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COVID-19: Virtual learning widens digital divide between Nigeria’s public and private schools

GRACE Agada, 40, is a trader in Makurdi, Benue State. She runs a small stall where she sells local beans cake popularly known as “Akara”, while her husband, Matthew, a livestock trader also owns a shop at Makurdi’s cattle market where the bulk of their income is earned. 

With a family of six children, of which two boys are still in secondary school, Grace felt the hard impact of the coronavirus lockdown when it was announced that schools were to be closed for two weeks to prevent the spread of the disease.

That news meant that there won’t be customers to buy her Akara snack. Not only that.

Her two children who both attend Gateway Comprehensive Secondary School, a community school based in Makurdi were going to be at home without learning for the duration of two weeks.

“Home teachers would have been an option, but since everyone has to stay at home then they don’t have a choice,” Grace told The ICIR.

However, she did not anticipate that the lockdown would be extended for two more weeks which means for over a month the education of her children would be interrupted until the lockdown is lifted.

Ondugbe and Ofoyi, Grace’s children have never been exposed to any form of virtual learning neither do their school have the resources to carry out an e-learning programme for kids from a remote location.

“The school my children attend does not have any program that will keep them engaged while at home which means they will remain at home if the lockdown continues, we will only hope that the virus becomes a thing of the past,” she said.

Its unlikely things will ever be the same, as over 180 countries have closed down schools.

This has created a huge loss of learning time for students estimated to impact 87 per cent of the world’s student population according to a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, report.

As schools across the country remain closed for a 28-day period due to COVID-19 lockdown, parents like Grace whose children are in public schools have no idea when their kids will go back to school.

Some privately owned schools with capacity have provided a virtual alternative education for their students to fill the learning gap.

However, kids like Ondugbe and Ofoyi will have to catch up with school work after the lockdown is called off, as COVID-19 widens the digital divide with concerns that some kids will be left behind.

Learning beyond walls

On March 16, the Ministry of Education in Rwanda announced the closure of schools in the country to prevent the spread of COVID – 19, while it made several e-learning platforms available to students free of charge for the period of the lockdown.

The education ministry partnered with telecommunications companies to provide free e-learning resources for Rwandan students from primary to tertiary institutions by simply logging into the approved websites.

In South Africa, the basic education department is yet to roll out plans for schools to switch to remote learning since the extension of the lockdown was announced, fewer higher institutions in the country have made the transition.

Edutech firms are providing homeschooling solutions in South Africa, for a fee with charges ranging from R2,500 to R14,000.

To cushion the effect of the lockdown on learners and parents, the education department outlined a number of free virtual learning resources in line with South Africa’s school curriculum from grade R to grade 12 to be available temporarily until after the lockdown.

The virtual learning model employed by South Africa and Rwanda educational authorities is made possible by its partnership with telecommunications companies like Vodacom e-school, amongst others who offer data free of charge to enable students with internet connectivity access it.

Nigeria’s education ministry has not publicly announced any virtual learning intervention measure to assist learners in public institutions from primary to tertiary institutions who have been on lockdown since schools across the country were closed since March 20.

On April 3, Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, had directed tertiary institutions in the country to activate their virtual learning environment to reduce the time lost to the lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several universities with the resources have complied with the directive.

Kaduna State University, post-graduate students make use of Zoom, a video conferencing application for their lectures.

Lagos State University, LASU, undergraduates use a virtual learning platform called Envivo, a collaborative learning platform that combines video conferencing with

Some private schools have also set up virtual learning programmes for primary and secondary students to help learners regain lost time as their schools remain closed by giving them homeschooling via remote learning.

The tools mostly used by these schools used include Google Classroom, Khan Academy Kids, Montessori Preschool, amongst others which depends on the curricular explored by the educators involved.

In the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Abuja, public secondary and primary schools are without the requisite infrastructure to offer remote learning as parents whose wards are in these schools resort to other alternatives they can find.

Virtual School not without challenges

Agodi Alagbe, Head of School, Center for Teaching and Learning, CTL, Academy in Katampe Extention, Abuja, which offers virtual tutoring to learners in primary and secondary school, told The ICIR that its curriculum was tailored after the American education system and not the suited for learners without that background.

“The online teaching is a lot easier for our students because we practice the American based curriculum. So students who are coming from British styled curriculum schools will find it difficult to cope, especially as we take lessons from a google classroom and our teachers are online to attend to questions from the kids live,” she said.

The Nigeria Educational Research and Development Council, NERDC, launched an innovative e-curriculum in 2014 to suit the need of Nigerian learners but several virtual learning platforms in the country do not make use of it. Rather schools adopt the US and British styled curriculum.

Akinnwale Yekeen, whose kids attend Excellent Kiddies Academy, Bwari vividly remembers that after the COVID-19 lockdown,  the school set up an online application where they are given daily exercises to keep them pre-occupied.

Grades Two and Four were selected to participate in the programme which involves using computers with an internet connection.  The online application is accessed via Google chrome.

This form of remote learning does not involve a one – on – one interaction with a teacher via video conferencing but rather the pupil has to be guided by a parent or guardian to answer questions on a particular subject for the day which is subsequently submitted.

Speaking on the challenges, Akinwale attributed a major hitch to facilitating access to the online learning application as lack of internet devices.

“Most kids still need to be assisted with the system while parents may not be able to be online all the time if they don’t own a computer with an Internet connection. Also, some parents have complained of not being able to access the website,” he said.

Has virtual learning come to stay

Marline Oluchi, Communications Adviser for Edutrust Foundation, a social enterprise aimed at promoting access to quality education said that online learning would not substitute regular classroom interaction in the country just yet.

“Online tutoring in Nigeria is not going to replace or even compete with regular classroom tutoring anytime soon because as much as its relevance is becoming more visible, there is still a lot of structure that has to be put in place before the public will embrace online tutoring,” she said.

She also underscored the challenges associated with online tutoring with an emphasis on the lack of sensitisation on the resourcefulness of online tutoring.

“I think it’s more popular as an alternative form of learning for young adults, as opposed to a form of education for children but with the present COVID-19 lockdown Internet literate parents will get to take advantage of it,” she said with optimism.

Yakassai Ibrahim, the spokesperson of the National Universities Commission, NUC, told The ICIR that he was not authorised to speak on the issue of virtual learning in Nigerian universities but he stated that the Executive Secretary of the commission was the appropriate authority.

“I don’t have any thoughts on the issue because I am just the spokesperson I do what I am told to speak about bu the Executive Secretary is the person you should be talking to,” he said.

Efforts to reach the Abubakar Rasheed, Executive Secretary of the NUC proved abortive at the time of filing this report.

Abiodun Ogunyemi, National President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, failed to respond to text messages or calls when queried on the preparedness of Nigerian Universities to adopt virtual learning as an alternative form of learning in the country.

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