Not everyone has access to computers and the internet to continue attending school from home.
Kampala, UGANDA - Technology, like capitalism, was meant to foster development and improve the lives of ordinary citizens.
While capitalism has succeeded in creating immense wealth for the elite, it has left the majority in financial and social limbo, generating huge disparities across the globe.
Technology appears to be doing the same. It has certainly changed the world, but it also primarily serves a wealthy market before all others, leaving the rest of society looking on at unattainable objects with desire.
The Covid-19 pandemic, which forced learning institutions to close and kept some 1.2 billion students worldwide out of the classroom, has worsened a pre-existing problem.
As children in the developed world have switched to online learning, the majority of pupils in Sub-Saharan Africa sit idle, frustrated and anxious, much to the dismay of parents and educators who are worried about their future.
Nearly 90 percent of students in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to household computers and 82 percent lack internet access. As a result, they cannot ensure educational continuity, deplores UNESCO.
The inherent inequality with regards to access of the internet and other educational tools, threatens to deepen the global crisis when it comes to education, UNICEF said this month.
“Access to technology and materials needed to continue learning while schools are closed is desperately unequal. Likewise, children with limited learning support at home have almost no means to support their education,” Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Chief of Education, said in a statement.
Providing a range of learning tools and accelerating access to the internet for every school and every child is critical, he added.
Many experts seem to be “lost in translation” about the real impact of technology on development in Africa.
While Gugu Ndebele, the Executive Director of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, based in South Africa, acknowledges that technology remains a vital tool for the development of education, she insists that digital information can only thrive and be useful to children if it exists within a conducive environment.
According to Ndebele, the foundation or basis for development is literacy and education.
“UNESCO studies on education still indicate low levels of literacy and education in developing countries. Secondly, digital transformation requires infrastructure, which unfortunately is not available in poor communities, whose only struggle is survival,” she told TRT World.
“What this period has shown is that those that have resources will continue to flourish as they can access and engage with the different platforms. And those that are poor will continue to be left behind,” adds Ndebele.
Ndebele, a former CEO of Save the Children South Africa, believes that talking about distance education in the context of extreme and growing poverty, as well as poor education systems, is not helpful.
“As the head of a school that admits children who come primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds, this situation has been most frustrating and discouraging. The majority of our children are child grant recipients and are raised by caregivers/parents who themselves receive grants,” she pointed out.
“These children come from areas with no basic infrastructure, like water and sanitation, electricity, let alone computers and internet access, data, or even modern cell phones, which are a luxury.”
Gideon Chitanga, an Africa analyst and researcher, believes nothing can replace technology as a vital instrument for uplifting livelihoods.
He has hailed it for scaling down the cost of higher education. Most universities, for example, have moved to using Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to provide online education, which has helped many who cannot study full-time at a university campus.
However, he remains sceptical about the capacity of Sub-Saharan African countries to provide the tools necessary to lower the cost and improve participation and access to education.
Speaking to TRT World, he said currently there was no real ability within the African continent’s education systems to deliver online education on the scale required, particularly in response to the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Going forward, Africa needs to focus extensively on scientific research and training, as well as increase the capital investment needed to sustain and drive the high quantity of provisions for online access education,” the South Africa-based Chitanga, added.
“Science is good and helpful, but you have to know it in order for you to either teach it or put it into use to help communities develop. Most schoolteachers in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in public schools, lack the ICT knowledge, and most of our schools in Africa are not equipped with ICT gadgets. These two factors weigh heavily on our kids’ science training,” says Esther, a single mother of three learners.
Since the closing of schools, Esther takes her three children to an internet café twice a week. This is done in order to help them access online courses given the lack of a PC or an internet connection at home. “Our electricity is also not stable, it’s on and off. So, even if we were to have a PC, we would have been in trouble to charging these gadgets."
“I only learn twice a week and it’s not enough. I wish we can come here every day to continue learning online, but my mother doesn’t have money to pay because she must also buy food for us,” says Esther’s 10-year-old son, who dreams of becoming a computer engineer.
Despite the lockdown and the searing heat, internet cafés in the Ugandan capital continue to operate and are usually crowded. Social distancing is also ignored as customers – not wearing masks – are squeezed into small space like sardines.
“This is a Covid-19 high-risk place, where anyone carrying the virus could easily transmit to others. But I don’t have a choice. I bring my child here every day to access the internet to continue learning since we don’t have a PC at home,” Patrick, a Congolese refugee living in Uganda, said jumpily, as one customer sitting next to his son sneezed carelessly.
What TV was made for
Mindful of the lack of both access to technology, either through not owning machines, or simply not having an internet connection in their countries, let alone their homes, some authorities in Africa have been using the television as a means to educate. This again has highlighted issues: there are large disparities in ownership in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only 1 in 100 homes in rural Chad has a television at home, compared to 1 in 3 in the cities, according to UNICEF.
Despite living in the city, Sarah, a domestic worker who lost her job due to Covid-19, does not own a television and sends her two children to watch it at her neighbour’s house to access distance learning.
Nevertheless, while Esther, Patrick and Sarah’s children lag behind because they attend public schools, several private schools across the continent seem to have, to some degree, migrated in previous years to online learning. This has positioned their learners at the forefront of the science and development battle, as technology specialist, Shireen Ramjoo, explains.
“Going digital also means that children need to be taught how to use digital learning platforms and systems, as most don't have that luxury with access to internet and computers at home. In developed economies, children are given iPads as part of their digital learning experience,” Ramjoo, the CEO of Liquid Crypto-Money, told TRT World.
“We are still very far from it to accommodate all our learners to go digital. Science is here to stay and we will need to conform as we progress. The question however is how fast our countries will take to usher in education systems to mirror it.
“The divide with privileged schools that will benefit their learners will continue until such a time when our governments increase the number of their schools to catch up unfortunately,” she said.
As the digital divide widens, pushing the less fortunate to the brink of social collapse, many are worried about its long term impact on Africa’s education and poverty alleviation programmes.
“The implication or result is that the spin-off effect is more children will be dropping out of school and sliding into more poverty,” says Ndebele, the Executive Director of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.
Chitanga agreed, saying that many children in Africa will be pushed out of the school system as quality education becomes more expensive. Also, he warns that as the digital divide continues to make itself apparent, it will further perpetuate poor education.
He said the teaching of science and mathematics in most of Africa’s schools remains inferior.
Furthermore, Ndebele urged countries to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if Africa were to even stand a chance of realising the benefits of digitisation. She emphasised that ending poverty and hunger, providing quality education and all the other SDGs, was critical for Africa's development.