Afghanistan has made incredible progress in education in the last decade. More Afghan children are enrolled in school than at any previous time in the country’s history. There is a growing consensus among Afghan families in all corners of the country that school is the door to a future for children. Many children sitting in classrooms today are the first individuals in their family to go to school, interrupting a vicious cycle of illiteracy. Yet, several assessments of reading and numeracy in primary schools have revealed alarmingly low levels of learning among children in school. In some provinces, as many as 50% of children still cannot read by the end of the grade six. While gains have been made in mobilizing support for education and getting kids in classrooms, the quality of learning occurring in those classrooms must now be the priority, so we do not miss the chance to turn the tide of illiteracy.
In response to this situation, we created the Darakht-e Danesh (‘knowledge tree’) Online Library, Afghanistan’s first comprehensive digital educational resource collection. We saw technology as offering a shortcut to building the quality of teaching and learning in Afghan schools. By giving teachers direct access to knowledge resources in their own language, we can support an improved quality of teaching: enhancing teachers’ subject-area knowledge and fostering more diverse teaching methodologies in order to improve learning outcomes in Afghan classrooms.
The Darakht-e Danesh (which means ‘knowledge tree’ in Dari) Library uses an innovative interactive, multilingual custom-designed content management system, housing hundreds of resources for teachers in 18 subject categories, for both primary and secondary teachers in Afghanistan, and works in the three languages taught in the Afghan public school system: Dari, Pashto and English.
After registering, users can search the database by subject, resource type, language and level, or just browse the collection. For instance, a grade 10 biology teacher can search out water evaporation experiments, a teacher working with students with disabilities can find guidebooks with practical classroom strategies, or a geography teacher can download images of maps to print out for her classroom walls. Primary teachers can download full children’s books for and by Afghans, and high school teachers can find full texts on subjects they are trying to better understand, like the Industrial Revolution, how to teach poetry, or strategies for reading.
The resources found in this electronic library are open educational resources (OERs), which means they are openly licensed learning materials, which are not subject to the usual copyright restrictions that many published materials are. There is no cost to access the resources, which may be freely shared: downloaded, printed, copied, and even repurposed. Afghan teachers can mix and mash resources to make them relevant for their classrooms, adapting them for local use.
A unique and cost-effective feature of the library is that the content creation is powered by volunteers. Tapping into Afghanistan’s large diaspora community, the library relies on bilingual Afghans with specific areas of expertise – such as health and medicine, or language and literature – to translate OERs into Dari and Pashto, all on a volunteer basis. All translations are vetted by a professional editor in the relevant language who provides feedback and edits to the volunteer, before final publication. The team of volunteers has become a global community of supporters contributing to the evolution of this tool. Teachers view the resources online, print them, or download the documents. Sometimes teachers adapt resources and share these re-purposed materials to be re-added to the library. Any user can submit a new resource to the library, making the collection crowd-sourced. Users have submitted materials as diverse as philosophical treatises to ancient Persian poetry, to children’s stories.
Teachers are using the library materials to plan lessons, improve their subject knowledge, or deliver new activities in their classroom, and teacher trainers use it in teachers colleges. For example, a teacher in Nimruz province, who also trains teachers at the provincial pedagogy institute, wrote, “the resources in the library help us a lot and we fully use them in our teaching in remote provinces such as Nemrooz. I also use the library materials to solve other teachers’ problems when they come to me for help.” Teachers frequently write to us to tell us how they are using the resources in their classrooms and to share their requests for new topics.
Of course, most teachers in Afghanistan do not have Internet access. For that reason, we have developed three different models for how educators can access the materials. These models and our plans for expanding them are described here:
(1) Expansion and promotion of the main DD Library collection of digital resources to users in Afghanistan and anywhere in the world through the website: Increasing the size and scope of the collection, expanding the Pashto collection, and diversifying media to include video and audio files;
(2) Establishment of e-Learning labs for teachers: We have piloted a raspberry pie network connection to give access to the DD Library to the student teachers and faculty at the Parwan Teacher Training College. We are using this experience to refine a system to give access at teacher colleges, to help instructors integrate the educational resources into their teacher education;
(3) Piloting mobile technology-based applications: We are working to make the Darakht-e Danesh collection available via tablets and cell phones, to reach educators in rural areas, adapting the systsem for mobile use, including offline use.
The DD Library is the first technology-powered collection of educational materials for teachers that is tailor-made for Afghanistan, addressing the distinctive challenges – and opportunities – the country’s education sector faces. As the content diversifies and expands at the hands of the community of users, it is expected that the library will move beyond an audience of educators, to become a rich collection of knowledge resources for and by Afghans, and uniquely shaped by Afghan educators.
To learn more, visit www.darakhtdanesh.org The Library was created by the Canadian charity, Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, established in 1996, and is part of CW4WAfghan’s Technology for Education program.