In March, Zimbabwean schools had to close early and students were stuck at home for months afterwards. There were proposals to begin online learning programs and there was public outcry. It was deemed not viable due to all the challenges. As the months dragged on and the lockdowns extended, we had no choice but to start online learning programs.
Which tools are being used?
Private schools like Dominican Convent did not wait, they started online learning the moment a lockdown was imposed. They were using Google Classroom to share assignments and pre-recorded lesson videos. Tertiary institutions later followed suit with Google Classroom but they also use Zoom and Microsoft Teams to host lectures.
Students can also hold further discussions in WhatsApp groups and share ideas. WhatsApp is a very powerful platform that we are greatly under-utilising, more-so given how accessible it is in Zimbabwe.
The challenges on the surface
Looking at e-learning, we see a lot of immediate challenges. Here are some of the more prevalent ones:
- Lack of adequate telecommunications infrastructure.
- A low, mobile device penetration rate (even kambudzi / mbuzi / feature phones can be used to learn). This leaves out a lot of students.
- Lack of reliable internet connectivity.
- Expensive mobile data.
- Teachers who are not trained on how to use technology effectively. We meet teachers who are unable to save documents to flash drives.
Private schools managed to strike a balance. The assumption is that if your parents can afford to take you to a private school, they can also afford to buy you a mobile phone, a laptop and internet data. Tertiary school students are still crying out for help from the government. Most have mobile phones and laptops but affording internet data is a challenge.
TelOne, Econet, ZOL and NetOne are the most common ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in Zimbabwe but their services are however not reliable. Connections are known to drop regularly and network speeds tend to fluctuate too much. Also, a lot of areas in the country face connectivity issues, even in central business districts.
The benefits of online learning
Student abuse is lower
Students face a lot of abuse at school. Some schools still promote corporal punishment of students. Emotional abuse is also rife in classrooms. With an online lesson, a teacher is not aware who is listening. As such, the teacher’s attitude towards students is warmer. Also, the inability to simply reach out and slap a student is a very welcome plus to students.
Parents are more involved
As students are learning from home all the time, a teacher can schedule to speak with a parent at the start of every lesson or after. Parents become more actively involved in the education of their children. Teachers are also able to assign tasks to parents and if parents do not deliver, teachers get to express the importance of each assigned task and its impact on the student’s education.
Student anxiety and bullying
A lot of students suffer from anxiety and low confidence. These students do not feel comfortable contributing in a classroom and as such their questions go unanswered. Some students are victims of bullying due to contributing more frequently than others. Such students get branded teacher’s pets, know-it-alls and even face physical harm at the hands of their peers.
In an online class, every student has full control of their learning environment and can participate and contribute to the lesson more freely. This is something we may overlook but the emotional stature of a student is important to how their ability to learn.
The challenges we do not think of
Teaching is more than giving students notes, explaining to slow learners then giving out exercises to test understanding of a particular topic. When students are in a classroom, a teacher is constantly monitoring attentiveness, the general mood of the students and driving the lesson forward.
Monitoring attentiveness and student mood
In an online classroom, students are usually told to disable their cameras to conserve precious mobile data. Even if they have it enabled, it is difficult for a teacher to look and assess the mood of twenty faces in an e-classroom. Most of the online video conferencing tools only show up to six faces at a time. The teacher can be talking for two hours with only a handful of students paying attention.
Some students may be facing challenges at home that affect their ability to properly pay attention. In a classroom, this is easy to spot and a teacher can call a student aside to talk to them. At home, with a student connected to the home wireless network, it is a bit of a challenge to get a learner to open up.
Teaching Mathematics online
As it is, Mathematics is already hard to teach in person. Now try explaining matrix manipulation online. It just does not work. There are also several subjects where trying to teach online is an insurmountable task. Maybe with the use of cameras pointing at a whiteboard it can become better. However, the cost of cameras and setting up online streaming is just too high.
Lack of control over online platforms
We spoke earlier about the online tools we use for learning in Zimbabwe. All these platforms are American based. We are at the mercy of these brands and should they decide to impose sanctions on us, it will be the death of online education. This challenge goes beyond education.
When lockdown was imposed, Zimra took to using G-Mail to receive documents from the public. This in itself should be a major security concern for the government. However, with its misplaced priorities, the government does not seem to care. As long as their coffers are replenished for looting, who cares how?
Where are the local solutions?
As it stands, we are currently not aware of any local solutions that provide online classrooms. There have been attempts by several smaller players to customise the free Moodle e-learning management system. The platform is quite limited and does not provide video-streaming, a much-needed feature.
In conclusion, the digital divide is still very wide and online learning is being used with varying effectivity across the nation. Most institutions using it are doing so without government support which leaves a lot of challenges unsolved. Econet stepped in and started providing cheaper e-learning mobile data bundles. If the government can also chip in, we will revolutionise education and pave the way to a well rounded online learning experience.