Covid-19 induced online learning here to stay

Monday January 04 2021

Senior Four students attend class wearing face masks at St Noa Mawaggali SS Njeru Buikwe District on October 14, 2020. PHOTO/ DENIS EDEMA

By George Katongole

Keith Mukisa is a Primary Seven student of Rehoboth Junior School in Mukono. He is among those that returned to school to complete the syllabus ahead of the national examinations scheduled to start in March.

As part of the phased opening of education institutions, schools reopened on October 15, 2020, for primary, secondary, technical, farm schools and community polytechnics. This initial reopening was limited to only finalists and candidate students (P.7, S.4 and S.5; as well as S.3 students slated for vocational school) – about 1.2 million learners across the country.

Recalling his experience on returning home for the short holiday, Mukisa said the “new normal” followed strict standard operating procedures” (SOPs) that included putting on a mask during classes and break time.

“You could slightly move your mask to answer a question during class and immediately cover your mouth and nose,” Mukisa said. “It was uncomfortable at first but am now used to it.”

Returning to classes was a blessing to most of the candidates. For Shadia Nansubuga, a Senior Four student of Najjeera Progressive School (The school consequently closed during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown), reading was hard during the lockdown. She whetted her reading appetite on revision materials.

“I was worried that I would repeat the class. I am happy and feel relieved that soon we will do final exams,” Nansubuga said.


Ripple effect
More than 15 million children in Uganda were affected by school closures in March due to the pandemic. As everything came to a dramatic halt, education which accounts for about 5 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, education changed with the distinctive rise of remote online learning with students especially in international schools responding to zoom calls from their teachers while others attended classes on television.

According to experts, this sudden shift away from the classroom paints a picture of the future of online learning post-pandemic and its impact on the education market.
In an interview, Justus Mugisha the director of Standard High Zzana said, the “new normal could become normal.”

Even before Covid-19, there was already high adoption in education technology, with global online education services projected to reach $350b by 2025.

For more than two decades, online or blended learning has been on the agenda for close to two decades in Uganda.

Five per cent of 76 units of account in the African Development Bank’s Support for Higher Education Science and Technology (HEST) project was dedicated to Information and communications technology (ICT). 
This covers the last mile link to the national backbone, procurement of ICT materials - computers and other accessories - as well as capacity for online programmes.

Dr Florence Mayega Nakayiwa, the deputy executive secretary for planning, resource mobilisation and management at the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (Ruforum) based at Makerere University, is disappointed.

“The adoption of ICT in learning, curriculum review, and in the delivery of higher education programmes in Uganda, is still a long way off. Perhaps the Covid-19 shutdown period was the missed opportunity for universities in Uganda,” Dr Nakayiwa wrote in an article that appeared in the University World News.

Education sector response to covid-19
The Education Ministry’s Covid-19 response plan involved the distribution of home study kits and broadcasting lessons on both radio and television directly to learners at home. Technology was the ‘Plan B’ in the form of TV and radio.

For lower Primary Classes, education materials on radio, was written in local languages including; Luganda, Lusoga, Lhukonzo, Lugbarati, Runyankore-Rukiga, Runyoro-Rutooro, Ateso, Aringati and Maditi.

Parents had to help their children navigate digital learning portals and establish schedules and routines for education, tasks that were previously managed by teachers and schools. 

The unexpected closure of schools heightened awareness that, despite a growing reliance on digital mediums, human contact is at the heart of learning.

Schools bolstered capabilities to provide internal online portals for teachers and students for holiday work and revision notes. Mpoma School in Mukono District, for instance, provided sections for past papers, revision questions and study videos for practical classes.

 To be able to offer lessons during the crisis, the school ramped up its server infrastructure.

Hillary Maikhuma, the Chemistry teacher at Mpoma School said that at times the connectivity was unreliable while some of the students were not connected. “Yet there are some parents who had other priorities with data bundles secondary,” Maikhuma said.
Alpha Edu-care, a start-up that offers video class packages, had to prepare for an influx.

“More people subscribed to our services with an average of 30 inquiries every day,” Lufafa, the director of Alpha Edu-care, said.

 The future of learning
While some believe that the unplanned move to online learning – with no training, insufficient bandwidth, and little preparation – will result in a poor user experience that is unconducive to sustained growth, others believe that a new hybrid model of education will emerge, with significant benefits.

“I think online learning will become an integral component of school education,” says Lufafa.

Up to 50 universities were cleared to offer online teaching by the National Council for Higher Education. State minister for higher education Dr John Chrysostom Muyingo said then that, “Universities are taking this move, because of the Covid-19 restrictions and will also be expected to maintain the teaching even after this pandemic era.”

Ndejje University Vice Chancellor Prof Eriabu Lugujjo touted the benefits. 

“It has changed the way of teaching. It enables us to reach out to our students more efficiently and effectively through chat groups, video meetings, and also document sharing. I believe traditional offline learning and e-learning can go hand by hand.”

Dorothy Kyamazima, the Communications Officer with Enabel, a Belgian Development Agency supporting Teacher Training Education (TTE) in Uganda National Teachers’ Colleges (NTCs), says “with the significant change to the way learning, teachers must inevitably re-skill at a record pace to support the continuity of learning,” she noted.

Enabel has been supporting the use of tech-enabled learning in NTCs by the use of the ‘TTE Sandbox’, which serves as a testing environment for education technology (EdTech), utilising the potential of teachers to respond to the current education crisis. 
It introduces ICT tools and educational practices to teachers aimed at facilitating and enhancing distance learning post Covid-19 pandemic to develop and deliver lesson content.

Norbert Bolla, a music lecturer from NTC Mubende, uses Google classroom, YouTube, Prezi and WhatsApp to deliver lesson content to learners.

“My desire to learn more about ICT has given me the ability to stay relevant and support my students. I have been sending learning content through WhatsApp and when I realised my students were responsive; I resorted to starting lessons on a regular basis. Now I look forward to using tools that are more sophisticated, like Google Classroom,” Bolla said.

Experts contend that students are able to learn faster online as e-learning requires 40-60 per cent less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of online learning varies amongst age groups. Younger children are easily distracted, therefore, to get the full benefit of online learning, there needs to be physical involvement.

 Elephant in the room
Technology-dependent learning strategies supported learning for a few, but left a majority behind.

According to various reports by Unicef, the Covid-19 educational disruption and response initially gave rise to an optimistic discourse on digital learning and the future of education. But this view quickly lost momentum as evidence suggested large numbers of learners were excluded.

Currently, just 48 per cent of people in Uganda are using the internet, according to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). 
The three main obstacles to internet use are lack of affordable access, a desperate need for computer and online literacy skills, as well as limited awareness about the wealth of information and other opportunities the internet has to offer.

Joseph Segawa, the deputy head teacher Buyamba SS in Rakai District stressed that “technology-enabled learning can help shape the future of education opportunities but it is clear that distance learning can never fully replace the physical classrooms. Schools are much more than places for learning. They provide social networks, safety and well-being for children and youth.”

The Unesco Assistant Director General for Education Stefania Giannini underlined in September during the Unesco flagship digital technologies in education event that: “Change is possible. Education is a promise to provide an equal chance to students for education. However, the way to address inequalities is still a challenge.”