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Mitigating effects of COVID-19 on basic education in Nigeria

Improving the quality of human capital should be the focus of our economic transformation

Corona Virus otherwise called COVID-19 has continued to ravage the globe forcing many countries to reassess their new realities. As education systems took a massive hit, many countries adopted online teaching and other new technologies to keep learning going. Nigeria with the largest population in Africa, education is key to the future. Presently, COVID-19 has had a serious damaging impact on the economy and may have further impact if the responses are too focused on immediate fixes rather than long-term solutions. Improving the quality of human capital should be the focus of our economic transformation as it moves away from a dependence on natural resources.

Since the adoption of education into the 1948 Human Rights Declaration to Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030), one would be hard-pressed to find an occasion when education systems across the globe were disrupted to the extent we witnessed this year. In Africa and indeed Nigeria, the situation affected the painstaking achievements in equitable access to education opportunities, putting the future of basic education in jeopardy across the country.

By the end of March 2020, all the states in Nigeria had closed primary, secondary and tertiary schools as a precautionary measure to curb the spread of coronavirus with uncertainty of resumption. Considering the lack of frameworks and infrastructure for alternative provision of basic education, millions of pupils were technically out of school for at least one academic term. This adds to an estimate of over 10 million out-of-school children pre-COVID-19 in Nigeria.

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As witnessed during previous crises, the impact of such a disruption is faced disproportionately by girls and young women. Female students and female teachers may be burdened by additional care responsibilities in a global pandemic that take them away from schools. This threatens the global progress towards the SDG 4 targets of ensuring equitable access to quality education. The unprecedented disruption of education came at a time when most schools were in the middle of the term with candidates preparing for internal and external level examinations. Although basic schools have resumed, there continues to be widespread uncertainty about when public universities will resume in view of the protracted strike by the academic staff.

Education economists have argued that societies achieve high rates of return on investment in quality basic education as it provides cognitive abilities essential for productivity in the world of work. The disruption COVID-19 caused on basic education poses a great threat to these gains and future plans if sustainable solutions are not enacted.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 crisis has led to a sharper focus on the potential of technology in delivering education. Even as the evidence so far remains mixed, this global pandemic has led to widespread adoption of technology as the default option. Distance learning was launched in several countries, with both students, teachers and administrators essentially having to learn on the go. For instance, education ministries in Uganda, Nigeria and South-Africa provided multi-media and reading resources online while Kenya, Rwanda and Somaliland ran radio and TV programmes for continued learning. Several EdTech start-ups like Zeraki in Kenya and Snapplify in South-Africa were able to build audio-visual e-learning resources that students accessed through mobile phone applications. That in turn, highlighted the key areas of consideration in designing an education system that relies on technology.

In Nigeria, lack of technological infrastructure is currently the biggest obstacle. However, this could be overcome through reprioritising the available education resources, while tapping on additional resources from complementary sectors such as ICT. An investment of this magnitude would require huge start-up capital. Nigeria spends huge sums of funds on education annually but is the least efficient in how this investment is utilised. The investment in technology in the provision of basic education can be cost-effective if it is designed for long-term use, as opposed to short-term measures reacting to emergencies such as caused by pandemics.

Beyond technological infrastructure, there are serious design issues Nigeria education planners need to get right. EdTech-revolution might look deceptively simple, but for effective utilisation of technology, there is a need for better understanding of education functionalities and operations. This would typically revolve around the following domains – curriculum, pedagogy, assessments, and education management.

Additionally, the digitisation and visualisation of education management information systems would provide real-time information for decision making and improved education management. For instance, it would enable tracking of progress on achievement of education outcomes to inform specialised support on subject content and individualised attention for student improvement. Also, this would enable accountable utilisation of funds, inhibiting pilferages that have often resulted in loss of education funds as well as enable ease retrieval of data and accountable tracking of school resources.

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