Phone technology opens direct line to Afghanistan
Troubled Afghanistan does not yet feature in any UK holiday brochure, nor is Kabul a destination for a city break. So why did a Highland headteacher spend a week there during the October holiday, when many of his colleagues were probably sunning themselves in safer climes?
For several years, George Glass, headteacher of Cauldeen Primary in Inverness, has pioneered e-twinning links with schools at home and abroad. The visit to Kabul was part of the British Council "Connecting Classrooms" programme, which links clusters of schools in the UK to those across the world. Through these partnerships, the programme aims to develop trust and understanding between young people in contrasting societies.
A year ago, a school in Finland and four schools in the UK - Sackville and Southwater in West Sussex; Dingwall and Cauldeen primaries in Highland - were twinned with a group of schools in Kandahar City. Staff first met when the Afghan teachers visited the UK last year. During their visit they received ICT training on the latest technology.
Mr Glass then travelled to Kabul to meet the staff from Kandahar, and gained a rare insight into the Afghan education system, the wider culture of the country and the unique challenges people there face.
"It was a real eye-opener," Mr Glass confesses, "and not just because of the volatile security situation. Here, we often complain about accommodation, facilities and equipment. In Afghanistan, they make do in an amazing way.
"The dedicated staff we met work with highly-motivated students in large classes, grouped within an age range of eight to 18. They are all keen to make the most of the education provided for them, with schools fitting in up to three sessions a day to accommodate the numbers."
But how do the schools maintain contact, particularly when communications in Afghanistan can be difficult at the best of times? The group came up with a creative solution based on e-twinning. They have developed an approach using mobile phone technology to give students the opportunity to learn collaboratively.
This has addressed the drawbacks when using more traditional methods and the bonus is that students, even in remote parts of Afghanistan, are adept at texting and picture messaging. During the trip to Kabul, Afghan teachers were presented with phones, SIM cards and solar chargers to beat the frequent power cuts.
Most of us know only too well that it is easy to clock up a huge mobile phone bill in no time. So although the technology was accessible, who would pay for it?
"We were aware that costs could become prohibitive," says Mr Glass. "So we approached Nokia. When they heard about the project and its potential, they offered to sponsor us initially, by providing one phone per school. Of course, we set up clear protocols, to ensure the health and safety of the children developing new strands to our (personal and social development) curriculum.
"Nokia, having evaluated the early outcomes, was impressed by the innovative model, with its motivating approach to learning and teaching. The company has now agreed to extend the sponsorship, and has provided additional phones with more advanced applications."
The high costs involved in accessing mobile multimedia communication have been significantly moderated through the use of the phone-to-web application m-explore and no voice contact is permitted, Mr Glass explains.
The schools have found that learning has been extended beyond the classroom as pupils are engaged at home and in their communities. Collaboration and "student voice" have been developed through pupils deciding on creative weekly themes across the curriculum, using texts, visual images and video.
Text Talk, as an innovative collaborative language tool, is a developing feature of the project. The students have their own ideas for future development, including creating and exchanging "skills podcasts" and curriculum-based activities.
Student-focused outcomes and experiences, recorded using "word clouds" (a fun way to explore language, where more important words are bigger) have been central to engaging with the four key elements of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence and the emerging English revised curriculum.
Staff in the countries involved are finding that students have improved their literacy and communication skills across linguistic and cultural boundaries. The Afghans are very keen to improve their English skills and make the most of the technology to do so. Increased motivation to learn and a raising of standards and self-esteem have been evident in participants of all abilities. Becoming sensitive to other cultures and tackling stereotypes have also contributed to an increased awareness of the concept of global citizenship.
This groundbreaking approach to international learning has attracted interest from educationists at home and abroad, resulting in Mr Glass and others being invited by the British Council to plan workshops and presentations across Europe.