Africa: Virtual Learning During COVID-19, Who is Left Behind?

(File photo).
8 April 2020

On March 23rd, at the height of concerns of COVID-19 in Kenya, the Kenyan Government directed the closure of schools and recommended online learning through radio, television and YouTube.

A few days later, I was navigating through online learning with my 7-year-old son, whose school had sent guidelines and learning materials. I however realized the privilege I was in. My son, attends a private school, I have internet at home, and even more, I was working from home and could spend time helping him navigate through this. While the directive that learning could continue at home is important given the social distancing requirements for managing COVID 19, it poses challenges for parents, students and governments.

And this is not only happening in Kenya - schools in more than 184 countries globally have closed [17] with 1.5 billion learners worldwide affected. School closures not only interrupt learning, but also limit normal social interaction and access to essential services by families. There have been calls including by UNESCO to ensure learning does [18] not stop during these school closures.

While this quick response by the government of Kenya is laudable, the main concern is on the overall readiness of the country for this form of learning. The crisis has presented an urgent need to rethink the use of technological tools for learning, a conversation that has been going on for years, but with not much attention dedicated to actualising it. Research has shown that online education [19] is a promising means to increasing access to education in Sub-Saharan Africa, but so far has proven useful only for higher levels of learning such as universities and colleges, and not for pre-primary, primary and secondary education.

A key challenge is that if not well executed, online learning can exacerbate existing inequalities. Mandatory online learning requires that every parent should have the necessary means and tools including access to electricity, reliable internet connectivity, a smart phone, a laptop or a radio.

Implementing online learning also means that a parent or an adult must be physically present in every household to guide the child through the home-based learning. Poorer households who depend on daily wage for their sustenance or where adults must work, or households where parents are not literate cannot manage to support online learning even if they had access to online learning tools. This is greatly amplifying the already existing inequalities in education.

Governments can do more in making technology an effective tool for improving learning and ensuring that education remains a global public good accessible to all.

First, given the current evidence of low access to electricity and online learning tools [20], online learning during this crisis should not be used to cover syllabus that children should otherwise cover in school but should be used as a supplement. A recommendation for governments in Sub-Saharan Africa is that upon opening of schools, teachers should go over content that was taught online during school closures. This would give an opportunity to children whose learning paused because of the earlier mentioned challenges in their households. More developed countries are dealing with this in different ways. France [21] is lending devices and providing printed assignments to the 5% of learners who do not have access to the internet or computers. China [22] is providing computers to students from low-income families and offering mobile data packages and telecommunication subsidies for students.

Second, governments should create awareness to citizens on the various available learning platforms that parents can easily access.For instance, Rwanda and Senegal [23] are encouraging teachers and school administrators to utilize existing applications to support learners and parents as they deliver live lessons or record massive open online course (MOOC) styled lessons while also encouraging learning through TV and radio. The United Arab Emirates [24] has created a hotline for teachers and students to seek technical support should they face any challenges.

Third, governments should integrate ICT skills into the curriculum.Educationists in Kenya have argued that young people using smart phones and internet to access their favourite social media sites certainly does not make them competent in technology and there should be a systematic way of building these skills. Countries such as Argentina, Egypt and France [25] have been using ICT to enhance learning in the classroom and are now rapidly introducing or scaling up existing distance education modalities based on diverse combinations of technology to reach as many children as possible.

As I help my son navigate through these learning tools, I am convinced that effective use of technological tools for learning should not just be for emergency purposes but must be a long-term strategy to strengthen learning beyond this crisis. Lessons from this crisis should guide ministries of education in investing in technology and internet penetration for all public schools, public libraries and centres accessible to a majority of the population.

Joy Nafungo is an expert in Education and Early Childhood Development. Follow her at @joynafungo_



























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