COVID-19 and Education: A Call For Learning Innovation In Uganda

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Nelson Madiba Mandela

Introduction
Traditional learning systems are on a standstill due to the novel coronavirus around the world. This virus has greatly impacted on various global structures. According to UNESCO, students in 185 countries can no longer go to school, affecting more than 91% of the World’s student Population. The World Bank reiterates the same worry by stating that “we are living amidst what is potentially one of the greatest threats in our lifetime to global Education, a gigantic education crisis.” The global Education crisis is due to the obvious reason that, the novel virus is easily spread through touch and hence over congested places are a high-risk avenue. Bearing this in mind various governments closed all public gatherings including schools.

A learning process is one through which children and adults gain the knowledge and skills to apply in solving various social problems ranging from setting up government structures to establishing Health care. This means learning can take place both in enclosed or open spaces. Learning in Uganda is predominantly classroom-based. This article seeks to remind all the stakeholders majorly the government acting through the ministry of education, all people at the helm of Education sector, that is, the lecturers, primary and post-primary teachers, and entrepreneurs to leverage and innovate to ensure that learning is never put on a standstill. The article has three sections, firstly, the ideal learning environment ideal position, secondly, the Ugandan learning perspective and its challenges and, lastly, recommendations.

Students take a walk in between lectures at Uganda’s biggest university, Makerere. The learning system is predominantly classroom based even at institutions of higher learning.
Students take a walk in between lectures at Uganda’s biggest university, Makerere. The learning system is predominantly classroom based even at institutions of higher learning.

Learning environments: The Ideal position
The normal in Education today, has been the traditional classroom of war walls, however, this has been disrupted by the pandemic thus the need to actually re-think learning so that learning continues regardless of major pandemics like the one we are facing today. Technology is a big part of our lives today for it has disrupted traditional businesses, health, commerce, and other structures. The Education system has not been forgiven. As far as learning is concerned therefore, the long arm of technology has illustrated what an ideal learning environment should look like in troubled learning times. It majorly rotates around an open classroom that transcends buildings while leveraging internet speeds and software to provide learners with a whole new learning experience.

Countries like China, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore have felt the pandemic disruption minimally due to the availability of remote E-learning platforms. Some other countries like Vietnam have resorted to conducting classes via mobile phones and television programs and students continue learning amidst the school closure.

There are various avenues that support any education innovation from low-income countries for example the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) that recognizes the most innovative uses of technology that have the potential to radically impact education in low income and emerging economies. It runs two initiatives that facilitate a billion EdTech prize started in 2018 by Indian Billionaire Sunny Varkey’s Foundation and the US dollar one million Global Teacher Prize.

Secondly, PraxiLabs, an Egyptian star- up provides virtual laboratories for schools and learning organizations in the Middle East and beyond. Through their platforms, learners can access major experiments in biology, chemistry, and physics through their phones from anywhere. Furthermore, LangBot is an Ethiopian start-up that allows schools and publishers to easily create AI chatbots that act as personal language tutors that teach and prepare learners for tests using content they create on the platform.

In the East African region, Eneza Education in Kenya is a comprehensive virtual tutor start-up that provides universal access to affordable, quality, lifelong learning through mobile technology. It has evolved from access through USSD and SMS to multi-device smartphone. The same idea of SMS learning is adopted by M-Shule a Kenyan start-up as well. In Uganda, BrainShare.ug, founded by Charles Muhindo is a platform that provides learning materials such as past papers to students through the internet.

Therefore, adequate use of technology is a fall to position to ensure the learning disruptions caused by the Pandemic are avoided. However the foregoing discussion raises pertinent issues in Uganda’s perspective such as the internet and its accessibility, phones, internet service suppliers, innovators, and more others.

Learning Environments; A Ugandan Perspective.
Out of the Forty one Million Population of Uganda, over fifteen million are learners at different levels that is primary, secondary, and university level. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics profile, Uganda performed relatively below average across every Sustainable Development Goal 4 indicator for achieving quality Education prior to the outbreak of the pandemic and consequent restrictions in Uganda. As the prevailing conditions persist, these moments hold an opportunity for change in policy, process, and structures that can serve as the leveler to creating an educational system resilient enough to withstand emergencies and crises. Conversations such as how to ensure that learning never stops in times of emergencies and crises like COVID-19 and the barriers to the promotion of distance and digital education, particularly in low-Income or rural communities should linger more in our minds be a guiding yardstick post-COVID.

The government of Uganda, through Partnership with different Televisions and Radio Broadcasting Agencies has launched its response by streaming lessons for learners on radios and televisions. These rapid response techniques seemingly provide workable solutions however, the pandemic has revealed enormous inequalities and gaps in terms of access to technology and digital tools, technical capacity of teachers, and school leaders for a supportive environment needed to implement distance and digital Education. How many homes have television sets or radios?

The pandemic has clearly justified the economic differences in school levels majorly private versus public education institutions for example Universal Primary and Secondary Education. Private Schools, as evidenced by a number of schools around Kampala City have easily transitioned to virtual learning platforms for learners since the parents of the children in these schools can afford the technical assistance that is needed to facilitate such learning. Such occurrences leave the fate of public school learners uncertain.

Pupils of Victorious Education Services take an IT class. City schools generally have an edge in adapting to the crisis through technology.
Pupils of Victorious Education Services take an IT class. City schools generally have an edge in adapting to the crisis through technology.

However, there are a number of challenges that justify the persistence of such debilitating occurrences. To begin with, there is a poor internet connection distribution system in the whole country evidenced by a lack of free internet hotspots around the city or major towns, this leaves many at the mercy of internet service providers majorly Telecommunication companies whose rates are high to sustain a virtual class for learners. Secondly, there are many poor citizens that solely rely on the Universal Education systems, they do not have phones that have access to broadband connectivity to implement e-learning. This is due to the varying levels of income distribution whose effects have a snowball effect on learning.

Thirdly, most Primary and Secondary schools prohibit personal possession or use of any digital equipment such as phones or laptops during school time. This limits student interaction with education-based technology which puts them at a huge disadvantage in pandemic times like these that call for use of advanced technology. The situation is worsened by the realization that there are also a number of teachers in the country who do not know how to work with technology in the education profession. This in itself makes the high digitalization of the Education system problematic on a whole.

A shocking revelation is the fact that Ugandan universities have equipped centers for long-distance learning in their respective campuses but cannot utilize the same for continued learning in this period just as other universities around the world have done to ensure remote learning. The Ministry of Education actually came out openly to stop any institutions that sought to issue exams through digital platforms.

These factors are generally the sole reason as to why student learning in Uganda has caught a cold from the COVID-19 Pandemic. What is to be done?

Recommendations
The pandemic has brought to light the loopholes in the education system as far as technology is concerned. The following are a few structural, technical, and financial actions that the government can take to address the problem.

Firstly, the ministry should set up systems that should accord learners regulated access to digital devices in primary and secondary schools. This can be done through enacting school policies that make provisions for such actions. This activity will enable the learners to easily use digital platforms for facilitating their Education needs. ​

Broad-band internet connection systems should be set up to ensure free or cheaply rated services can be provided to learners. This can be done through partnerships with telecommunications companies like MTN or Airtel so that learners can access these services without a huge financial implication. This boosts the morale and participation of all the stakeholders ranging from the learners to the tutors. Makerere University recently entered into a partnership with MTN to provide free access to all the university academic portals.

A database should be set up by the ministry to ensure that uniform academic materials are easily accessible to all the learners of different academic levels. This accessible database should involve all the stakeholders so that there is a leveled playing field. Most homes at least have a mobile phone, the database should be able to disseminate information through SMS for the learners who can not access smartphones. This will ensure lifelong learning even in times of crisis like this.

Lastly, the ministry of Education should participate in global education technology solutions providing bodies for example the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) to ensure that it benefits from the solutions at hand. Consequently, the ministry should partner with locals like BrainShare.ug that provides academic materials to learners so that they can also supply cheap services to learners.

Conclusion
The COVID-19 pandemic is awake up call for learning innovation. There are various opportunities in the Education sector that can be leveraged for long-lasting solutions to learning disruptions. This article has painted a picture of the desired place while pointing at the weak links between the ideal and the reality. This article has, henceforth started a conversation we should have had earlier on.

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