Zimbabwe’s schools were supposed to reopen on the 4th of January but thanks to the raging COVID-19 pandemic that never happened. As things stand there is no clear timeline with regards to when schools will reopen. The government has made it clear that they are going to play it by the ear and no one can blame them. Reopening too early can cost our children their lives.
In the meantime parents and guardians are scrambling to find ways to make sure they educate their children. Often they end up settling for eLearning in its many forms. Some go for Zoom, others WhatsApp, Google Duo and just old plain illustrated text sites like mine. Some want to pay while others want to learn for free.
The ramblings of a veteran
I started the site “Revision” during the early days of February 2015 back when eLearning was a novel thing, not the common practice that it is today. It was a pretty selfish thing, starting the site. Back then I worked as a tutor and wanted a way to store the notes while at the same time I was getting to know WordPress intimately. So I decided to marry both goals and the site was born out of my selfish desires. To say that the site has been a modest success has been an unexpected bonus.
Back when we started there weren’t many who were into eLearning. Most people who came to our site were just looking for one-time information and our bounce rate was high. To say a lot of things have changed since those early days is an understatement. That time is a world away but still, some things remain the same.
I feel like sharing the lessons I have learnt over the years running my eLearning site would help both parents and students during these difficult times. I also arrogantly feel that those who are interested in venturing into the eLearning sector would also do well to heed some of the lessons.
The things I have learnt
So here we go, here are the things I have learnt in no particular order of importance. I will list them and try to explain each to the best of my ability:
- Content is king.
- WhatsApp lessons are cheap but should be avoided
- Online primary school lessons are stupid
- Supervision is key
- It takes two to tango, students have to be willing to engage
- It’s easy to be distracted
- You need a schedule
- Playing pretend works with uniform…
- Text versus video, which is better?
- Audio is a waste of time but it has its place
- Learn web development
- Sometimes an app is better than a website but not always
- Freemium beats all other options
- Running an eLearning site is a thankless job
- Investors? What investors? Invest in your own dream
- It’s all sweat, tears and endless toil
Let me explain the part about the content being king. It took me about a week to get the basic structure of my site set. Technology is important as we will emphasise below but it’s not everything. We have been working on the content of the site for six years and thanks to constant syllabus changes we are no closer to being finished (I don’t think we ever will be).
Every other week I am fielding calls from bright-eyed upstarts. They have this amazing app they have just developed. It’s just what students need. All they want is a partnership with me. They will scrap all the content for free and in return, they will give us shares in their amazing app. I always listen patiently to such outrageous proposals before giving a firm no. Some do indeed make a go of it but sooner or later most give up. Thankfully I know a number who have persevered and some are in the app store and thriving. It’s a big market I am always happy when competitors arrive. But eventually, they all later tell me “you were right, making content is hard”.
The right way to do eLearning
Often I see students doing eLearning the wrong way, the kind of way that often ends in disappointment. Take learning through WhatsApp, for example, it’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s accessible. All you need is WhatsApp and the bundle. The problem is that it’s not the best way to learn. Let’s say by the grace of God your teenager manages to wrestle themselves from all those other chat groups and their private chats, they have to wade through messages from their tutor that are often in the form of audio or crappy video or PDFs that are mass sent to students.
WhatsApp is not good for you as a tutor either. It was meant to be an instant messenger, not an eLearning platform. Juggling multiple students on it is a nightmare. Because you have to charge very low fees to pick up the low hanging fruits and it sometimes means you have a hundred students on there. There is just no effective way to engage them through WhatsApp.
As already hinted audio lessons are not the most ideal. In hot weather, they are the easiest way to send a student to sleep. Sure it does have its uses like when you are teaching or learning through mostly text and there is an elusive concept you want to explain/or that needs to be expounded upon. A short audio clip might just do the job. Otherwise, it’s an absolute waste of time. Most students have a hard time paying attention to a teacher that is in front of them. A voice on their phone stands no chance.
Wherever possible use video and text. You cannot have video lessons for every topic or cover every nuance which is where text or the written word comes in. It’s especially ideal for those long topics that are the meat of every subject. You can then go over the difficult bits using video. This allows students to learn at their own pace and allows you to calibrate the learning process. Live video lessons alone won’t cut it. Text alone would be very difficult except for the well-adjusted or adaptable students.
Junior students need a different approach
The silliest thing I have come accross are ads targeted at ECD eLearning. There are these operators who claim to do online ECD or primary school lessons. Online learning for primary school students is a complete waste of time especially if it involves WhatsApp. Remember the points we made above? There are even more poignant in the case of junior learners.
Without parental supervision, nothing will come out of it. You as a parent need to be actively involved in the process. You cannot be doing your chores while your child is learning. You need to be there engaging with the teacher and your child. Some people want their child’s teacher to double as the child’s parent. That might have worked in traditional learning setups but here the teacher has their hands full and will most likely not bother to adopt the parental role. Imagine having a Zoom lesson with 10 kids. You cannot be policing little Tino’s behaviour while trying to teach the others the alphabet. My solution is just to drop those students who are not supervised.
Let’s play pretend
Having a rigid schedule also helps. Don’t ask me why but I just know it does. If possible having your child wake up at the usual time they used to wake up when going to school. Make them take a bath and put on their school uniform. Reserve a distraction free place where they can do their lessons as if they are really in school with the usual breaks. This works trust me.
The art of web development
- You will see yourself running to a web-developer everytime you need something done. Soon the whole thing becomes expensive.
- Sometimes you won’t even know something is possible using programming and end up doing it the hard way, wasting opportunity time and effort doing something a little script could do for you.
You need to keep everything in perspective though. Get managed hosting. These days it costs almost the same as normal hosting. You don’t want to spend too much time working on the site instead of teaching or creating content. Managed hosting allows you to focus on what is important.
What you charge is important
You have to come up with the right pricing model for the market you are trying to target. For me the ad-funded freemium model works best. People in Zimbabwe are struggling financially and you need to charge enough to make a profit. You have to strike a balance between the two. I charge premium for live lessons but everything on the site is free. With the free content I get to showcase my skill, knowledge and ability. It gets people through the door.
Then I get to charge a good fee to those who want my private attention. The freemium model is the best. Making people pay right off the bat scares off many potential students and parents. They need to see you are “that good” before you pay up. The model has worked so well I go about telling people I have helped over 4 million students in those six years. Students from as far as Singapore, Indonesia, the US and UK. I have students getting in touch with me from remote villages in Kenya. Those people who have been left behind if I charged everyone to get through the door.
Which brings me to another lesson, it shouldn’t just be about money. A lot of people have been put out of work due to the lockdown and some figure they can just make money giving lessons online. The primary motive being, of course, money. Things hardly ever work out if your only motivation is financial. Income tends to be seasonal and during some months the money almost dries up. What then? You need a passion for your project for you and it to survive.
You should also be prepared to set aside some of your own money to invest in your project. There are not that many investors in Zimbabwe and chances are you (and you alone) will be the one investing in your dream. If you cannot do that who do you want to waste money on it?
There are times when you will feel like giving up. Most often you will realise that unlike with other sectors where you deal with adults, students are basically parasites. Even on a free site they just make demands some of them reasonable (can you please add this topic I really need it) and some of them plain outrageous (print all your notes and send them to me). Most of the time it is just “give give give give” and they never contribute anything in return e.g. suggesting fixes for typos.
That can lead to burn out. The best solution is not to get depressed. It’s OK to take a break. This applies to all startups really but as a serial startup founder eLearning sites are the worst. Take a two week break. Maybe work on something else that’s not related. I have another pet project which I have grown to love. It’s still basically blogging but different kind of blogging.
Know this, to succeed you will need to be willing to shed tears, to sweat and toil endlessly in a thankless industry that might never make you rich. The rewards are educating tomorrow’s generation. But of course what do I know. I have been only doing it for six years running the largest eLearning site in Zimbabwe.