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KABUL: Afghanistan has launched a new literacy programme that enables Afghan women deprived of a basic education during decades of war to learn to read and write using a mobile phone.
The phone is called Ustad Mobile (Mobile Teacher) and provides national curriculum courses in both national languages, Dari and Pashto, as well as mathematics.
All the lessons are audio-video with writing, pronunciation and phrases installed in Ustad Mobile phones -- and they are distributed free to students.
Sitting on a carpet in a small Kabul classroom with a handful of women learning to read and write, 18-year-old Muzhgan Nazari said the Taliban, who banned schooling for girls during their rule, were in power when she should have started her education.
“I could not go to school because the Taliban took control of Kabul city,” she said, adding that her father had also opposed his daughters attending school.
“Since I heard about this literacy training centre for women, I convinced my father and he allowed me to attend on a daily basis,” she said.
Nazari is delighted with the programme, which is being rolled out by a commercial provider and the ministry of education with financial backing from the United States.
The Mobile Teacher software was developed by Paiwastoon, an Afghan IT company, with $80,000 dollars in US aid and is designed to tackle one of the worst illiteracy rates in the world by riding the growing wave of mobile phone use.
Despite millions of girls now attending school, Afghanistan’s literacy rate among women remains at just 12.5 percent, compared with 39.3 percent for Afghan men, according to United Nations figures.
“This is the first time audio-visual literacy learners have the chance to receive lessons on their cellphones,” Mike Dawson, CEO of Paiwastoon said.
The company has experience in the field, having previously managed the “One Laptop Per Child” programme that handed out 3,000 computers to women and children in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Baghlan and Jalalabad.
“We can make the job of the teachers easier by using the video and the audio and the questions and exercises,” Dawson said.
“Cell phones are cheaper than any computer and people are familiar with it. And also, the maintenance is much easier.”
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 ministry of education website, will teach new words and phrases.
“We try to get to as many people as possible. The other thing, we can add more subjects like English, Arabic, Pashtu, health, agriculture,” Dawson added.
“For rolling out Ustad Mobile -- 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,” Dawson said.