Reagan Sebyaala was in Senior Three when government imposed a second Covid-19-lockdown in June.
He had anticipated to complete his academic year amid the pandemic, but this did not happen.
Sebyaala says when they were sent home, fellow students called to alert him about teachers sharing work on WhatsApp groups, which he did not have access to.
“When schools closed, I went to the village to do farming. I do not own a smartphone and I cannot access the work my friends get,” Sebyaala says.
Sebyaala is one of many students who have not had the chance to be part of the many initiatives put in place to ensure continuity of learning amid the pandemic.
Having taken lessons from the first lockdown in March last year, some schools and other institutions of learning devised several approaches of ensuring continuity of learning.
Top on the agenda was online learning, which required the students to have smart phones or computers with Internet connection to access Zoom lessons.
Elvis Namayo, a Second Year student at Kampala International University, says learning materials were always availed to them via WhatsApp. He says they had to attend lessons online following a time table.
“You had to have data all the time. It became costly, and I decided to quit. I know it will not be easy to catch up with my friends when universities reopen, but I have no other option,” he says.
Namayo hopes to resume studies but also worries that his mind is now more focused on entrepreneurial ideas, forcing him to weigh options of returning to school or dropping out and concentrate on making money.
Students, who are now faced with new realities in accessing education, have to quickly adapt to integrating digital technologies and e-learning by both open and distance learning in order to remain abreast with the demands and maintain quality learning.
Mr Julius Ssekatawa, the spokesperson and focal person of online learning at Kampala University, says when the government said learning should continue, they introduced the Education Information Management System and trained teachers and students to use it.
Mr Ssekatawa says it is expensive to have the platform running since it is a robust one where students access everything from the system.
He says they have to train teachers and students to use it, and some students come from remote areas, which has made them miss out because they do not have resources to take part in the online lessons.
Online learning has formidable demands on institutions, as well as staff and students. The teachers had to be re-oriented away from traditional physical classes to virtual or online teaching and learning.
The teaching materials have to be suitable for online delivery and both the staff and students need to have access to the Internet, which requires commitment, determination, literacy, and financial resources.
Ms Alice Nakalembe of Nansana in Wakiso, who had been taking her three primary school children to a community teacher for coaching, says she was overwhelmed by the expense and she ordered them to stay home until schools reopen.
Ms Nakalembe, who was paying Shs2,000 per child every day, says she thought it would make more sense to invest that money and get school fees when schools reopen.
“We are living in uncertain times, which require us to think beyond today. If I continue paying that money, I will be doing a disservice to their future,” she says.
The deep digital divide, Internet access challenges, and limited access to ICT equipment have made it difficult to have an inclusive online learning programme.
The social boundaries in the country also contribute to the limited access of these online initiatives of ensuring continuity of learning since not everyone owns an internet-enabled gadget to ensure e-learning.
Other means of ensuring continuity like coaching have also registered quite a number of challenges. Teachers report being cheated by parents who don’t meet their end of the bargain to pay for the services rendered.
Grace Kyomuhangi, a teacher in Kyazanga, says she quit home-tutoring after several parents cheated her.
Many of the learners have also ended up in different vocational hands-on training such as working in garages, building sites, beauty and cosmetics shops and the hospitality industry.
The United Nations says more than 91 percent of the learners globally have been impacted by the temporary closure of schools, and about 1.6 billion youngsters were reported to be out of school by April.
In Uganda, nearly 15 million children have had their schooling disrupted by the lockdowns since last year.
The Internet Society says the use of Zoom, a source of shared teaching resources, has aided skills development for both teachers and learners.
But with challenges such as access to electricity in rural homes, computer illiteracy, and practical subjects such as chemistry, biology, and physics that need a physical class presence, and many others, the education sector is destined for greater challenges.
What can be done?
Many institutions have continued to address some of the concerns and needs to sustain the blended format of education and training, under the prevailing circumstances.
Prof Tonny Oyana, the principal of the College of Computing and Information Sciences (CoCIS) at Makerere University, says the government, through the Education ministry, should buy academic licences that can be used at all levels of education since face-to-face learning is not possible at the moment.
He says these government-based academic licenses will not only enhance online learning but also give a better hybrid experience of learning.
Prof Oyana argues that much as the government has done a great job in setting up the national backbone covering almost the entire country, it must look at infrastructural development and also address the challenges of the last mile user of the Internet.
“They should strike partnerships with telecom companies, introduce 4G and 5G, which will in some cases also increase the bandwidth. The bandwidth is becoming one of those utilities that are critical for our development. Reducing the cost of data, especially for education by coming up with zero-rating websites will help us address some of the online learning hindrances.”