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Online lessons amid connectivity challenges

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Peter Mutharika

Earlier this week, the government announced the introduction of online lessons for learners who are out of school after President Peter Mutharika ordered the closure of the institutions as a measure to fight the spread of Covid-19. But as ERIC MSIKITI explores, there are questions on equitably reaching out to everyone.

As the Covid-19 pandemic takes its toll on the country’s education sector, schools are going for online lessons so that their learners are not left behind.

For private learning institutions, it is also a way of making sure finances continue flowing in the form of school fees.

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Earlier this week, Minister of Education, Science and Technology William Susuwele Banda launched the online learning programme for public schools.

“Children are the future of this nation and without education, the future of any country is doomed. We are therefore working closely with a number of partners in coming up with a number of innovative solutions to keep our children busy with lessons while at home,” Banda said during the launch of the programme.

Through the initiative, the students, who are now at home, will be accessing learning through radio, television, printed materials and online.

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Memorandums of Understanding between the government and service providers were signed to ensure free access to online education content to the students.

But in a country where the majority are poor and live in rural areas, there are fears that it will not be easy to implement such an ambitious programme.

About five million learners in Malawi are in primary school while some 500,000 others are in secondary school out of which about 125,000 are in privately-owned ones.

Reports indicate that only four percent of the country’s population have gadgets that can enable them to access internet, 16 percent of Malawian households have access to the internet through various forms while only 11 percent have access to electricity.

This means the use of electronic gadgets is already inequitable.

Experts also fear that it will be difficult for the majority of the learners to access lessons on the radio as latest figures show that 52 percent of Malawians do not have access to the radio.

Steve Sharra

Educationist Steve Sharra says a lot of investment is needed for the government to effectively deliver on the online education initiative.

Sharra also says more needs to be done to make sure that every student has access to lessons during this period regardless of where they are.

“Much as we appreciate this intervention, we must be frank with ourselves that only a few students or learners will have access to such platforms because of how we are doing as a country on access to internet.

“Factor in the issue of connectivity in some areas across the country, you will see that not all the targeted population will have access to these lessons. Of course, the government is well aware of all these challenges,” Sharra says.

He further states that the current scenario is a wakeup call for the government to make the necessary investments and policy modifications to the country’s education system.

According to Sharra, it is high time Malawi came up with necessary policies to support online learning and support operations at the Malawi College of Distance Education (MCDE).

“This [online learning] is a very expensive venture considering the population of learners that are being targeted. We need to understand that online learning is a new thing altogether, hence the need for the government to make the necessary investments into the sector,” he said.

Currently, Malawi has the National Education Policy, Education Act and the National Education Sector Plan which according to Sharra are not enough to run online learning in the country.

“Online learning is a new and unprecedented initiative in Malawi, so it will need both policy and financial support for the effective implementation of this, otherwise it is an important initiative especially during the pandemic,” he said.

Meanwhile, some parents have expressed reservations especially on how learners will be monitored on the internet.

While saying the initiative is important “during these difficult times”, Blantyre-based George Mhango, argues that not every parent has the capacity to monitor what their children will actually be doing online.

“I don’t even know the capacity of the learning institutions to monitor the progress of each and every learner. Of course, the responsibility will be on parents and the children themselves to ensure that they do not miss out on the lessons,” Mhango said.

Other observers argue that the majority of Malawian learners and parents are not technologically literate such that they may not be able to appreciate online learning the way those who are literate do.

A Chikwawa-based parent, Leonard Mbenje, believes online learning in rural areas is practically impossible.

“We are not there yet. Obviously, others will be far ahead in terms of opportunities. We already struggle with mobile phone network and electricity. We must accept that in the current setup, online education will not really work,” Mbenje said.

He further argued that for private schools—that are reportedly demanding between 60 and 80 percent of school fees from learners—there is a lot that needs to be done.

Mbenje fears that the money does not reflect what the learners will actually be getting.

“We have to look at value for money. No matter where one is and whatever gadgets they have, it is difficult to accept that the value of content learners will be getting can be up to 60 percent of what they would get if they were in a normal classroom setting,” he said.

Mbenje added that there are private schools that are charging that amount when they know that they will not be able to provide the so-called online content because of capacity.

“That is why I am inviting the government to look into this again. Even teachers in most schools do not have the capacity to modify online content and deliver it. We are not there yet, to be honest,” Mbenje, a retired secondary school teacher, said.

But independent Schools Association of Malawi president, Joseph Patel, says the introduction of online lessons by the government is good news as private schools had already started providing the same.

“This is a temporary measure because the normal harmonised school calendar will continue after this pandemic. So to us the introduction of these lessons is important as it will ensure that all learners have access to lessons,” Patel said.

Through the online learning initiative, learners will be accessing free lessons on the ministry of education’s website where the lessons have been uploaded.

Officials say the government is currently in the final stages of developing radio lessons through MCDE that will cover the primary school sector.

The lessons will reportedly bring the teacher directly with the learner through the programmes which will be broadcast on television and radios.

Primary school learners in rural areas are expected to get tablets to access the lessons. It is not clear if the learners will be trained on how to use the tablets.

Meanwhile, Executive Director of Civil Society Education Coalition, Benedicto Kondowe, has urged the government to come out clear on how it plans to institutionalise the online learning agenda.

“We hear there will be free internet for the learners but our worry is whether the service providers will cover the whole country, even in hard-to-reach areas like Misuku in Chitipa.

“Most of the learners in the rural areas do not know how to operate tablets or phones. There are a lot of gaps that need to be filled before the actual implementation of the project,” Kondowe said.

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