COVID-19: Can we pin hopes on ICTS?

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IN the last instalment we promised to look at strategies for recovering and resuming normal activities especially in the education sector. 

Tentative dates for reopening of schools have been suggested. Universities are already accommodating final year examination classes starting this June, 2020. 

The Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (ZIMSEC) has already indicated that modalities for conducting June examination sessions are in place with indications that strict World Health Organisation (WHO) regulations will be observed to prevent the spread of corona virus infection among candidates and examination officers. 

A major extra cost to running the examinations is provision of personal protection equipment (PPEs) which Government has undertaken to provide. 

But let us return to the issue of re-opening schools, colleges and universities.

When educational institutions were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among learners, authorities had little or no idea as to when students would return. 

When the lockdown period for schools closure was extended, it was realised students were losing learning time. 

To re-connect students to their teachers, information and communication technologies (ICTs) were identified as a potentially powerful tool for the job. 

The use of e-learning approaches has captured the imagination of our authorities and many of our elite and educated families who already routinely use Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). 

The use of ICTs seems to be viewed as the best means for students to resume learning while they sit at home. 

School and college authorities expect to use e-learning platforms in the post-COVID-19 era to catch up on lost learning time. 

The ICT approach is somewhat akin to the old-fashioned ‘Correspondence School or College’ through which many people especially in the arts and commercial subject areas acquired their professional education. 

While in the correspondence school mode students received printed learning materials and sent back written assignments to their teachers to mark, through the post office system, computers connected to the internet are used to send and receive documents in the ICT mode. 

While documents sent though the post office system took days or even weeks to arrive at their destination, electronic mail sent through the internet reaches its destination within seconds allowing rapid exchange of information between correspondents.  This mode of communication seems ideal for a situation such as that under COVID-19 lockdown.

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic many educational institutions were already using ICT platforms for teaching and learning. 

Once lockdowns were implemented those institutions with a history and experience of using internet-based teaching platform escalated their use and delivered all their learning materials via the platforms. 

Admittedly it takes time, experience and investment of financial resources to develop ICT-based teaching programmes. 

The enthusiastic pronouncements by educational authorities about how children would catch up on COVID-19-induced loss of learning time failed to appreciate that both teachers and developers of educational materials require time and experience to produce quality materials that pupils and their teachers can use.

The first hurdle is that the developers of materials need time to develop and adapt teaching materials, Equally the classroom teachers who will now interact with their charges through the ICT-based platforms need time to learn to use these new modes of teaching. 

Equally, parents require time to also adapt. 

I have discovered that parents now more than ever before, are intimately involved in the learning experiences of their children so much so that the homework children bring home requires some level of sophistication and intellectual capacity to assist the primary let alone secondary school pupil. 

In comes ICT and computers and the plot becomes too thick for most parents to manage. 

I know that a relatively few educated computer-literate parents who often get elected to school development committee positions and who are adept at ICT, make it look simple. 

They are quoted in the papers making articulate assertions about the value of using computer-based learning methods. 

And yet the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of parents of both primary and secondary school pupils are barely familiar with computers and the internet. 

It is the same phenomenon that makes Zimbabwe appear like it is an English-speaking country. 

The 25-to-305 ‘O’-Level candidates who pass English with a Grade ‘C’ or better occupy all the jobs and spaces where computers are routinely used. 

The 70-to-80 percent who are no literate in English struggle even with computers; most have never owned one and will be lucky to have access to one at their places of work.

What am I saying? 

I am saying the vast majority of parents with children at various levels in the educational system are not computer literate! Therefore they have very limited capacity to assist their children with ICT-based educational material.

The next challenge is acquisition of ICT gadgets. 

While the cellphone is now owned by a large percentage of Zimbabweans, most gadgets are simple and do not carry the applications required to drive ICT-based educational communications.

Even as we speak now many university students are challenged to access ICT-based learning platforms as these are rolled out by universities. 

They cannot afford the expensive cellphones with Android and other systems required to process the ICT-based teaching materials. 

Another challenge is the cost of airtime and data bundles. Telecommunications companies have indicated their desire to waive some of the charges, which is commendable. 

However, internet access due to weak or non-existent signals will cut out many students from accessing ICT-based learning materials. 

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