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E-learning noble but difficult to implement in a brutal economy

An opinion piece by Joseph Ndondo – Harare, Zimbabwe

Many governments around the world announced various forms of lockdowns as they desperately tried to curb the spread of the COVID-19 infection. These lockdowns have not spared schools which were forced to close doors. Globally, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that about 1.5bn school-children are currently out of school.

The current closure of schools is unprecedented in scope, duration and likely consequences. The continued closure of schools comes with a heavy cost on children and also on their parents and guardians. The lockdown threatens long-term effects on learning and development and thus on the future prospects of young people. Even short interruptions affect performance at schools, assessment exams and some students are being forced to repeat a grade. While some may not be able to complete the whole course. Recent international research shows that lockdowns, school closures and natural disasters raise levels of substance abuse, depression, fear, loneliness, domestic violence and child abuse.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, West Africans were affected by prolonged school closures, which led to an increase in unplanned teen pregnancies and school dropouts. Due to prolonged school closures, teachers may not be able to complete the curriculum, leaving many gaps in children’s education. Even if they do complete the syllabus, poorer learners and schools are least able to catch up. Moreso, during these school closures students may lose over 20% of skills they have gained. It is almost clear that learning losses have lasting implications on child development, even stretching into the labour market and affecting lifetime earnings. Keith Meyers of the University of Southern Denmark and Melissa Thomasson concluded in a 2017 paper on ‘Polio epidemic in 1916 in America’ that: closing schools affect school children and younger students, who leave schools with lower achievements than previous cohorts.

The lockdown-induced school closures have had different effects on different societies, and different demographics, reflecting deep inequalities in Zimbabwe. The poorest and youngest school children have been worst affected. Moreover, with much of Zimbabwe being rural, with no access to electricity and modern facilities, education has been completely halted. Many rural students do not have a computer at home, have no access to the internet, have uneducated parents, and lack a safe and quiet dedicated study space. The Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ), an organization founded in 2009 with the aim to ‘Uphold the right to education in rural areas’ recently called for the Zimbabwe public exams to be postponed as learners and teachers were having difficulties in preparing for the examinations.

The Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education and most universities in Zimbabwe had proposed e-learning for tertiary students during the lockdown, however, the student representative bodies like ZINASU (Zimbabwe National Students Union) rejected those proposals citing lack of reliable electricity and poor network connections. Moreover, they cited the high cost of mobile data (mobile internet) which would make e-learning unaffordable to many. There is no good point in adopting a format of education when many will not be able to access it.

In urban Zimbabwe, some elite schools with financial capacity have resumed or continued with learning as such schools have adapted to online learning. St Johns School in Harare started preparing for online and remote teaching at the end of the first academic term and had ‘adjusted’ their fees to cater for the associated e-learning costs. This proactive approach needs to be commended, however, St Johns and a few similar schools represent a very small proportion of schools in the country. Comparatively, nine in ten of the rich countries provide some form of distance learning. In Denmark and Slovenia, over 95% of 15-year olds have access to a computer at home, regardless of their family background.

Another issue has been that some teachers and lecturers in Zimbabwe to have been reluctant to adapt to e-learning. Many lack professional development and many have a form of technophobia (fear of technology) and are rather comfortable with the traditional “chalk and board”. Countrywide, there is a need to train the entire education workforce with digital skills. Computer literacy and proficiency are no longer just about knowing how to type words and sentences on a word processor and saving a document but now calls for more digital skills as technology becomes sophisticated with each day.

In the Zimbabwean higher education landscape, some institutions have adopted e-learning smoothly. Arrupe Jesuit University in Harare is one of such institutions that has managed to continue with lessons. Lecturers use a mixture of real-time interactive classes, pre-recorded material and home-based digital classes. The students have access to real-time online lectures via Google Meet and also access study resources and reading material on Google classroom.

Despite the current challenges, virtual learning presents an opportunity for Universities to offer distance learning courses and online courses in the near future. Imagine the University of Zimbabwe offering its MBA to students located in Lusaka (Zambia) or in Accra (Ghana). Adopting and adapting to e-learning will strategically enable institutions to easily meet the challenges of the 4th industrial revolution which is mostly about technological advancement. The government has to drastically invest in e-learning so as to avert existing challenges and hurdles. Education may be forced to evolve and adapt to the new normal.

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