The Covid-19 pandemic gave birth to many major changes in the way we go about our day to day activities. These range from living, working and learning. Education which is a vital aspect in societies too was not spared by the new normal.
Schools were among the first institutions to close down in Uganda because the traditional setting was nothing but a potential contamination hotspot.
After months of virtual learning students were allowed back into the traditional classroom provided they observed social distancing which called for few numbers.
This allows for less than half of the school population back to school leaving the rest stuck on remote learning.
It is safe to say that the pandemic has had a noteworthy influence on the learning and assessment experiences of students across the globe. But there has not been a smooth transition. Location, demographics, access to equipment, broadband and national government policies have played a part.
In Uganda the government initially proposed that students would attend classes that would be broadcast on different radio and television stations.
A report of Uganda Media Landscape done by BBC Media Action released in February 2019, showed 40 per cent of the population had acccess to televisions while 78 per cent had access to radios.
According to a report released in January 2020 by Digital 2020, internet usage remains at 24 per cent. In a nutshell, transitioning from the customary learning to online methods was always going to be a bumpy ride.
Ritah Phoebe Nabugere, a first year student at the Law Development Centre in Makerere, had a bittersweet experience with the introduction of online learning.
“The whole change from physical to online classes meant, no wearing suits, no decorum being followed, learning new ways of having to communicate and accepting that it is what it is now,” she recalls.
“I think physical classes would have been more tiring than virtual classes. The online classes also give the freedom of studying from your bedroom, dining table and anywhere else,” she adds.
However there are challenges too. “Parents and students now have to budget for laptops, smart phones and other gadgets which would have not necessarily been the case before. There is also the issue of usability knowledge, I recall the first class we had was a mess as many did not know how to operate the applications such as Zoom. They had to be given a specific class for that,” Nabugere says.
The Uganda Christian University in Mukono was one of the first institutions to pile pressure on President Museveni to get the education curriculum running once again. They proposed the online system which was later adapted.
Joseph Ddungu, a second year Mass Communication student at the university, says it was pretty hard coping with the school system once again.
“First, I had to prepare myself mentally and emotionally to return and do my best when it came to class work and assignments. I also had to tell my parents to gather the needed money for my tuition and this was particularly hard,” he says.
Ddungu who resumed class in October, seven months later, has had to deal with both online and physical classes.
“I expected the lecturers to ease us (students) into the whole online class setting.
For some, it was done but the majority of the lecturers expected us to already be acquainted with online classes. It was a challenge because this was new to many of us with the use of different technologies and applications,” he states.
While Ddungu and Nabugere have already experienced what online learning has to offer, there are students who still await to experience the new normal.
Navigating the hurdles
Kyambogo University will resume classes online on January 19 as the unknown lies ahead. Lillian Nakitende, a second year Business Administration student sights a cocktail of irregularities ahead.
“I think it will be disorganised in the beginning because different students had reached different stages of the curriculum that comes with pressure on our side since we have a lot to cover in limited time. I also think some people will miss out, not everyone can afford that much data,” she reasons.
Fionah Nabugwere who is Ddungu’s classmate at Uganda Christian University, had been lucky to undergo e-learning training before the pandemic hit. She however, too found some hiccups while using the online learning after the lockdown.
“I had undergone training at university entry in my year one on how to access and navigate the UCU e learning platform.
However, I still had to learn how navigate online video conferencing platforms such as Google Meet, Zoom and Big Blue Button fast because those were the ones we were to use after school resumed,” Nabugwere says.
The stability of the internet connection also determines the flow of the classes with audio and video between the students and teachers dependent on the bandwidth.
“The classes are very interactive on days when my internet connection is strong. I can ask questions and get immediate feedback unlike physical classes where you have to wait for a lecturer to get done with whatever they are teaching in order to make observations,” explains Nabugwere.
Mark Byamukama, the e-learning coordinator at Uganda Christian University thinks online learning has both a good and bad side.
“The biggest challenge is students and lecturers who are not versed with different technologies. On the other hand it helps students to learn at their pace. A student can also replay a lecture in case they missed it,” says the e-learning expert.
E-learning requires stable electricity supply which makes it impossible for students, especially those in rural areas.
Uganda electricity access has reached nearly 60 per cent of the population in urban areas, while in rural areas is still limited to 18 per cent, according to data from the World Bank.
Vicent Sempebwa, a student at Bukalagi Senior Secondary School in Mpunge Gomba District has yet to resume school. Sempebwa missed out on any form of online learning because his home is not connected to the national electricity grid.
“I cannot even operate a computer or smart phone, we do not even have adequate electricity,” says Sempebwa.
Downplaying online learning is delaying the inevitable after all it is where the world is heading. Many institutions are even thinking of sticking to it even after the pandemic threat has been neutralised. While it works for many, there remains a section that cannot match its requirements from power supply, gadgets and internet just like Sempebwa.