What we can do to enhance learning during this crisis

Students travel home on March 17 after schools were closed due to Covid-19.

Schools and colleges are closed until June, for now, due to Covid-19 but many of us would like learning to continue. How possible is this? In December 2019, the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in Wuhan City, China. Since then the world has witnessed the spread of Covid-19 at an unprecedented rate. 

African countries, including Kenya, have had their fair share of the pandemic. Recent developments in Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea on how to stop new infections provide very promising lessons for Africa.

Covid-19 led to unexpected closure of learning institutions. By late April, Unesco sources show, 190 countries worldwide had implemented a countrywide shutdown of schools, colleges and universities. This has affected over 1.576 billion learners, constituting slightly over 90 per cent of the enrollment worldwide. In Africa, about 297 million learners have been affected. In Kenya, the current enrollment is over 17 million learners across all levels of education and training.

The question that the public is asking now is, what next?

The closure of schools further affects the school calendar, creating a learning crisis beyond the Covid-19 period. Children and youth from disadvantaged backgrounds are the most affected by this learning crisis, especially those from low income neighbourhoods.

How has the education sector responded to Covid-19? Anecdotal evidence shows that school closure has contributed towards flattening the curve. First, closures minimised risk of community infections that could be catastrophic.

Secondly, closing schools early minimises the risk of many people being infected within a short time, which in turn minimises the threat that would have been caused by ‘healthy’ learners being carriers of the virus. This allows the health system to cope with numbers though it has not worked in some contexts, especially where the infection was not anticipated early enough, and/or community acquired infections spread fast before appropriate mitigation measures were rolled out.

Third, being away from school has not dimmed learning opportunities as education technology (EdTech) comes in handy. Parents are grappling with the best strategies not only to keep the children and youth safe, but also ensure some form of home learning takes place. This has not been easy in many contexts given that many systems are designed to deliver learning in school and on-campus - something that will never be the same again.

Virtual classrooms, radio and online platforms have been activated or strengthened to support learning at a level that we have not witnessed before. At the moment the effectiveness of this depends on the strength of national networks and connectivity to technology at the disposal of schools, parents and learners such as smartphones, and the cost of access to such technology.

In Kenya, 20 counties have between 40 and 80 per cent of their population below the poverty line, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS). This implies that such populations may not afford digital infrastructure to facilitate online learning at home and their children are at a high risk of being left behind in learning.

Unfortunately, in low and middle income countries in Africa, including Kenya, infrastructure to support online learning at home and school is at its early stages though nascent. This includes handheld devices such as smartphones to enhance Internet penetration. In sub-Saharan Africa, this penetration stands at far below 50 per cent of the total population in most countries.

A 2017 survey by Pew Research Center showed that smartphone penetration was at 51 per cent in South Africa, 30 per cent in Kenya and 13 per cent in Tanzania. However, this must have increased by 2020. Likewise, Internet penetration by March 2020 stood at 39.3 per cent of the total population in sub-Saharan Africa compared to the rest of the world at 62.9 per cent.

In a few countries such Ghana and South Africa, smartphone and Internet penetration seems to go hand in hand, but for other countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, Internet penetration is way ahead of smartphone penetration.

Despite these challenges, we are starting to see commendable efforts. For example, Kenya’s school radio and TV programmes have been strengthened and are now broadcasting to over 12 million primary and secondary school learners. This is in addition to the Kenya Education Cloud. A new initiative in Kenya is the approval of loon balloons to supply Internet to far-off villages.

For those with Internet connectivity, some schools, mostly private ones, provide both online and offline digital contents and instructions. However, if the low statistics on smartphone and Internet penetration in Kenya is anything to go by, coupled with high poverty levels in some counties, then a significant number of children and youth are missing out on learning during this Covid-19 crisis.

Use of EdTech to close the learning gap created by Covid-19 as well as the long-term need to improve e-learning requires a multi-sectoral approach to develop a practical and deliberate plan. This will reduce learning inequalities created by the digital divide, including reaching out of school children and youth, special needs children, and managing the cost of schooling.

Covid-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to reinvigorate instructional delivery channels for the future. This could lead to less reliance on on-campus instructional delivery and create an ecosystem that allows learners from disadvantage populations in both public and private institutions access to e-learning materials. One way to do this is by making smartphones more accessible to more people, for example, zero-rating smartphones and providing subsidised WiFi in low resource environments.

Employers should adjust productivity expectations as parents and guardian have to work remotely to support the learning ecosystem by providing care, support and supervision to children’s home learning. Much as it is a good bonding opportunity, they also have to attend to work related demands. Finally, we are now learning how, in reality, the future of schooling and work may look like, and how we could repackage some of the school instructional delivery to enhance learning.

- Dr Ngware is senior research scientist and leader of Education and Youth Empowerment research unit at the African Population and Health Research Center; [email protected]; @mngware.