"In the time that the world was being bombarded with technology, Afghanistan was being bombarded with real bombs," says Susan Atai, a computer science student at Herat University. Decades of conflict and poor governance left Afghanistan’s academic institutions without adequate facilities. But things are changing, thanks to a NATO-sponsored project which is providing internet connectivity to over 70 000 students in universities in the capital and provinces.
For students like Atai, access to the internet is hugely important. “It takes our studies to another level,”she says, describing the impact of the now Afghanistan focused project. “My presentations have improved because I have used videos and search for more information due to the high-speed internet facility.”
It’s not just the university students who are benefiting, lecturers are also able to use the network to conduct research and find new teaching materials. “The internet has really changed the studying methods of both teachers and students,” explains Atai. “Old methods and material have been thrown away and every subject is updated with the world’s daily findings.”
The SILK-Afghanistan project
Named after the historical Great Silk Road trading route which linked Asia and Europe, promoting the exchange of goods, knowledge and ideas, NATO’s Virtual Silk Highway (SILK) project was set up to provide affordable, high speed internet access via satellite to the academic communities of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
The SILK project was extended to Kabul University, Afghanistan, in 2004, and then to three other Kabul-based universities by 2008. Between end 2009 and early 2011, it has been extended to 14 provincial universities serving about 60 000 students. Whereas the Virtual Silk Highway project in the rest of Central Asia and the Caucasus was turned over to the co-sponsorship of the European Union in 2010, the new NATO- and United States Department of State-sponsored SILK-Afghanistan project is expected to continue until summer of 2013.
Universities also have the option to apply for internet connectivity upgrades to broad-band, and also for NATO networking infrastructure grants and help to train Afghan information technology staffers. Some 47 participants have already received training on cyber security and managing networks. Alongside this, an online distance learning portal in Economics and Management has also been set up with NATO’s financial support.
“It is really important for the Ministry of Higher Education that we have broadband for universities so that students can easily do their academic work,” says Roya Mahboob, Project Coordinator at the Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul. “When the Taliban left the country the education system was terrible, but now it’s getting better day by day. The Ministry of Higher Education has a strategic plan for it, how long it should take, and how to get a standard level like other countries,” she adds.
New opportunities through distance-learning
Although this process is expected to take a number of years, the impact of the SILK-Afghanistan project has already been felt. “Students and lectures can easily find the information they need to learn and conduct research now,” continues Mahboob. “They can study through distance learning. For example, now I am doing my MBA through distance learning made possible by SILK-Afghanistan.”
Atai agrees, describing how during her studies in Afghanistan at the computer science faculty of Herat University, she has used the network to speak to others, read more up-to-date information and improve her in-class performance.
“Afghan teachers now have access to the world’s most effective teaching methods,” she explains. “Other students sometimes have to work throughout the day – and night schools don’t exist – therefore online education is a really good opportunity for them to improve their knowledge.”
Lack of home access remains a problem
However, according to Atai, problems remain outside of the university. Afghanistan suffers from poor home access to the internet and a lack of knowledge among ordinary citizens about what it can offer them. Statistics released by Facebook in August 2010 suggest that just 52 980 users where based in Afghanistan and, according to a report published by the International Monetary Fund in June 2010, only 3.4 percent of the country’s 33 million population were active on the internet.
“Nowadays most Afghans are illiterate; how can they use the internet?” Atai says. “In my opinion internet distribution must go hand-in-hand with programmes to teach people how to use it. It would be perfect if the programme could be done as an urban network so that people and students can benefit from home,”she explains, adding that students once exposed to the internet find it hard to give up using it on a daily basis.