e-learning in Zimbabwe: the reality behind bringing mobile phones into the mix

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image credit: mTutor

We should allow cell phones in Zimbabwe’s schools. Well, that is what the responsible powers think anyway. Just recently, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Education, Dr Lazarus Dokora, was quoted in the Herald as having encouraged the use of mobile tech in learning institutions as a way to get children to appreciate the dynamic world in a different way.

Before anyone gets all excited, let’s keep in mind that these utterances weren’t at the back of some all-important legislative address. It sounded like they were the Minister’s own thoughts on the matter. That alone makes it less noteworthy in terms of the possible enactment of such changes any time in the near future.

It is political rhetoric at its best, no doubt, but there is a lot to consider for the tech ecosystem and for education delivery on a national scale if any of this does see the light of day.

The cell phone has been a conduit for so many other transformations (think banking and financial services, entertainment, trade, remittances) and e-learning in Zimbabwe could also benefit from it. All that talk is a bit obvious.

While the minister’s remarks here were focused on that aspect, the discussion should actually be less of WHY and more of HOW.

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The use of cell phones in education isn’t a new gig. In terms of a national roll out, it has been done before in several countries that want to explore the benefits of mastering digital tools for education. The reality of it all is that this would be our attempt at playing catch up.

Without poring over national case studies and theses that are pro-mobile-phone-use to establish the possibility of this working, the proof of the pudding is actually within our borders.

Several schools (albeit mostly private) have been open to students and pupils’ use of the cell phone. This has always been the case even before mobile phone penetration shot through the roof and we had reached the point where cell phone access wasn’t something reserved for the affluent.

This “school cell phone privilege” is what has now been converted into closely monitored access of the devices for particular activities in line with education. This is not an easy process though and to be fair the system isn’t free from errors right now. Whoever implements it has to tinker with it for their specific domain.

A lot of schools have been trying refine the systems around the use of modern day tech for education and these trials have helped expose some of the weaknesses. In noticing all the holes in this dream for a cell phone centred education, perhaps the Zimbabwean government can figure out how the State approach should be crafted.

Crafting of a policy and creating local systems has to come first

The Minister’s remarks have been taken as an open sesame to m-learning and e-learning in Zimbabwe’s public education system. However, the challenges in the face of all this coming to fruition stem largely from the policy perspective, which is the one area where our system of education is naked.

The last time the Zimbabwean education system went under review was back in 1999. The famed Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Education and Training (CIET) aka the Nziramsanga Commission presented a set of recommendations that were meant to usher in an education system turnaround.

That was a little over a decade and a half ago. The commission hadn’t imagined the possibility of cell phone or tablet-based education and cloud resources for Maths, Science and so forth. All that would have been viewed as sorcery.

However, this is where the world is right now and even in our slow adopters country, it’s where we are going. While the ministry and State might still be keen on adopting some important recommendations from the Nziramasanga Report, there has to be consideration for the changes to the environment and how we need to adapt to this accordingly.

This involves a clear policy on aspects such as skills and training for teachers (this starts at college level), revamping curriculum to accommodate changes that a digital approach entails (computers NOT agriculture have to take centre stage here), acquisition of all resources in line with e-learning and m-learning (The Presidential Computerisation Programme on its own hasn’t been adequate) and a realisation that we have to build something that is entirely ours as a system to roll out to every child at the end of it all.

What this translates to is a serious evaluation of education as a major pillar in whatever turnaround is envisioned followed by significant investment in various aspects of education itself.

Bring others on board but the State has to be in the drivers’ seat

So far what has constituted e-learning in Zimbabwe has been the rollout of different solutions from private operators. It is great for the capitalist spirit and besides the mobile network Econet, several startups are exploring the opportunity that lies in an unexplored m-learning and e-learning field.

The result is that at times, some half-baked solutions that are not necessarily the best for the public education system have made it to market. For a nationwide m-learning implentation, there should be greater involvement of the Ministry of Education.

That’s not chasing private players from the table though. Although it won’t be easy, the right partnerships should be explored as they can have tremendous results.

It’s not happening right now because not everyone can afford it

As it stands, in a public school system (and also in some private schools), not every child has access to the devices. Despite our government’s belief that everyone has a cell phone and we should be taxed for bringing in more, there is still a fraction of the market that doesn’t have a phone. These individuals won’t be out to acquire a data-enabled device for their child for learning purposes.

This triggers protests against an unfair learning environment with the haves and have-nots, and it makes it difficult for anyone delivering education to attend to the few that have the resources.

We probably won’t get to that stage as fast as we would want anyway. However, when the State does decide to have a focus on making that a core aspect of modern Zimbabwean education, we will be genuinely ready to talk about cell phones in schools.

4 Comments

  1. Ini says:

    I think there is need to clarify a few things on “cellphones in school” issue which has been a debate around the world.
    1. Cellphone as a communication tool for calls, SMS, IMs and accessing the internet may not be allowed in schools as they may not contribute to any academic progress but rather serve as a distraction.
    2. The use of mobile device i.e tablets or cellphones as means to end, that is provision of educational content for use in class can, has to and must be explored (think Zedupad in Zambi, elimu and Eneza in Kenya) as a means of bridging the gap of textbooks and teacher shortage. Devices with limited functionality can be used.
    Our biggest problem now is a generation gap where most parents look at mobile devices and their conventional use being in the class, carrying idea of ebooks replacing textbooks, online tutorials replacing the classroom, teacher-pupil-parent connection on live platforms, interactive learning. A lot needs to be done in converting and convincing the other generation on where we are.

    1. Ini says:

      *without carrying idea of ebooks

  2. Loud Speaker says:

    Seriously in a country where >60% has no electricity? Fix that basic first then talk about fancy ideas…unless of course a deeply divided society is what you after.

  3. JKKJ says:

    KJJJKK

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