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IT and higher education in areas of conflict – an Afghan experience

 

© Wolfgang Finke

Distance Learning can provide excellent opportunities to educate students in conflict zones. Regardless of ethnic, religious or political backgrounds, gender issues or geographical remoteness –all learners can be given access to high quality education. In sub-Saharan Africa, institutions, such as the African Virtual University, have worked beyond linguistic and cultural boundaries, indirectly promoting peace-building and inclusion even in heavily conflict-ridden countries, such as Somalia. However, educators face numerous challenges in conflict zones. Here, eLA newsletter reader 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.

By Andrea Marshall

Professor Dr Wolfgang 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 which cooperate with the German Ruhr University Bochum.

Professor Finke with his students at Balkh University, Afghanistan, © Wolfgang Finke

Finke is convinced that Afghan universities could benefit from eLearning 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 eLearning 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.”

[callout title=Information Technology for Afghan Universities]A variety of international organisations have been active in the field of IT in Higher Education in Afghanistan. These include USAIDNATO, theWorld BankUNESCO, the Global Learning Portal and many others.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has funded and supported a number of hardware and training projects since 2002.

On its behalf the Technical University Berlin has set up PC pools and computer networks at the Universities of Kabul and Herat. It has also trained Afghan Computer Science lecturers in a special Master’s programme in Berlin (funded by the World Bank).

The Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) has helped to establish an up-to-date Bachelor Programme in Economics and Business Administration at eight Afghan universities, and it provides learning materials in Dari and Pashto. RUB also offers Bachelor Training in Management and Economics for Afghan lecturers in Germany. Together with the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme and the Afghan Ministry of Education, RUB recently launched “eCampus”, an Internet-based learning management system.

The Afghan-German Management College provides online business and management training in Afghanistan.

Other countries involved in IT in Afghan universities include the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Italy. Iran recently established a private university in Kabul.[/callout]

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 Nazir Peroz 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 the 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.”

[callout title=War in Afghanistan ]Recent Afghanistan history has been marked by almost constant war. Between 1979 and 1989, the Soviet Union occupied the country. Supported by the United States, Afghan Islamic groups – the Mujahideen – fought against the Soviet Army. About a million Afghans lost their lives; millions more fled abroad.

After the Soviet withdrawal, fighting continued between different Afghan groups. In 1996 the Taliban managed to form a strict Islamic government. They committed massive human rights violations, particularly directed against women and girls.

After the terrorist attacks on the USA in September 2001, the Taliban, who were accused of providing a base for terror groups, were driven from power in Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance with the support of air strikes by a US-led military coalition (“Operation Enduring Freedom”). The coalition blamed the Taliban for backing the man they saw as the ‘mastermind’ behind the New York attacks, Osama bin Laden, and his Al-Qaeda network.

“Operation Enduring Freedom,” together with the operations of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), are still running, and tens of thousands soldiers are still stationed in the country. The Taliban have re-emerged as a fighting force and remain at war against the newly created Afghan state and the international forces.[/callout]

Links

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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