Effective Education in Afghanistan: The Case for Openly Licensed Learning Materials

Mike Dawson and Lauryn Oates

The effectiveness of funding to Afghanistan’s education sector has recently been called into question through an open letter issued by the US Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). That letter was preceded by a statement by the new Afghan Minister of Education to parliament where he questioned the authenticity of the records kept by the previous administration; in reality, according to Buzzfeed, there were around 7% fewer schools and teachers than were being reported and donors were paying for. The accusations will rightly lead to legitimate demands for improved openness and transparency in the education sector.

Yet it is not only the number of teachers, students and buildings that need to be open to public scrutiny. Millions of dollars is also spent on designing education materials from textbooks and classroom visuals to curricular resources. Often similar materials are produced over and over again by separate projects, drawing on significant resources of talent, time and money to research, draft, illustrate, translate and print. For example, the numerous in-service teacher education projects operating in Afghanistan all produce their own manuals, rather than sharing. It’s a pattern that reflects a larger vice of the development industry: the habit of repeating projects and activities, the absence of institutional and sectoral memory to manage knowledge and experience over time and across interventions, and the extraordinary waste and duplication that results. Further, there has been frequent criticism over the quality and content of many of these educational materials.

We think that the open movement has something to offer to get around this vicious cycle. Donors should make educational materials open when they are taxpayer funded. Implementers should be required under the terms of their contracts to openly license everything they produce under project budgets. This is the only way to get around the entrenched practice of aid and development actors being territorial over their materials, and the best way to promote a culture of sharing and collaboration within the education sector, as well as to enable quality content production by allowing materials to be assessed, adapted, and improved upon. Open licenses such as the Creative Commons By Attribution and By Attribution Share Alike Licenses provide the legal basis to easily facilitate such licensing, even in a country like Afghanistan where intellectual property law is not well developed.

Organizations that produce educational materials are often concerned that if they make their materials available to those outside their project beneficiaries, those materials could be ‘stolen’ -- sold commercially, with no credit given to the publishers. They may also be concerned that others could make their own versions of those materials with errors for which they might be held responsible. 

Yet under Creative Commons licensing (e.g. Creative Commons By Attribution Share Alike) one can both mandate that the attribution includes a reference to an original source work and make it clear that a work is a derivative, and not an original. The original publisher is not held responsible for any other versions, while still allowing people to build and improve upon the original work, adapting it for their own needs and context.

Ultimately the more widely disseminated a piece of work and the more it is copied the more unlikely it is that anyone can make false claims about its origin and not be caught out. A sharealike license can be applied, to require that people who build on original work also share those derivatives freely too.

Education actors can then make use of existing resources, adapt or expand previously published materials, and avoid reinventing the wheel. Afghanistan has a weak publishing sector, little in the way of a culture of reading, and it’s challenging to find high quality materials in the local languages. Yet there is great demand for learning and education. We need to make more out of less in such an environment. Open materials can be used by multiple organisations in Afghanistan, big and small, national and international. Further, given Pashto is spoken in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pashto language materials can be shared across development agencies in both countries.

Openness is essential to facilitate direct access to those who actually need the resources.  Where Internet connections do not exist or are unreliable, developers need open licenses to be able to legally copy materials and adhere to open standards to make systems that can deliver content to users. Using the EPUB and Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS) specification, Ustad Mobile, for example, can use content from a variety of sources and make it accessible offline on devices from low cost feature phones to tablets and PCs. Using standards ensures the wheels and gears developers create can be reused and mesh together.

The children of Afghanistan face a crisis in education: 45% of children at primary school age are not attending in school at all.  Urgent action is needed to strengthen access to and the quality of education that boys and girls can access. Scrutiny of education spending in Afghanistan is welcome and needed, but the dialogue must be one that is action-oriented, not defeatist. Rebuilding and reforming education systems is an iterative process, and pitfalls can become opportunities for innovation when there’s commitment to improve, and to get back on track towards results.

Ghost schools, ghost teachers and ghost students are a blight on public education in Afghanistan. The underlying causes - corruption, waste and duplication -- are the same as those leading to inefficiency in the production of learning materials. All of these problems can be alleviated by donors enforcing a policy of openness. One easy way to begin is to require fund recipients to openly license and publish all learning materials paid for by donors, so that they are subject to public scrutiny (both to taxpayers in the source country of the funds, and to the public in the receiving country), and so that they can be widely used, as they were intended to be used.

We hope that the questions and criticism now facing those responsible for ensuring Afghan children realize the basic human right to education (a right enshrined in the Constitution of Afghanistan) will serve as an impetus for exploring and testing out new innovations in education. Key to that is greater use of the strategies inherent in the open movement, such as openly licensing all educational materials paid for by taxpayers abroad.

Mike Dawson is CEO of Ustad Mobile, a tech company that uses cell phones to give access to education. Lauryn Oates leads the Darakht-e Danesh Online Library for Educators in Afghanistan, a digital library of free educational resources for Afghan teachers.

Photo Credit: Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan

This article is a guest post authored by Mike Dawson and Lauryn Oates, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Education Innovations.

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