Matin Ahmed is equipping young people in Bangladesh with a combination of English and computer skills so that they can effectively compete for jobs in the marketplace.
The New Idea
Matin is creating broad-based programs to address the bottlenecks that impede young Bangladeshis from bridging the digital divide and benefiting from opportunities provided by the new economy. He is working to develop young people's English and IT skills in order to expand their employment opportunities. Matin focuses on providing students with an environment that supports, strengthens, and encourages English language learning. To sustain his program, Matin attracts students through a fee-based IT program, using the course funds to subsidize language development for groups that do not have access to quality standard English learning.
Increasingly, entry-level jobs in the service, private, and even public sectors require a combination of English and IT skills. Though the state-run school system teaches English as a compulsory subject, very few students–even college and university English graduates–have the confidence or skill to effectively communicate in the language. Computer Studies is offered as an optional subject; but again, the standards are poor.
In light of the success of neighboring India, the government of Bangladesh is actively promoting information and communication technology with a concerted push for computer education at all levels. This has resulted in the establishment of large numbers of private training centers and institutes. Most of these are based in the major cities but have also started spreading out to the smaller urban centers. Initially, the demand for training was high, but this early enthusiasm has since dropped due to the inability of graduates to secure gainful employment. Nevertheless, the demand for computer literacy is still high among the younger generation though the costs make it largely inaccessible to most of the population. Similarly, with the banning of English as a medium of instruction in the school system after independence, the few English-medium schools in operation are solely private and follow the U.K. examination system. They cater only to the richer segments of society. The same applies at the private university level and unless there is a change in social attitudes toward English learning among policymakers, the public, and other stakeholders, it may be difficult for Bangladesh's young to effectively compete for jobs in today's global, technology reliant, economy.
Matin regularly organizes debating competitions and IT-based events that attract students and adults alike. Through these programs, Matin emphasizes the need to create and support an environment for speaking and practicing English. He videotapes different events and broadcasts them through the local cable operator network to 1,700 homes in his project area. This public exposure helps dispel the notion that students from comparatively weaker economic groups, and particularly those outside of the major cities, cannot be conversant in the English language. It also works to counter negative social perceptions that English language breaks down cultural and moral identities.
To establish his organization as a "name brand" IT institution, Matin purchased a franchise from a U.S.-based information technology institute as the platform for providing computer education to students in the district of Brahmanbaria. He has also designed a short, compulsory English course for students eager to enroll in the computer courses. This is offered without charge and has attracted a wide spectrum of students–from primary to master's level. The students are then organized into English-speaking clubs and act as a platform for students to support and practice with one another outside the classroom. At present, there are 500 members who have completed the course and another 250 enrolled. Some students even travel from Dhaka to attend these sessions. After completing the language course, students are motivated and encouraged to establish similar speaking clubs in their respective home areas. They identify other young people and enlist them in the clubs as well as referring them to Matin's program. Through this strategy, a wider number of people are developing English skills through peer-to-peer learning and also acting as a vehicle for educating the community on the importance of English and IT. The English language program is financed from the fees generated from the IT courses.
Matin hopes to spread his concept of combining English skill development with IT through the local mother organization of the U.S.-based information technology institute. They have targeted Matin's work area for its pilot project of spreading computer education in schools across the country. In addition, Matin is planning to coordinate with the Youth Development Administration to provide similar English training courses. He has networked with an official who also is a student of his program.
The regular events that Matin organizes provide him with the opportunity to invite and engage teachers and parents alike. His efforts are now being recognized at different levels with some schools expressing interest in replicating his work and a few teachers giving him advice on curriculum and methods. Neighboring districts have also approached him. Recently, his students achieved national recognition by placing first in a competition held at the British Council.
Matin comes from a family of six brothers and three sisters. His father was involved in different social activities like the Red Crescent Society, Blind School President, and Mosque President. When Matin was in class 8/9, he went to a three-day religious program where he came across some foreign pilgrims. They were speaking in English, and Matin was unable to understand any of their language. He felt the need to learn their language but found no support for his efforts at the time.
In 1995 Matin started an English-speaking club with his friends to practice and break down initial inhibitions of conversing. He approached a number of English teachers but most were very discouraging. One teacher told him that students are gadhas (donkeys) saying that "even after teaching them English they cannot speak it." There was also resistance from the parents who had the impression that learning English would alienate their children from their culture, even going as far as affecting their morals. Lastly, students themselves had no confidence in their abilities to speak English.
In 1999 Matin completed a diploma program in IT under the London Board. The students initially struggled in the course since the medium of instruction was English, so he started another speaking club. Matin realized that the course of study he was pursuing was what was missing in the education system. He enrolled for a few courses at the British Council and also worked closely with a British language instructor.
Matin returned to his home area and identified some supportive teachers and people for further developing his ideas. He placed an advertisement in the local newspaper about free English courses and the response was overwhelming. He was forced to increase his class and then set up a student referral system for enrollment. The system enables the students to build a network to feed into the English clubs.