BusinessDay

Covid-19: Online classes open new vistas in Nigerian education system 

… Experts call for digital infrastructure

Following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic especially with the absence of an immediate cure in sight, businesses, including schools have started to explore new ways of doing things.

Before now, many parents thought it would be impossible to execute digital learning in Nigeria and even to hook-up their children online to receive teaching. Such level of teaching and learning were formerly seen as exclusively reserved for some categories of people.

Nearly 830 million learners globally are today out of classroom but children in nursery, primary and secondary schools now have the opportunity to learn online since governments all over the world were forced to shut down schools to contain the spread of COVID-19.

To mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 disruption on education system as well as school closures, teaching and learning in Nigeria have gone virtual using online platforms, as well as television and radio in places internet access is limited.

On May 14, 2019 when the United States of America Mission in Nigeria indefinitely suspended the ‘Dropbox’ process, its interview waivers for visa renewals, many Nigerians who were due to travel were held back home, and even those on emergency situations.

Jude Emuwa, a college student in Atlanta Georgia, was among the many who got stuck in the country while seeking alternative to renewing their travel visas.

But the lad, who could not travel until October 2019, did not miss classes as he joined his classmates through the college’s e-learning portal, where he participated in all class works, did assignments and wrote assessment examinations.

While his uncle doubted the possibility of doing all that online, the lockdown in the country, which has seen schools closed since March this year in Lagos, has made e-learning a reality for the doubting uncle whose children are now participating in their school’s e-learning classes thrice a week.

The once physical classroom has now upgraded online to Google Class, Big Blue Button, with apps like Zoom, WhatsApp among others, enabling pupils and students to learn in different ways.

Going by the current situation and health concerns, the new learning system or rather digital class, is the only option for pupils and students to refresh their brains, engage in mental activities, progress in their school work and stay safe amid the pandemic.

Again, due to the uncertainty over when schools will reopen, many educational outfits, especially private schools, see the online learning as the only way to remain in business and not necessarily to keep the students mentally active.

New learning system commendable

Obviously, the new learning system is helpful for parents, who otherwise would have to deal with energetic and idle children while they work remotely.

“After two weeks at home, I was concerned that my children are playing more than studying. When their school mentioned the e-learning classes, I got excited because that will help their mental balance and positively engage them”, Adedayo Sukanmi, a father of three, said.

Kelvin Owute, another father, said the e-learning is timely, puts one’s mind at rest and is safer, though comes at varying costs.

For him, it is an innovation that should be encouraged by parents because the bottomline is the safety and mental wellbeing of their children.

“Nothing beats the safety and comfort at home. So, if my children can learn from the safety of my house, I should by reason of being a responsible parent encourage and appreciate their school for initiating such idea”, Magnus Okenwa, a lawyer, said.

But while parents appreciate the growing gesture by most private schools, proprietors and the teachers are at the receiving end.

Agnes Ademuda, a proprietress, explained that despite the lockdown, there are salaries to pay, which is not possible if the school is not generating any revenue.

“We opted for the e-learning to engage students in mental activities, help engage their time positively at home and also to earn money to keep staff and the school afloat”, she said.

She explained further that it takes money to access the e-learning platforms from the owners, buy and install digital facilities and pay teachers that will handle the classes.

Bola Otitoju, another proprietress, decried that schools are forced to retrain teachers for the e-learning classes, and are even hiring skilled online coaches when it is difficult to get their teachers to migrate to digital teaching.

“We couldn’t complete our second term, many parents are yet to pay their children’s school fees, the lockdown worsen the situation, yet we are now forced to migrate to digital class within a short period. We are equal to the task, but parents will have to bear the brunt going forward”, she said.

As well, the teachers are also carrying their own cross in the matter. The digital migration is a challenge to many teachers who have not been exposed to it until now.

For Julie Esemo, an English teacher at Almond Hills School, Lekki, Lagos, it is not business as usual.

Now, she prepares her lesson plans and shares with her students on Google Classroom. Moments later virtual class commences with several engagements all online.

While she finds it difficult assessing her students properly in the digital learning, she insists that it is the only option to get things going now, especially for her job to be secured.

Abigail Eze, twice winner of teacher of year in her school, finds the transition from classroom teaching to remote teaching easy as the technology savvy teacher regularly engages lots of students in after-school private lessons with Google Classroom.

She noted that schools across the world are keeping students engaged with Google Classroom, and Nigeria should not be left out.

Explaining how the Google Classroom works, the technology savvy teacher said the school created email for all the teachers from where you log in, create a class online and invite your students who accept your invitation and automatically have access to all the e-learning materials.

But as much as e-learning has come to stay, some teachers and even parents are concerned about its drawbacks.

Some drawbacks

Many teachers say that it is difficult to properly assess the performance of students in e-learning because of the absence of physical interaction, while subjects that require students to be hands-on will be difficult to teach, especially science practicals.

Another drawback for Esemo is the unnecessary assistance on class work by parents or use of gadgets to search for answers.

“When a student who does not do well in the physical class starts performing excellently in the virtual class, it means the parents or a big brother is involved. This does not help the student in the long run”, she said.

The digital learning, however, is not without some drawbacks. Whereas it keeps the children on their toes and prevents them from engaging in excessive play, it comes with a huge cost on parents.

Most children are being guided by their parents to do the assignments or to use the gadgets. In some cases, the parents are the ones helping to download what has been uploaded by teachers for their children.

However, the adoption of e-learning as an innovative means to continue teaching and learning during this ongoing closure has really not gone down well with parents as the move by schools has been received with mixed feeling among parents and students in terms of affordability and practical.

BDSUNDAY has shown that the process has not been easy as transition from the brick-and-mortar type of learning to digital is far from seamless.

Some parents, who spoke to our correspondent, frowned at the demand of fees by some schools. Although, schools owners claimed that part of the money being paid now would be rolled over to become part of the third-term tuition fee as soon as schools reopen, many parents have been finding it very difficult to pay at this difficult period.

“While I recognise the need to continue with learning during this terrible time and the need to embrace innovation and technology, demanding for payment of full tuition fees should be discussed and not made compulsory, says Kayode Ayodeji, a parent of three children in Lagos.

He called on private school operators to stop demanding full tuition fees from parents in order for their children to have access to online learning platforms.

Ayodeji further observed that teaching has shifted from teachers to parents, as many are now forced to deputise overnight as homeschoolers, using systems with which they may not be familiar with.

Presently, absence of digital learning infrastructure such as smartphones, computers and accessibility of data has created a huge challenge for ‘the new normal’ in the global education system.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in its report stated that disparities in distance education are particularly evident in low-income countries as nearly 90 percent of students in sub-Saharan Africa do not have household computers while 82 percent are unable to get online.

According to the report, “Although having a mobile phone can support young learners in accessing information or connecting with their teachers, for example, around 56 million live in areas that are not served by mobile networks; almost half in sub-Saharan Africa.”

On the other hand, teachers are also struggling with the rapid transition to online learning, even those in countries with reliable infrastructure and household connectivity.

They also need to be trained to deliver distance and online education. Again, countries in sub-Saharan Africa face the greatest challenges.

In Nigeria, for instance, over 50 percent of the nation’s population live below the poverty line, thereby making it near impossible for such class of people to afford digital infrastructure to drive online learning.

As a result, many Nigerian parents have had to make an emergency purchase of new phones for the purpose of online classes, which they would not ordinarily afford to buy.

Today, telecom infrastructure is still to be available as well as accessible in rural area. This is why a good number of households still do not have laptops, tablets, or smartphones that could be accessible to students for online learning.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) shows that only 45 percent of Nigeria’s population has access to power, and 45 percent have access to smart phones in a country of close to 200 million populations.

Presently, the outbreak COVID-19 pandemic has brought to bear the various challenges of Nigerian education system especially on issues around quality, quantity of education, gaps in gender, regional income levels, socio-economic status, overcrowding in public schools and funding.

Confirming this, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, minister of state for education, recently observed that the underserved are the worst hit because even with limited capacity in Nigeria, children of rich parents and those who can afford private education at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels are still accessing education.

“However, a vast majority living in the fringes of the society including the remote areas don’t have access to these devices or facilities that provide today’s kind of education, which is online learning,” Nwajiuba stated.

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General said that “While efforts to provide connectivity to all must be multiplied, we now know that continued teaching and learning cannot be limited to online means.”

He suggested that “To lessen already existing inequalities, we must also support other alternatives including the use of community radio and television broadcasts, and creativity in all ways of learning.”

To create opportunity for students in government-own institutions as well as those in the rural communities that do not have access to online learning, governments in states such as Lagos, Ogun, Rivers, Delta and among others, are deploying multi-modal approaches and building innovative partnerships overnight to deliver learning in a new way.

These states have introduction tele-classes by partnered radio and television stations to hold classes and teach students via these gadgets. During this extraordinary situation, introduction of tele-classes has become one of the best alternatives to carry forward the teaching-learning process, and to compensate the academic loss to some extent.

Despite these inconveniences, education experts are of the opinions that these efforts have the potential to expand the flexibility of delivering education in response to today’s health crisis.

They noted that the move to digital learning is the critical thinking approach to learning that has been long overdue in Nigeria. A new framework for education structured to deliver 21st-century skills and lifelong learning for its students to compete in tomorrow’s economies.

“We are going to see the teacher-student ratio explode, post Covid-19 using digital technology, says Sim Shagaya, chief executive officer, U lesson.

Shagaya noted that Covid-19 has the tendency to accelerate things that were already happening, adding that parents should brace up as schools use digital technology more and more to ease the financial pressure.

Yoyin Adesina, chief executive officer, Corona Schools Trust Council says online learning has come to stay.

According to her, “What the government needs to do is to provide the necessary infrastructure and improve the dialogue and narration in the public-private sector of education.

Adesina, while speaking at a recent Webinar series organised by BusinessDay and MTN, called for synchronisation between the government and private sector.

“We are looking at 58, 000 primary school children; we are looking at 10.5 million out of school children, who don’t have access to education. There is a lot that needs to be done. All we have to do is to strip ourselves of what is in it for me and look at the larger picture, look at the needs, the gaps. There is the need to go to those places that education is not been served and meet the needs of the underserved children,” Adesina advised.

But as Folasade Adefisayo, commissioner for education, Lagos State, pointed out recently, e-learning may expose children to harm like pornography, violence and crime if parents do not monitor the sites their children log in to.

Another drawback is the economic reality of our time. There is fear that indigent students whose parents cannot afford wifi, smart phones or internet access may be left out in the e-learning revolution.

“All the noise about e-learning concern private schools only because the parents of the students can afford to pay the fees. Nobody is talking about public schools where many cannot afford internet access for digital class. I think government should help to close the gap”, Eze disclosed.

For an average parent, a formidable drawback is the high fees some schools are charging to get student hooked to the online class in the face of the hardship occasioned by the lockdown. Some charge as much as a full term fees arguing that digital learning is more expensive, some half the normal school fees and others certain amount for a month.

“My children’s school is asking for N20,000 per month, per child and I have three children in the school. I think the amount is even more than the school fees for a child for a term when you sum it up”, Hyacinth Akah, a parent, said.

Sadiat Adeleke, a single mother, decried that her daughter’s school made the online class compulsory and charged high fees that must be paid before access to the platform.

However, the schools are insisting that digital class is optional. In reality, they are subtly wooing parents to get all their children onboard, while citing poor mental balance and being engaged negatively as some of the consequences of not doing so.

 

 

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