A few years ago, the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) launched a unique program to promote literacy among Afghan women. Afghanistan continues to have one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world. To combat this, the AIL program used mobile phone text messaging to reinforce traditional in-class learning. The initial pilot program broke all expectations. After only five months of classes, more than 80 percent of students were able to test out of two literacy course levels. Typically, achieving this level of literacy takes about 18 months. The program involved traditional curricula reinforced through mobile phones, which the students used to text answers to various questions sent to them.
The program had some unexpected additional benefits, as well. When girls learned to text in class, many went home to teach their families how to use the mobile phones. This, in turn, empowered these family members to communicate with others living around the country. The AIL pilot program was primarily designed to improve girls’ reading and writing skills, but in this way, it also succeeded in helping entire families become more technologically literate.
While Internet access rates remain relatively low throughout Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of Afghans have access to mobile phone networks. In addition, many mobile phones can connect to the Internet. Mobile phones have emerged as a primary means of communication, as well as a strong tool for increasing literacy, as the AIL program demonstrated. While the program was initially meant for students with at least a basic ability to read, it ended up attracting a number of participants who were not literate at all. In the end, almost all participants had made successful progress toward literacy.
Despite its success, the AIL program has not continued past the pilot stage for several reasons. The biggest roadblocks were a lack of volunteers able to teach literacy courses and a lack of adequate funding to continue. Despite these roadblocks, the program showed a great deal of potential for addressing illiteracy in Afghanistan, especially among women.