporter in Balkh province.

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