Sima Ahmadi is a PhD student at Kent State University. She recently completed her Master of Arts in Education at the Asian University for Women (AUW). In her thesis, she analyzed the role of technology in creating access to K-12 education for girls in Afghanistan. Sima Ahmadi’s work showcases efforts and strategies that Afghan girls and women are employing to continue their education, such as secret classes and online learning platforms, despite facing restrictions and bans from the Taliban. She collected and analyzed survey data from 100 students and teachers in four online schools.
Nonprofit organizations need financial security and require sufficient human capital and digital resources as well as implementation capacity to offer online education. Examples include Education Bridge for Afghanistan (EBA), Sabar Afghan Online School, Learn Afghan School, School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), Shamama School, and Roshini-e-Omid Online Program. In addition, numerous small and large schools and online classes have sprung up to support girls’ education.
Sima argues that there is an urgent need to study the potential of technology integration in K-12 schools to provide quality education for girls, address the broader factors influencing educational outcomes, and examine the long-term impact of technology integration in the Afghanistan education system. Sima sees online learning technologies as the most promising option to provide access to students who are deprived of in-person learning but cautions against overly optimistic expectations. In the interview, we discuss if online learning is a sustainable, practical response to the education ban for girls and women, and what role international organizations and educators can play.
Can you please describe the extent to which education in Afghanistan has been disrupted for women and girls?
Girls’ and women’s education in Afghanistan has faced significant disruptions since 2020, first with the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused access to education restrictions for all learners across the country. Second, since September 2021, more than two million secondary school girls have been denied access to education. Girls and women in Afghanistan are in a state of utter chaos, having been deprived of basic social life rights, which has resulted in an increase in mental illness, anxiety, depression, early marriage, and the brain drain of young women from the country.
Many female teachers have stopped teaching as a result of the uncertainty surrounding their employment and safety. These disruptions have negatively affected the educational opportunities of girls and women, hindering their ability to pursue careers and contribute to the country’s development.
Electronic devices and Internet services can be prohibitively expensive for students and their families. Is online learning a scalable solution for Afghanistan?
I believe that online learning can be a valuable educational tool and can be used as an appropriate temporary alternative option to provide access to education for girls who have fallen behind in school, assuming that educational institutions such as nonprofit national and international organizations have the necessary resources and capacities. I am not optimistic about its long-term viability due to numerous challenges, including affordability, connectivity, accessibility, electricity, and capacity.
In the study, 87% stated that they experienced challenges during their online classes. The majority reported limited access to technology devices and internet connectivity as the most formidable barriers to technology usage in online learning. The affordability issue was ranked as the second major challenge. Electricity is another challenge in many regions of Afghanistan that inhibits students’ access to digital resources. Additionally, a lack of skills and training can also be a hurdle for accessing and understanding educational content in online learning settings. Furthermore, maintaining motivation and engagement with remote learning is another challenge. Students’ motivation and learning outcomes can be reduced when there is no face-to-face interaction for the longer term.
Furthermore, it should be considered that only a small percentage of girls benefit from online education, while the vast majority do not have access to it. Due to challenges, I don’t think that online learning can be considered a sustainable solution for educating Afghan girls.
Which regions and organizations did you include in your research?
The study’s participants were students and teachers who have experience in online teaching or learning from a few regions of Afghanistan, including Kabul, Qandahar, Helmand, and Herat, aiming to investigate how technology integration affects education provision in emergency situations. There are teachers and students from four online schools, such as Education Bridge for Afghanistan (EBA), Learn Afghan School, Sabar Afghan Online School, and Roshini-e-Omid Online Program, that were included in this research.
What strategies for remote learning and blended learning environments do the organizations you surveyed employ? Are there best practices you can highlight?
I can say that each of these organizations has its own approaches and strategies based on the program’s specific objectives, resources, and capacities. For instance, the Roshini-e-Omid Program and EBA provide synchronous online classes for school learners, where students and teachers join classes via Zoom. Students have access to the learning materials through Google Classrooms, WhatsApp, and other social media, which are convenient for learners’ access. Learn Afghan and Sabar Afghan Online Schools focus on asynchronous online learning by providing learners with subject-based videos, learning applications on specific school grades and subjects, school books, and other learning materials.
Regarding the digital tools and platforms, the majority of the survey participants from these schools indicated that they use online learning platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom as means of communication and learning platforms. Social media was shown to be another platform that 87% of participants utilize to facilitate the process of learning and teaching. WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook are the most common applications that teachers and learners use to stay connected with each other.
Do teachers receive enough training and support for robust digital pedagogies?
There may be rare institutions in Afghanistan that provide basic digital pedagogies, which I am not even sure about, but in 95% of cases, I can assert that there are no capacity-building programs for teachers on digital pedagogies. Research participants determined the lack of digital development training for teachers as one of the important challenges that hamper effective online learning for girls. However, I should mention that teachers from the four participating schools in the study are mostly volunteer teachers and graduate students who have a good understanding of digital pedagogies.
What are the lessons that international organizations can learn from your research?
The findings of this study highlight a number of crucial lessons that international organizations and stakeholders should take into account when using technology to support education in Afghanistan in the absence of in-person schooling. According to the survey data, access to basic technologies like computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets has helped many girls gain access to education since 2021. Thus, international organizations can concentrate on ensuring that these crucial tools are available to improve girls’ and women’s access to education. Additionally, the study suggests that teacher training and capacity building are essential for the effective integration of technology in education. International organizations can support programs that train teachers to use technology effectively as a teaching tool and make sure they are adequately equipped to provide instruction in emergency situations. They should consider how technology can be gradually integrated into the educational system while also building resilience in the face of ongoing challenges.
Overall, the most important lesson for international organizations is that technology can be a powerful tool for supporting education in emergencies, but its successful implementation requires a comprehensive approach that addresses access, training, and sustainability. Recognizing these lessons allows organizations to better design and implement programs that benefit education in conflict-affected areas such as Afghanistan.
For girls who have access to online education, what does a typical school day look like?
I can say that it depends on girls’ individual circumstances in their homes, the specific resources available to them, and the type of online learning, whether it is synchronous or asynchronous. For instance, many synchronous online education programs provide scheduled virtual classes. Afghan girls join their classes at specific times, just like traditional in-person classes, but they do not need to walk outside their homes to school. These virtual classes assign homework and activities to them, and they will dedicate time to doing those assignments, like in-person schooling. Some of the girls mentioned that they would meet their classmates in person to study together and do group work activities.
Additionally, the participants highlight the flexibility of online learning as an advantage for Afghan learners. An interesting finding of this research implies that Afghan girls with access to technology can benefit from online learning besides doing home chores and overcoming cultural and religious barriers. Students stated that they can access lessons anytime and engage in discussions, fostering a flexible and interactive learning experience.
Do you see dangers in moving education for girls and women solely online?
I believe that education is complex because it encompasses multiple aspects such as social interaction, behavior, emotional well-being, and cognitive development. Considering the challenges of effective online learning in Afghanistan, I think implementing online education for all girls in Afghanistan is not possible at this moment. Additionally, the lack of capacity in digital pedagogies and a scarcity of knowledge for students on how to efficiently use the available technological resources if they have access to them may be harmful rather than efficient. This is because we know that education is not only having knowledge but also having social skills, and practicing them in society is the main focus of learning, particularly for school learners. Therefore, being merely in a virtual world for the purpose of learning will have negative consequences such as isolation and lack of social interaction skills in the real world, as well as leading to physical health problems. This is why it has always been emphasized that technology must be thoughtfully integrated within a broader, multifaceted educational approach, for which there is no expertise in Ed-Tech in Afghanistan. Therefore, I perceive that online learning can be a suitable alternative solution to maintain students’ connection to their lessons and keep them motivated for a period of time, but moving education solely online is not an efficient approach to delivering quality education in Afghanistan.
What constraints do Afghan students and teachers encounter when attempting to use technology for education?
According to the study results, they face a number of significant challenges when attempting to use technology for education. The major issues are divided into four categories: connectivity, affordability, electricity, and accessibility. The difficulty in connecting to the internet and the limited availability of technological devices are both widespread problems. For example, many rural areas lack reliable internet access, making it difficult for students and teachers to engage in online learning. Another significant barrier is affordability, which prevents many students from accessing online education due to the high costs of purchasing technology devices and internet access. Moreover, the lack of regular access to electricity in various regions of Afghanistan hampers students’ access to educational content, as homes may not have a consistent power supply. Additionally, a lack of skills and training poses challenges for accessing and understanding educational content in online learning settings. Furthermore, maintaining motivation and engagement is challenging without face-to-face interaction or traditional classroom dynamics. Overall, these constraints highlight the numerous challenges that Afghan students and teachers face when utilizing technology for education in emergency situations.
In light of Afghan girls being denied access to basic social life, you emphasize the importance of examining the impact of technology on their social and emotional well-being. In your view, can online education foster mental well-being and resilience? Perhaps even provide hope and inspiration?
I think it can act as a double-edged sword. Technology is only a tool, and it depends on the human user to what extent they effectively take advantage of that tool for education. As I mentioned before, being in a virtual setting long-term can lead to anxiety and isolation. That said, given the current situation of the country, online education can provide a lifeline of learning opportunities, empowering girls with a sense of purpose and hope for a brighter future. Online teachers can provide basic psychosocial support for students. For example, they can be active listeners for their learners, conveying the success stories of women who overcame the same challenges and teaching them how to be a role model for their generation and community by persisting toward their goals, training them on how to have goals in their lives, and seeking opportunities to help them get closer to their goals, connecting students with resources to address emotional needs and stress, while also fostering a sense of belonging and community. These approaches can reduce anxiety and boost self-confidence while learning digital skills can boost self-esteem and create optimism for future opportunities. Moreover, by breaking down social barriers, online education allows girls to connect with peers, share experiences, and collaborate, reducing feelings of isolation and cultivating a sense of inspiration and resilience in the face of adversity. Therefore, Afghan girls who pursue online schooling may gain a sense of empowerment, self-confidence, and a belief in their ability to overcome challenges. This empowerment can contribute to mental well-being and resilience. Because of this, I recommend that institutions that offer online education should take advantage of the opportunity to concentrate on applying strategies to help learners find inspiration, resilience, and hope.
If I look back on my mother’s and grandmothers’ generations, it is incredible how opportunities for education have expanded and what I have the privilege to take for granted. I am deeply sorry this is not the trajectory for women in Afghanistan presently. Is there anything you want educators internationally to know? What can teachers do to help?
I appreciate you taking the time to conduct this interview. I, as an Afghan woman who has no right to work and be educated in my home country, would like to use the opportunity to solicit educators and individuals worldwide to stand in solidarity with Afghan girls and women during this challenging time. International teachers can play an important role in advocating for the rights and education of Afghan girls by raising awareness of the gravity of the situation in their professional communities and via social media. They can take part in fundraising activities to support organizations that help Afghan girls get an education and access resources, and, finally, they can stay aware of the women’s rights situation in Afghanistan.
Sima Ahmadi is a Ph.D. student in Educational Technology at Kent State University. She holds a master’s degree in Education, along with a graduate degree in Leadership Development and a bachelor’s in Computer Science. Her research interests include cutting-edge educational technologies, computational thinking, adaptive and blended learning systems, and Extended Reality in education. Currently, She is working as a graduate research assistant and has over six years of experience in the Computer science field and in implementing Education in Emergencies (EiE) Projects with humanitarian INGOs in Afghanistan. As a first-generation student, she aims to set an example for her community by pursuing higher education and inspiring others to believe in their dreams. Sima aims to become an Ed-Tech expert, enhance the Ed-Tech concept in Afghanistan, and integrate technology into the country’s education system.