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Deep Impact: How COVID-19 Exposed The Education Sector’s Digital Flaw

Virtually all schools were closed across Nigeria between March and July 2020. Most schools only fully reopened in January 2021, with social distancing measures in place. Credit: Sodiq Adelakun/Channels Television

 

Solomon Elusoji

 

Kemi Ogunsanya, 29, studied English Education at the University of Lagos. After graduation she wasn’t inclined, at first, to teach. But after several failed job applications, she returned to the classroom, this time as an instructor. And, for seven years, she hasn’t looked back.

When Nigeria’s Ministry of Education ordered the closure of all schools to limit the spread of the pandemic in March 2020, Kemi’s students – aged seven to 11 – were just about to commence examinations. “It was a bit destabilising,” she said, “but we knew we were going to continue online.”

Kemi’s school made the transition to online learning using tools such as Zoom and Class Dojo. To “thoroughly engage” her students, she picked up skills in cartoon animation and visual design, and researched techniques on how to gamify learning. “I wanted to captivate my students’ attention,” she said. “I knew that if it was boring, students would not enjoy it.”

Of course there were challenges – the regular limitations of Internet data and power supply. And since online learning requires a lot of parent participation, she had to keep constant tabs on parents to ensure student attendance and prompt submission of class assignments.

“It was a lot of effort, but it wasn’t a wasted year,” Kemi said. “Now that schools have resumed, there are some slides and videos I created then that we are still using now. And the students still enjoy them.”

But for millions of students enrolled in public or rural schools in Nigeria, the school closures halted formal learning, according to more than a dozen teachers who spoke to Channels Television. For months, students were cut off from their instructors. The use of digital technology to communicate was not an option as most children who attend public, rural schools come from poor homes with no access to smartphones or the Internet. The Ministry of Education in several states tried to reach students through mass produced radio and television programs, but the impact was minimal at best. “Teaching did not stop,” one teacher said, “but I can’t tell if learning took place.”

An unfair advantage

Adaobi Amadi, 34, had always wanted to be a teacher. When she was younger, she had her own make-shift school, complete with a blackboard and chalk, where she taught her neighbours. So it wasn’t a surprise when she took up teaching after graduating from the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Akwa, with a degree in Applied Biochemistry.

Today, she teaches Chemistry to students between 13 and 18 at a public school in Port Harcourt.

When schools were closed in March 2020, she thought, at first, it was going to be a one-month holiday. But the months continued to meld into one another and she began to feel an emotion she described as ‘panic’. While her son, who attends a private school, was receiving lectures online from home, she was cut off from her students. “At that point, it became kind of stressful,” she said.

An online learning approach would never work for Adaobi’s students. Most of them came from families with no access to smartphones or laptops, talk less of Internet data. “In my school, there are students who come to me and say, we haven’t eaten since yesterday. Majority of them are domestic workers. We do have a sprinkling who come from middle-class homes, but those are very few.”

When schools began to reopen in the later part of 2020, Adaobi said “the drop in performance was glaring.” Teachers tried to review what had been taught in the past months and holidays were shrunk. The Christmas break didn’t extend much beyond a week, as efforts to gain ground intensified.

Adaobi said school hours were also reduced from six to three hours as authorities moved to comply with social distancing regulations imposed by the Ministry of Education.

“Private schools have maintained their schooling schedules,” she said. “They get like six hours of schooling. And my students get only three hours. And it’s the same syllable they are supposed to cover and the same examinations they are supposed to sit for.”

She observed that the questions in the last set of external exams her student wrote seemed to have been easier than previous ones. Perhaps, she mused, the examination bodies had considered the impact of the pandemic on student performance. (A WAEC spokesman told Channels Television the examination body “will never compromise on standards or integrity” of its tests)

“I’m hoping that will happen again,” she said. “Because if it’s the same standards as what we had three, four years ago, I’m obviously scared for public school students.

“I kind of feel like it’s very unfair that public school students and private school students would sit for the same exams. Private school students not only got the online classes that they did, then when schools resumed they continued with their normal schedule. So they are prepared. But public school students are not.”

An inadequate government response

Nigeria is not the only country where the pandemic disrupted education. According to UNICEF, about 1.2 billion learners were out of school and 73.8% of the world’s school population were affected by school closures as a result of efforts to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On paper, the Federal Government developed several initiatives to ensure students continued to learn despite the pandemic lockdowns, through the Nigeria Education Sector COVID-19 Response Strategy set up by the Federal Ministry of Education and the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC).

The strategy included plans for the Learn at Home Programme (LHP), which led to partnerships with educational technology companies and the launching of virtual e-learning platforms.

Many Nigerian schools still rely largely on paper materials, rather than computers. Sodiq Adelakun/Channels Television

 

These platforms include SchoolGate (for primary school students), Mobile Classroom, WAEC E-learning toolkit and Unity Schools virtual learning platforms.

The Ministry, on its website, also linked to other educational resources from Khan Academy, Seesaw, National Open University, UNESCO School Meets Learner Approach, Teacher Development Programme, British Council, and others.

State Governments, too, adopted several initiatives. The Lagos State government, for example, partnered with First Bank of Nigeria to equip students with e-learning solutions and low-end devices preloaded with a government-accredited curriculum and designed to work offline.

Also, many states turned to broadcasting lessons on radio and television. These lessons encompassed content on core primary and secondary school subjects.

But what was the impact of these interventions? Were they able to meet the learning needs of students or mitigate the number of dropouts when schools eventually reopened, considering Nigeria has one of the largest numbers of out-of-school-children in the world?

A Federal Ministry of Education spokesman Ben Bem Goong suggested that it was hardly the Ministry’s responsibility to ensure active participation in digital learning.

“Having access to online facilities is basically an individual responsibility,” he said during a phone interview. “I can’t buy a phone and give it to anybody. I don’t think the Ministry will buy phones and laptops (for students) to access online materials. We haven’t gotten to that level.”

One vision of the Ministry of Education is “to provide universal and equal access to quality basic and secondary education that will ensure self-reliance, preparedness for further education, good citizenship and effective participation in democratic governance.”

When pressed on whether the Ministry was worried about the inability of many students, especially those attending public, rural schools, to access digital learning, including resources provided by the government, Mr Goong said the government cannot be expected to do everything.

“The question you are asking me is not within the (purview) of the Federal Ministry of Education to answer, in the sense that providing Internet facilities is not just a function of what the Ministry of Education does alone,” he said.

“In terms of providing electricity – which is the key driver to rolling out online materials – it’s not within our responsibility to do. This cuts across sectors. So when a student is unable to access online materials that are driven by electricity or wireless signals, it is not entirely a responsibility of the Ministry of Education.

“It is a responsibility that cuts across Ministries, one that also has to do with the family. There is no way government can do all of that alone; if government has built schools, government has engaged teachers, it’s paying them, maintaining the schools, I think some other stakeholders should also take that responsibility, particularly those that value education; they should be able to say how do I provide laptops and batteries for my children to learn. When you begin to put everything on the head of government, believe you me, even the best critics of governance will not like to be in government after one week.”

To prepare for another pandemic-like school closure, Mr Goong said the Federal Ministry of Education was seeking to partner with the Nigeria Television Authority and the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria to develop lessons in key areas for broadcast, especially for students in exit classes.

The importance of digital tools

Samuel Onyeledo, 35, still remembers vividly the first day he walked into a public primary school in Kaduna. He was excited to be starting his fellowship with Teach for Nigeria, a program which recruits talented future leaders and sends them to teach at schools in low-income communities.

He remembers being introduced to teachers who were invigilating a primary six examination. When he asked them how the students were doing, they appeared to mock the pupils. “These ones? They don’t know anything,” one of the teachers said, according to Onyeledo. “In fact, they can’t even read the questions on the board. We just wrote it down in English language but we have to read it out in Hausa before they will be able to attempt it.”

For most of the next two years, Onyeledo, a graduate of Geology from the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, worked hard to teach a class of kids how to read.

“If a child goes from primary one to primary six and still can’t read,” Onyeledo said, “ I think the school system has wasted six years of that child’s life. Because a basic thing the child should get before leaving primary education is literacy. Just the ability to read, to communicate in the English language.”

The pandemic-induced school closures cut short Onyeledo’s time with the kids.

“For me, it was close to devastating, mainly because of the kids in my class,” Onyeledo said. “I had been working with them closely, trying to get them to learn to read, basically. I was teaching primary two. I started with them in primary one. That was then the pandemic happened. When schools closed, it was devastating because I knew how far we had gone. If I’m not with them, they might just slide back.”

And he couldn’t really be with them because most of the parents of the kids in his class didn’t have smartphones. The only channel of communication was through voice calls, which he said were not effective enough and couldn’t really scale. There were radio programs, but he wasn’t sold on their effectiveness for primary school students. “I don’t think there’s much impact,” he said. “At that level, these children need hands-on-learning, they need guidance.”

When lockdown measures were eased, he tried to visit some of his students at home and share resources with their guidance, while observing Covid protocols. But he would always wish that his students had access to technology.

When examinations were held in August 2020, authorities emphasised social distancing measures. Sodiq Adelakun/Channels Television

 

“With tech, we would have held online classes on Zoom, easily created a classroom, a group for all the parents and kids,” Onyeledo said. “And sometimes send voice notes. For those who are visual learners too, we could send some resources, including videos. It would make your teaching very effective. With technology, it would have been a whole lot better.”

Maryam Onubaye, 27, was another Teach for Nigeria fellow in Kaduna who lost major contact with her pupils after schools closed. But she wouldn’t give up.

“I started thinking about ways to get them learning,” she said “Some of their parents have Whatsapp-enabled phones. So I went to their houses – the community where my school was – Tudun Wada – you can have like five families in one area and ten kids. I went to their houses and made lesson videos on the subjects I teach and every week I send them to their phones. I give exercises at the end of the videos that they can do. And I explain to parents how they can guide them and make sure they actually do the exercises. And they take a picture and send it back to me. We did that every week.

“The ones who do not have Whatsapp-enabled phones, I had to do weekly exercises with them. Every weekend, I’ll go and teach them a little, come back and follow up.”

Her enthusiasm and creativity and hard work made some impact, but Onubaye recognised the limitations. More “digital tools would have made a difference,” she said. “But for that to happen, there are so many things that need to happen. The kids have to have access to the internet, power, a tablet, a phone or a computer.” For now, they do not.

‘A lot of work to do’

In March, internet penetration in Nigeria stood at 41 percent, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission. And coverage is mostly limited to urban cities such as Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja and Kano. But almost half of all Nigerians still live in rural communities, according to data from the World Bank. In 2020, the Federal Government launched a new national broadband plan which, by 2025, is expected to ensure all tertiary education institutions are within “5km of fibre manhole or with a fixed connection” to the Internet. Under the plan 50 per cent of secondary schools and 25 percent are expected to be covered by 2025. Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, which “works to connect underserved young Africans with digital opportunities”, said the government’s plan “is very conservative” and “may not even be achieved if the government continues to introduce contradictory policies.”

Another obvious challenge is power supply. As of 2018, according to World Bank data, only 56.5 percent of Nigeria’s population have access to electricity. And as tariffs continue to rise, the poor and their children may find it harder to afford the glow from light bulbs.

The national situation is exacerbated by rising insecurity. While the number of out-of-school-children in Nigeria has dropped to 6.9 million from 10.1 million, with the help of the Better Education Service Delivery for All (BESDA) programme in Nigeria, the Minister of State for Education, Chukwuemeka Nwajiuba, has noted that “more and more children are joining the queue.” Between December and March 2020, over 600 students were kidnapped from schools across the country. “Student kidnappings threaten collapse of Nigerian education system,” two scholars warned in April.

“Government has a lot of work to do,” Zam Daniel, a teacher in Abuja, said. “In the education sector, we are about 50 years behind developed countries.”

More than ever, Nigeria must work to democratise digital education.

“If it is our right to be educated and the web is now the biggest source of information,” Adetola Omolade, a teacher at Greensprings School in Lagos, said.
“then I think access to the internet is a basic human right.”

Solomon Elusoji

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