By Professor Kusi-Appiah, QE scholar, Carleton University, 2019/2020
COVID-19 – a manifestation of the Anthropocene:
In this write-up, I turn my attention to how education programming could be delivered in this pandemic era in sub-Saharan Africa where our relations, brothers and sisters reside. We are all too familiar with the threat that COVID-19 poses to public health and economic development. We are also aware that COVID-19 is just a symptom of our encroachment on the habitats of our non-human cousins (also known as disease causing pathogens). Indeed, we are in the Anthropocene and COVID-19 just returned home with us, and it has restricted movement across borders. But life must go on — delivering educational programs must go on! However, any educational policy/programming anywhere must be cognizant of local exigencies.
COVID-19 has created uncertainty in many sectors of society, notably in official educational programming. With a new school year almost here, communities everywhere are trying to figure out how to resume learning in a pandemic era. Many communities around the world (especially in the developed world) have announced that they will start the school year remotely.
In less ‘affluent’ communities such as Mzuzu in Malawi, even the thought of schooling online (remote schooling) could be a nonstarter due to a number of existential reasons. Top of the list is the lack of access to personal computers and internet resources. In addition, the issue of lack of electricity infrastructure, as well as inaccessibility of personal computers, especially in remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa makes the very thought of remote schooling a daunting proposition. When asked whether remote schooling would work in Malawi, a community leader in Mzuzu (Northern Malawi) said:
“Yes, it can work for some but for others it could still be a problem because some students live in remote areas where there is no electricity and travelling to areas where there is electricity for them to work could be costly which they could not afford. Most importantly, most students do not even have laptops to download assignments.” (Community leader, Mzuzu, July 12, 2020).
However, there are others who are more optimistic about the prospect of remote schooling in spite of the above mentioned bottlenecks. A recent graduate of Mzuzu University, KelvinT (real name withheld) is of the view that implementing remote schooling now is the way to go in Malawi. KevinT said:
“We have to be creative. Look its high time we changed our mode of delivery. We have to introduce online learning systems. Of course, it can be difficult but little by little we can adapt. Otherwise if we consider the alarming rate at which COVID-19 cases are increasing, schools won’t open until 2025.” (KelvinT, recent graduate of Mzuzu University, July 13, 2020)
KelvinT went on to describe some of the social ills brought on by the closure of schools. He said:
“As am talking a lot of girls have gotten married and others are pregnant because they have nothing to do at home. So we have to implement online learning….This is not entirely new. For your information we have primary school radio programmes on our local radios stations which can be expanded to include all remote areas in Malawi as a first step.” (KelvinT, recent graduate of Mzuzu University, July 13, 2020)
Centres of learning in COVID -19 era:
According to Chawinga and Zozie (2016), open and distance learning is one of the most practical ways of increasing access to education. In their 2016 article on the issue of remote learning at Mzuzu University in Malawi, Chawinga and Zozie writes:
“….By self-administering a questionnaire to 350 ODL students and 9 Heads of Department in the Faculty of Education whose programmes are offered through ODL, we found that instructions are mostly delivered to students through print-based instructional materials. The major benefits noted include increased access to quality higher education, affordable tuition fees, and flexibility in payment of fees. However, we established some challenges…which include, delayed feedback of assignments and release of end of semester examination results, absence of information for courses of study, poor communication between the Centre and departments…” (Chawinga and Zozie, 2016).
The vision of Mzuzu University’s Centre for Open and Distance Learning (ODL) is “to increase and broaden access to quality tertiary education in order to create an open, inclusive and informed society necessary for engaging with the numerous development challenges of Malawi” (Chawinga and Zozie, 2016). Currently, there are over 2000 ODL students getting an education at Mzuzu University. At Mzuzu University, ODL students go to school only for registration and modules are just introduced to them. They then return home to do all the work remotely. In other words, for ODL students, apart from the two to three weeks they spend on Mzuzu University campus, all the work is done on their own back in their home districts where students are grouped to facilitate discussions regarding assignments and other evaluation related issues.
In spite of the challenges noted above, COVID-19 remote schooling in Malawi (and for that matter in other less developed environments) could be designed with the current Mzuzu University’s ODL model in mind. A policy that mimics the ODL model could be a first step in the provision of education programming in a COVID-19 pandemic era. For example, assuming that there is a policy that provides personal computers students at a very reduced cost, and gives opportunities to students to access the internet also at a reduced rate, then learning could be possible. Hence, in spite of the oft tooted problems in such environments, it is still possible to direct the scarce resources toward educating our children who are the leaders of today (not tomorrow).The implementation and/or enforcement of whatever program is put in place is what the real challenge is. I am calling on all well-meaning programme managers to put aside their personal agendas and see to it that proper management ideas are adhered to in this new normal of the COVID-19 era.
A. Kusi-Appiah, PhDc,Adjunct Professor,Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Climate Change & SocietalTransformation Scholar, 2019/2020https://carleton.ca/qes/