Flak jackets and OERs in Kabul
Stepping off the plane at Kabul Airport, the first thing you see as you enter the terminal building is a giant-sized MTN advert with a picture of a military-looking guy with his arms in the air in a triumphant pose, and the caption, ‘Welcome to Afghanistan – land of the brave!’ Then, in case you were in any doubt that you’ve landed in a war zone, you get met by an armed bodyguard (or CPO – close protection officer – as they are called in the security industry over there), and hastily ensconced in a flak jacket in the airport parking lot before climbing indelicately into an armoured SUV, your movements being ridiculously hampered by the weight of your new attire. At least, that’s how it is if you arrive in Kabul under the protection of the British government, as my colleague Dave and I did last week, for the purposes of running a workshop with academics and students on curriculum design and open educational resources (OERs) in the Afghan capital. (For a description of the workshop, see my post on the Beyond Distance blog.)
As we are driven to the British Council, our hosts for the weeek, we catch a few precious glimpses of the city of Kabul. Huge, imposing armour-plated Land Cruisers like the one we are in jostle for space on the road alongside ordinary cars, bicycles, donkey carts, pedestrians and policemen with shotguns, positioned seemingly randomly in the middle of intersections and roundabouts. We arrive at the British Council premises and are greeted by smiling, gun-toting Gurkha soldiers. The seven-foot-wide fortifications around the perimiter of the compound are pointed out to us for our reassurance, and on disembarking from the Landcruiser and shedding our body armour, we are body-searched for weapons before being warmly shown into the building where we will be staying.
Then follows a rapid-fire security briefing and tour of the premises. Door codes, emergency radio buttons and bomb shelters. In our jet-lagged state we try to take it all in, and are relieved when we are ushered to our rooms and given half an hour to freshen up. I lock myself into my room, breathe deeply and take note of the view from my window: Gurkhas with guns in the foreground; a poetic, snow-covered mountain in the background so close you could almost reach out and touch it. In search of the bathroom, I open a door and to my utter astonishment, I am confronted by a man facing me square on, with his arms in the air in almost the same pose as the brave guy in the MTN advert, only he is holding a spanner in one hand and a small, shiny, curved piece of chrome in the other. My panic is only diminshed by the fact that he appears to be as startled as I am… It turns out that he trying to fix the loo roll holder, which has come unstuck from the wall. He leaves amidst polite, embarrassed apologies, promising to return later to finish the job when I’m not there. I can’t help feeling unnerved, and I put in a call to the CPO to check whether this is as it should be…
Later at lunch time, I find myself sitting next to two young men who are attending a three-month course in English language teaching at the British Council. They are friendly and talkative, and inform me that they have both just spent the past nine years acting as interpreters for the US and British forces in Helmand Province. They are delighted to be in the protected space of the British Council and are feeling safer than they’ve felt in almost a decade. This puts my earlier moment of Angst into stark perspective, and I’m instantly cured of any lingering fears. The translators return to their course, and the conversation with British Council colleagues turns to matters of more immediate concern: what kind of takeaways should we order for dinner that night? Italian, French, Indian, Lebanese or Chinese?
The four days of workshops with academics and students from the University of Kabul, Kabul Polytechnic, the Medical University of Kabul and a number of other institutions were a resounding success, and the whole experience was hugely invigorating for me. The enthusiasm with which our Afghan colleagues approached OERs reminded me of the higher purpose of our work in this area. However, while I was excited about their positive response to the notion that the Web held a potential treasure trove of useful teaching and learning materials that they could freely access, I found myself trying to gently lower their expectations by saying things like,
You will need to be patient. Many OERs are just small extracts from courses – they might not be as comprehensive as you’d like.
You’ll need to search using a range of repositories – there is no single repository or search engine that covers all the OERs in the world.
Every repository has its own interface and its own unique set of functionalities. (E.g. some have an advanced search function while some have no search function at all – only a ‘browse by subject’ function; some provide detailed metadata for each item while others provide very little). You will need to experiment with each of them to find out how they work.
You’ll need to be prepared for the fact that sometimes OERs are published in formats that you won’t be able to open unless you have proprietary software on your computer (e.g. docx documents).
Seeing OERs from the perspective of these potential users made me painfully aware of how young the OER movement is, and how much work lies ahead to make OERs truly user-friendly – but also how absolutely essential that work is.
Update, 6 June 2011: Here’s a vivid description by Simon Norfolk, of the Mail Online, of the British Embassy compound in Kabul. He captures the essence of the place perfectly. And a great photo essay, “I see a dream: Afghanistan’s youth” by Getty Images photographer, Zalmai.