Bothwell Mussett Chitengu is a Ph.D. student with Africa University in Zimbabwe. His research area is on peace, human rights, conflict and development. In this latest post in our series of posts from researchers about the impacts of COVID-19, he discusses the barriers to continuing education online.
The closure of schools and colleges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new dimensions in the education sector in Africa and the world over. Schools and tertiary institutions have developed different e-learning programmes so as to continue providing knowledge to their students.
Yet in spite of all these efforts by learning institutions, some governments have taken long to approve e-learning programmes to be used countrywide. Despite this delay, some institutions have gone ahead and started implementing their e-learning programmes and this has brought mixed fortunes for parents and learners.
COVID-19 highlighted gaps in developing e-learning packages to deliver lessons effectively through platforms such as Google Meet, Zoom, Moodle, WhatsApp and others. There has been a need to relearn and close the skills gap so that effective teaching and learning would continue despite the ban on movement.
Although it is quite a noble idea to provide e-learning facilities to students at different levels of the learning spectrum, there are several challenges that need serious consideration before implementing the learning programmes.
The cost of bundles and smart phones is quite exorbitant in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, therefore beyond the reach of many. Whilst acknowledging the tremendous effort put in by most learning institutions, they did not take cognisance of these challenges faced by the end user.
Most families have not been having a regular income during these extended lockdown periods and hence their main focus is on buying enough food supplies as the number one priority. In Zimbabwe for example, some of the breadwinners survive on cross border trading, working in industries and since these have been closed, they thus have limited sources of income. This therefore means access to e-learning facilities will be a pie in the sky for the majority of learners. Consequently, the additional costs of education access inadvertently infringe upon the right to education and fair treatment.
Furthermore, not all areas have efficient connectivity to carry out these e-learning programmes requiring very stable internet. Remote parts of most countries would thus be left out and learners in those areas greatly disadvantaged. This would deny willing learners a chance to quench their thirst for knowledge leading to a wide knowledge gap between those who have access and those who have not. Inequalities would thus be perpetuated, thereby violating the rights of learners. Interestingly, they all sit for the same examinations, the poor, the geographically disadvantaged who have no connectivity and the rich who are well connected.
In view of the foregoing, institutions should package their programmes in small doses allowing short breaks in between to give families time to further mobilise resources for data bundles. The staggering of lessons by allowing different departments to utilise the e-learning platform would also provide an opportunity to save data bundles and incorporate the majority of learners. The number of lessons done per week would be reduced and hence the cost of data bundles would be lower. Network providers have the opportunity to increase their coverage to cover remote areas.
In addition, learning institutions can negotiate with service providers so as to get special offer packages on data bundles after bulk-buying of these bundles. Governments can also provide free bundles like South Africa to bring everyone on board so that the financially disadvantaged benefit.
Learning institutions need to come up with solutions through adequate planning so that learners can benefit immensely from e-learning programmes.
Bothwell Mussett Chitengu can be found on ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8313-7763