Tanzania: Rural Students Feel Pinch of Digital Divide Amid COVID-19

(file photo)

Mpwapwa — When the government directed closure of schools in March in efforts to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus, many learning institutions shifted to online learning through television, radio and other online platforms.

This move was seen as the best alternative to keep a Tanzanian student learning as the country contemplated actions to control the situation. This is one side of the story.

On the other side, the move exposed inequalities in Tanzania's education sector.

Virtual learning has left behind hundreds of rural students who did not have means to access the modern learning system.

This reality is perfectly manifested today at Idilo Village, Mpwapwa Municipality in Dodoma Region, where Ms Ester Mwahisi, 38, lives with her three children, two of them are standard five and seven.

Outside her two small mud-walled houses, with a rusty iron sheet roof, Mwahisi appears tired after a day of hard working on a family farm.

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Like many parents in the country, Ms Mwahisi is unaware that the Tanzanian government announced initiatives to enable students to study through radio and television when schools were closed due to the Covid-19 crisis.

"I've not heard of that arrangement. Even if I was aware, what could I have done? My children were here all along. We can't afford a television set or a radio," she says.

"As you can see, this is the situation we are facing. I cannot afford even a simple mobile phone. Most of us have not been to school. We have no idea about class work. It's good if they can also benefit from the technology as their friends in big cities," she tells The Citizen.

Her two school children are also unaware of the learning opportunities that the government had announced.

A month after the announcement of first Covid-19 case in the country, in March this year, education minister, Prof Joyce Ndalichako urged parents to ensure that they optimally utilise the virtual learning opportunity.

The announcement was followed by calls from stakeholders for the government to set aside a budget that would improve digital learning for all students across the country.

The rural students of Mpwapwa District represent hundreds schoolgoers in remote communities who were sidelined during the implementation of virtual learning. They have been left behind for many years in technological transformation.

The new government's arrangement led to a digital divide. Hundreds of children in rural communities faced an increasing risk of child labour while their counterparts in towns proceeded with lessons.

All alternative learning arrangements proposed by stakeholders were seen inappropriate or unaffordable.

For instance, the learning through TV and radio broadcast could not reach and help all students.

According to the Household Budget Survey (2017-2018), only 43 percent of the households have TV sets, 24 percent have radio sets while 78 percent have mobile phones.

"This means not all families, especially the poor ones, could support their children in learning through these channels," says Dr Thomas Jabil, an education consultant based in Dar es Salaam.

Stakeholders have also suggested the use of information technology to encourage online learning and interaction of teachers and their learners.

While it's a genuine and better approach, not many of the Tanzania population can afford the costs of such technologies.

According to the Tanzania Communication Regulatory Authority (TCRA) report of December, 2019, Tanzania has 25.7 million internet users.

"The average cost of internet use is also still high, the cost of 75 MBs which could hardly be enough per child per day, is Sh1, 000 which is Sh30, 000 per month...very few families can afford.

"Therefore, the methods leave behind a large portion of children from low income families and public schools," says Dr John Kalage, the executive director of HakiElimu.

Mpwapwa is one of the oldest colonial districts in Tanzania, boasting local German colonial government headquarters, or bomas, in the early 1890s, and British administrative offices after World War I.

It has long been an important educational town, with the oldest teachers' training college in Tanzania (Mpwapwa TTC) and a secondary school dating back to the turn of the century that was originally called the central primary school.

Being a post-colonial education hub, the district was expected to be a leading example in bridging education gaps in Tanzania. That has not happened.

The Covid-19 pandemic, technological shortfalls in learning as well as the illiteracy among parents, exposed the district.

The shutdown of schools caused schools to heavily rely on modern technology for virtual learning but the move locked out hundreds of poorer pupils from online and broadcast lessons.

Mr Mbaruk Shomari, 56, a resident of Mazae Ward in Mpwapwa District says that many families including his, cannot afford to buy a computer, smartphone or even a radio for their children's education.

Now that the schools have reopened, he feels his children have missed much during the days when schools were closed.

"Our children are going back to school while they have forgotten everything. They could not keep studying through radio, television and the internet," explains Mr Shomari.

"We urge the government to consider rural children when rolling out such programs," he says.

Students' plea

Students in rural areas say that the Covid-19 impact brought an unprecedented burden to their academic trajectory.

"I never had any opportunity to follow up the lessons on TV or radio. My parents owns none, so I was only waiting for the schools to re-opened so that we start studying," Joseph Mmasi, 15, at Idilo Primary Schools told The Citizen.

A Form Three student at Ving'awe Wecondary School in Mpwapwa, Anna Songolo, 16, says she was privileged to have a TV set back home.

"I thank God that my parents have a television set. I tried to follow up lessons through it," she explained.

Teachers speak out

Mr Charles Johnson, the headmaster at Idilo Primary School admits learning ceased among rural students during closure of schools.

"Immediately after schools were reopened, we issued tests to our standard seven pupils. It gave us the picture of how long it will take us to get them back on track," he says.

"Throughout the Covid-19 period, we had no strategy to develop lessons for our students due to the realities of our environment. Programs were going on through TVs and radio but sill it was not possible for most of students here to follow.

"It was also difficult for us (teachers). Many parents do not have smart phones to allow us to send assignments to our students," Mr Johnson adds.

Mpwapwa district education officer for primary schools, Ms Mary Chakupewa admits it was difficult for most families to have their children following up studies through TVs and radios.

"Students who live far from town are mostly affected," she explains. Ms Chakupewa says that more needs to be done in order for all students to benefit from such programs in future.

"We urge the government to continue connect remote areas with electricity at an affordable price and schoos should be given TV sets to allow students follow up studies. This will help in providing equal education to all households in the country," she says, adding, "we tried our best to mobilize students and the parents to keep on revisions while back home to at least keep them updated

While admitting that the remote learning arrangement during the Covid-19 crisis has benefited many, most of students in remote areas were left behind.

"We had many students following lessons on TVs and radios. However, those from remote areas didn't have these opportunities," he said. Mr Shekimweri says that the government through Rural Energy Agency (REA) was doing all it takes to ensure that all rural communities including schools have access to electricity. "This will help reduce such challenges. It would be easy to help the most vulnerable students in catching up with technological transformation," he said.

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