PULLMAN, Wash.— Of the billions the United States is spending to stabilize Afghanistan, a relatively modest $1.7 million supports an effort with huge potential for bringing prosperity.
The Afghan eLearning English Support Project is led by Washington State University’s “Jolly Joy” – the nickname that Afghan educators gave to Professor Joy Egbert this spring. The project’s goal is to help university students cross a high employment hurdle: learn a foreign language.
English a must
“For people to get a good job in Afghanistan, English is a must,” said Syed Muzaffar, the project’s director. 
And for Afghanistan to prosper in the world economy, English-speaking citizens are a must. That’s why the Afghan government has set an ambitious goal of making English the language of instruction at its universities within five years. 
“Having English as a common language also helps get around tribal divisions,” said Egbert, noting that the primary languages are Dari and Pashto. “This is a way to pull the country together.”
 
U.S. Dept. of State funding
The U.S. Department of State is funding the year-long project, which is being administered by the WSU College of Education. It builds on a USAID contract to WSU’s International Studies program that created thirteen computer learning centers—two at universities in Kabul, where Muzaffar is based, nine at provincial universities and two at government institutions in Kabul.
 
The College of Education is using its grant to turn eight of those computer labs into English Learning Centers, and is adding one more, said Egbert.
 
Hiring staff, building curriculum
“We’re hiring staff, building curriculum, observing teachers and providing professional development for instructors for those nine centers,” she said. “We’re reviewing and installing instructional software and hardware such as document cameras, digital cameras, voice recorders and student response systems—what our WSU students call clickers.”
 
Ministry of Higher Education
The WSU project team also is working with the Ministry of Higher Education to design curriculum for English departments across Afghanistan.
 
Co-leader on the project is Dawn Shinew, chair of the department of teaching and learning. She is problem-solver-in-chief for a complex project 6,800 miles away. Leslie Huff, a clinical assistant professor, serves as technology director. The WSU team also includes four graduate students, two finance officers and one alumnus.
Sabbatical in Afghanistan
Egbert is an expert in teaching English as a second language and using technology to do it. She will take a sabbatical next fall to devote time to the project. She’ll return to Afghanistan in September.
 
On her first visit to Kabul in March, she led what Muzaffar described as the country’s first workshop on the use of technology to teach English. She described the workshop as five days of serious academic conversations punctuated with laughter.
 
“The people are very kind, hopeful, dedicated and enthusiastic about what they’re doing,” she said.
Two Truths and a Lie
Egbert was assisted by Levi McNeil, an assistant professor at Korea’s Sookmyung Women’s University who earned his education doctorate at WSU in 2009. At the start of the workshop, they used the party game, Two Truths and a Lie, to break the ice with their Afghan colleagues.
“After that, they called us by our nicknames, Lucky Levi and Jolly Joy,” Egbert said.
The Afghan instructors weren’t shy about asking questions or challenging the Americans.
Asking questions, tailoring instruction
“They weren’t just accepting everything that Joy and I were saying to them,” said McNeil, who hopes to return to Kabul in July. “They were asking questions, they were wondering how it would apply to their context.”  
Tailoring English and technology instruction to the needs of Afghan university students is a key to sustainability, said the State Department’s Richard Boyum, university partnership and program evaluation coordinator for Afghanistan/Pakistan.
 
“We’re using this year to get the Afghan staff up to speed and procedures in place so they can continue the instruction in English language and computer skills for successive groups of students and faculty,” he said.
Fine tuning
Boyum and grant officer Grachel Humphries were in Pullman recently to help WSU faculty fine-tune the project. For example, the project called for Afghan faculty to take online courses to enhance teaching skills. But unreliable Internet connections and some instructors’ limited English skills made that unworkable, Boyum said, “so we decided there are other activities we can use that money for.”
 
Boyum’s office also works with American universities to bolster journalism and entrepreneurship courses in Afghanistan. It’s vital, Boyum said, to revive the sophisticated university system that Afghanistan had before the Soviet invasion and subsequent Taliban rule.
 
“To become a player on the world economic stage, they really need to get their higher education back on track.”
 
 
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