My experience as a Technical Supervisor of The Womanity Foundations’ ” Girls Can Code” Program

By A.K. Azizi, IT Expert, consultant and lecturer

Every year, many bright girls graduate from high schools with good scores and, while many compete to entry University to secure a place in their faculties of choice, a huge number do not pursue higher education due to social and family barriers.

Many organizations are working alongside the Ministry of Education to ensure their talent is not wasted and to encourage girls’ education across the country. They strive to provide girls with a good quality learning experience and, more importantly, to provide knowledge and skills that will make them an asset to their country and active contributors to their society and families. The Womanity Foundation is one of these actors and has worked since 2007 in public high schools for girls providing opportunities to girls up to the end of secondary school.

In late 2015, Womanity and I started a very fruitful conversation on how to break barriers for high school female students and enable them to become role models. We were specifically thinking of the role of IT in our contemporary world and how women were largely excluded from it worldwide and in Afghanistan, too.

We discussed ways to leverage the nine-year experience of Womanity in public high schools for girls and to give to those brilliant students practical and actionable knowledge relevant in the 21st century.

Womanity challenged me and asked if it was possible to teach high school students how to code. I took on the challenge and helped them to carefully craft a unique curriculum for high schools students in grades 11th to 12th in basic IT literacy, web design and web development. I proposed this course considering the overall social and family barriers of my country and keeping in mind that Information and Telecommunication Technologies also enable women to work from home while not excluding them from joining an office-based job and have enormous potential for startups.

Since then, we have engaged in a very fruitful partnership and I remained involved as technical supervisor of Womanity’s ground-breaking “Girls Can Code” program , the only one of its kind in public schools in Afghanistan.

We collaboratively selected the instructors: Zakia Ahmady, the senior trainer assisted by Liza Popalzai and Sharifa Nawrozai. The pilot started on 19 April 2016 with the approval and endorsement of the Ministry of Education, and ended on 15 January 2017 in two public high schools for girls in Kabul city – the Al Fatah and the Spen Kalay Schools – for a total of 40 students.

The course was designed keeping in mind the knowledge level of the students and was divided into: basic computer literacy (first month); front-end-coding with web designing and development and languages such as HTML, CSS, and Adobe Photoshop (four months); and back-end-coding with languages such as PhP, MySQL and Jscript (four months). The last part of the course was dedicated to a group project. Each class was divided into four groups and each of them was assigned the task of designing a specific website.

All in all, the course lasted nine months with 191 sessions planned and about 360 hours of teaching. Thirty five of the 40 students successfully completed the training.

We faced a number of challenges that included:

Make the case for the course: Womanity’s team hosted several meetings with the school management and parents to explain the nature and the potential of the program and was able to obtain their enthusiastic approval and buy-in.

Curriculum development and planning: we had to carefully craft the curriculum and the lessons’ plan to the pre-existing knowledge and learning pace of the students with the objective of being able to maintain their attention and interest throughout the program. The program ended with only five students dropping-out.

Adapting to Schools’ schedules: to ensure attendance, we had to plan classes right before or after the normal school hours which meant starting at 6am in Al Fatah School. We also had to suspend classes during exams, as it would have been impossible to ask students to be there on those days.

Trainer’s car accident: the main trainer experienced a major car accident and was not available to teach for a couple of weeks. Luckily, I helped developed the manual and could step in and replace her. However, as the program grows, it will be beneficial to plan for back-up trainers.

While looking ahead at next year, I would like to suggest that the program:
– include in-class meetings with female role models, so that students can learn what their potential in the ICT sector is and how they can build a successful career;
– include the lessons learned from this year in the manual of the coding course;
– consider the students that just graduated as back-up trainers (step up and replace the trainers when not available).
It will be beneficial to conduct some of the technical (by myself) and non-technical (by Womanity) monitoring visits jointly rather than separately, so that we can discuss and address the problems of the program holistically.

Finally, in my opinion, despite the challenges, the program was very successful. We were able to fully engage the stakeholders of the program. It’s worth mentioning that the program had a strong support from the families of the students who attended our meetings and encouraged us and the school management in implementing this initiative. Students are now eager either to try applying for internship opportunities, to prepare for the National Entrance Exam to University (Computer Science faculty or similar) or to start planning their own start-up.

We can proudly say that as Afghanistan is moving to introduce an e-Government, we are equipping the new generation to meet its emerging needs in terms of knowledge and skills.