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Education challenges in rural areas can be addressed with e-learning – Adekanmbi

The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic and its resultant lockdown as well as growing rates of insecurity in some parts of the country have stretched the rope of educational inequalities in Nigeria. These factors have limited access to learning in rural and sub-urban areas. In this interview, OLUBAYO ADEKANMBI, founder, Data Science Nigeria speaks on how the organisation is leveraging homegrown technology to remove the existing barriers to quality education in the country. He spoke with AMAKA ANAGOR-EWUZIE. Excerpts:

The inadequate teacher to student ratio in Nigeria, especially in public schools, contributes to educational inequalities and poor outcomes. How can e-learning platform help to mitigate this factor?

Schools can leverage the ‘Learn at Home’ platform to supplement the inadequate teacher to student ratio. We are already partnering with schools to deliver our educational content. In schools where there are limited numbers of teachers, our audio learning content can effectively fill the gap because the instructional design approach used in developing the content gives the listener the unique classroom experience. Schools may also consider using audio speakers in classes to amplify the content.

This will have a significant effect on the quality of education in schools where the teacher to student ratio is relatively low in terms of teacher availability.

How much of a factor did the pandemic-induced closure of schools and sketchy adoption of technology played in developing the Learn at Home audio e-learning platform?

Learn at Home was developed as a learning intervention to mitigate the impact of the prolonged closure of schools brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was developed as a learning solution for millions of children in Nigeria left without formal education for over six months because of the pandemic.

Read also: Gov. Zulum’s giant strides in Borno’s education sector

We also developed the platform as an inclusive solution to address the peculiar challenges of learners in rural and sub-urban areas and those who do not own smartphones or laptops. The platform is intended to deliver bespoke and relevant classes to address the learning gap created by Covid-19.

The classes are delivered via channels that are accessible and available to these categories of learners.

Even post-Covid-19, students, especially those in rural areas, would have missed a lot and need to catch up. Hence, the need for an accelerated learning solution that can robustly serve as many students as possible irrespective of their location or the devices they own. The Learn at Home project seeks to remedy this by filling the learning gaps and providing access to continued learning.

What is Learn at Home all about?

Learn at Home is an audio e-learning platform available to every child anywhere and anytime. It is a holistic and intentional effort to democratize learning in a way that ensures that no child is left behind. The audio classes on the platform can serve more than 70 percent of Nigerian students who do not own smartphones or laptops, or live in areas with poor internet connection, or cannot afford to pay for data every day. Learn at Home replicates the radio broadcast system. It is an internet-enabled platform where students can learn at their own pace using basic phones and it runs 24/7.

The Learn at Home project promotes free and quality education in Nigeria. It is a collaborative effort of Data Science Nigeria, the MasterCard Foundation and Malezi to provide free and easily accessible basic education for students across several communities in the country. It was launched as a remedial learning intervention to mitigate the impact of the prolonged shutdown of schools across the nation due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it has evolved to become a digital school for several students in the country.

What are some of the unique features available on the Learn At Home platform?

With the Learn at Home platform, every feature phone can become a school-on-the-go. Ninety-seven percent of basic feature phones sold for as low as N3,000 to N7,000 can connect to this learning platform. The platform works efficiently with little data and even in areas with 2G networks. Therefore, one can connect to the platform using the popular “kpalasa” phones.

Another interesting feature of the Learn at home platform is its data efficiency. One can listen to the audio classes on the platform with less than 30MB data. MTN network users can browse this learning platform daily for free because it is listed as part of the NCC-supported educational websites in Nigeria. Other mobile network users equally need little data to access the 24-hour round-the-clock classes on the platform.

One unique feature of learn at home audio is the self-paced learning section on the website. Students do not need to join the classes on the home page. They can select any subject and the classes will play automatically. Live classes are also available on Fridays, which allows for the usual two-way classroom interaction for effective learning. Students can ask questions during the live classes and the teachers will provide detailed answers.

In addition, the Learn at Home platform has examination preparatory content. It has a collection of solved past questions from 2009 to 2020. The past questions were solved by our teachers with detailed explanations on the answers. The preparatory content prepares students for national examinations like WAEC, NECO, Common Entrance, BECE (Junior WAEC), and UTME (JAMB).

At the moment, we are running a specialised UTME readiness series to prepare young learners seeking admission to Nigerian universities, polytechnics and colleges of education.

How will e-learning platform address the problem of the digital divide on access to learning, especially in remote communities?

This is actually the core of this audio learning platform. It was user-informed and designed to serve an identified gap or digital divide. Our intervention approach is bottom-up, meaning that we looked at what is available to children in rural and sub-urban areas and created something compatible with the available resources. This is the core of the popular learners-centred learning, where education designers consider the context, background and reality of the learners to design a best-fit learning approach.

We considered the fundamental question of how we can create a dynamic learning platform with limited but more available technology. We were keen to understand internet coverage and the internet that can best serve our intention even in the most remote villages. This is how we uncovered the idea of audio-based classes that can work on the 2G, 3G or 4G network.

The Learn at Home platform is a creative and innovative approach that offers an effective solution to the challenge of unequal distribution of learning and education opportunities across rural and urban communities.

The platform is poised to bridge the learning gap by providing access to learning opportunities to the underprivileged group, hence our mantra that no child will be left behind. We developed our platform specifically to meet the needs of users in remote areas. We designed for cost by ensuring our platform uses very little data. Lastly, we configured the delivery layer for accessibility by making it compatible with feature phones which typically have small screens.

What impact do you envisage that e-learning platform such as Learn at Home would have on national educational outcomes in a few years?

In a few years from now, we anticipate a massive ripple effect of our learning intervention across the country. The fact that we have deployed a solution focused on over 70 percent of the learners community and powered by free internet means that students’ adoption and penetration will naturally evolve.

The drive to keep millions of learners engaged during the lockdown will also address the issues of out-of-school ratio, because students who had no form of learning engagement during the pandemic will find it very difficult to switch back to the school learning mode. Our platform perfectly addressed this gap at scale.

We strongly believe that this timely intervention will have a direct impact on education by removing the existing barriers to quality education.

In security-challenged states where schools have been shut, and students have limited or no access to curriculum-based learning, how much of a difference will the Learn at Home platform make?

The platform is accessible everywhere, and anywhere. It is a 24/7 platform which ensures that learning never stops. This makes a huge difference in security- challenged areas because students will now have access to quality education at their own pace. Recall that I spoke about a section of the platform that allows students customise their learning programme by selecting specific topics per class on one of the webpages. This enables students catch up on topics they missed.

Parents no longer need to worry about their children missing schools in security challenged states as children now have the opportunity to learn. Also, the classes are based on the most updated National Education Research and Curriculum Council (NERDC) curriculum which ensures that the students learn the same topics with their peers.

What are some of the collaborative opportunities between Data Science Nigeria and government across all levels that could be leveraged to ensure quick and widespread adoption of the audio e-learning platform?

The project has enjoyed tremendous support from the government. We have had states that directly promoted it among the learners and even teachers.

In addition, we have held series of engagement and partnerships sessions with the federal and states ministries of education to embed the benefits of the Learn at Home project into their intervention plans.

We look forward to more collaboration, especially on the plan to make the content open for schools to use, with special focus on the members of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), serving as teachers.

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