As someone who worked in the education industry for a couple of years, I feel for today’s students. The enforced extended holidays were fun for a while, till they realised their futures were at stake. You could literally see the anxiety on some of these teenagers’ faces.
Schools reopened recently and ZIMSEC insists examinations will proceed regardless of the disturbances students faced. Now, take the Upper Six candidates for example, both years of their A-level were disturbed and yet, somehow, they must be ready to sit for exams. It’s heartbreaking.
All in all, over 5 million students were affected, missing school for extended periods due to the pandemic. This was not an easy problem to remedy.
Remote learning through the radio
The pandemic exposed just how unprepared Zimbabwe was for the digital revolution. I mean, we are still to see our TV infrastructure go digital, years into the project. So, absolutely no one was surprised that the solution to schools being physically closed – remote learning – was not really viable in Zimbabwe.
Of course, the government tells us that its remote learning initiatives were and continue to be successful. Never mind the loafing you saw when you walked the streets, the increased teenage pregnancies and marriages and so on.
We must believe that the lessons that were aired on national radio were a sufficient stand-in for the physical classroom. Ignore the fact that the most popular radio station reaches only about 2 million listeners annually.
While we are at it, let us ignore the fact that learning through the radio does not make for a good experience. A learner cannot ask questions or ask the teacher to repeat a point. The learner has to grasp all of it the first time because they will not be able to access the radio lesson after it airs.
The teacher has an impossible task. Teaching a national class is impossible. Too many unknowns mean a generalized lesson has to do. What level where the students at, do they have the prerequisites for this lesson to succeed, how is their English and so on. Not mentioning not being able to see their faces to judge whether they understand what’s being said.
Remote learning through the internet
UNICEF joined the government to launch the Learning Passport. An online platform which hosts Radio Lessons, Syllabuses, Teacher Guides/resources, and Learning Modules (audio lessons, online books, videos, and interactive content). Access is free for all
It was only launched in March 2021 and hopes to bridge the gap between those who can afford paid e-Learning platforms and those who can’t. We know that private school students did not miss even a single lesson this whole time. The majority rest where the target for this platform.
There were other online learning platforms launched in the last two years. However, the challenge remained access to the internet. Only 31% of schools had access and even for them, paying for access every month was a hurdle.
For the individual students, the e-Learning bundles (around $2000 for 8gb) were out of reach. So, for all the noise that was made about this online platform and that, most Zimbabwean students did not benefit one bit.
Even the Learning Passport had a humble goal of reaching only 300,000 learners in 2021. In June, they had reached 25% of that goal – 70,000 users. All this when over 5 million students were affected.
Could we not utilise WhatsApp?
Let us get one fact right first, WhatsApp is not accessible to all Zimbabweans. There are many Zimbabweans, in the millions, who still have never used WhatsApp. The almost 90% mobile penetration rate does not mean 90% of Zimbos have mobile phones that are WhatsApp compatible.
However, the fact remains that WhatsApp is more accessible than the ‘internet-at-large’ in this country. After all, WhatsApp accounts for more than half of all internet traffic in Zimbabwe. This is helped by the WhatsApp bundles offered by all mobile network operators.
So, seeing as WhatsApp is more affordable and familiar to Zimbabweans, one would think e-learning through WhatsApp would achieve better results. Better than the other e-learning initiatives at least. One case study could offer a glimpse into that.
Remote learning by Dr Maxx through WhatsApp
The good doctor is a 28-year-old unqualified teacher in Mbare. He tutors A-level students and focuses on exam preparation. Dr Maxx was in the news when his class of 64 students achieved a 100% pass rate with 41 As between them.
The doctor is a doctor by name only, having not progressed past A-level himself because of lack of funds. Though not trained, Dr Maxx, real name Maxwell Chimedza, has proven to be quite the teacher since he started his WhatsApp learning academy in 2019.
“Honestly, I don’t know how to operate a computer. I’m a WhatsApp exam-refiner”Dr Maxx admission
The famous quote above reveals a lot. He is so competent on WhatsApp he creates class timetables and adds audiovisual material for students then runs mock tests and grades them in his WhatsApp classroom.
Armed with a smartphone with 32GB of memory, our doctor polishes his students to a shine. All within just one app.
It happens to be the case for a lot of teachers and students and parents. They are comfortable with WhatsApp and only WhatsApp. The other e-learning solutions are both expensive and hard to navigate for them.
I believe the e-learning push should at least include WhatsApp as a distribution and interaction platform. It is already there and students and teachers are already familiar with it. It is also less expensive than the other options.
Schools reopened but we are not out of the woods yet. Some schools have already been closed due to breakouts of the virus and with the delta variant still hovering, we might be needing e-learning pretty soon. Seeing as this is an emergency, we need all the stakeholders to take WhatsApp seriously.