By Nontobeko Mlangeni, Head of Solutions Mapping
In contribution to the COVID-19 response, the Eswatini Acc Lab is supporting e-learning at the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) in two ways: through the development of an online learning platform and through the provision of data packages for 6821 students to support them to to access online learning materials. The development of the e-learning platform is being undertaken by four students from the Department of Science which is enhancing their capacities and skills in preparation for the next generation of jobs.
Key lessons for the Lab from the UNESWA partnership include the following:
· The need to promote or facilitate a process of digital migration and to undertake a process of change management for both the students and their lecturers to prepare them to take on online or e-learning as the new mode of teaching and learning;
· The need for the country to increase internet coverage even to remote parts of the country to facilitate increased access to education as it was found that even with data support, some of them stay in areas that have no adequate internet coverage,
· The availability of an online learning platform does not mean access to education. There must be other supporting mechanisms put in place such as equipment, among others. The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly showing the need for improvements in the education approach within the University considering the need to depend on digital technologies.
· The need to consider access to internet as a universal right to all learners rather than a’ nice’ to have commodity.
· The need to have learning materials and references, including school library resources digitized, so that students can have remote access to learning support materials.
Drawing inspiration from our work with UNESWA, we held a UN75 Dialogue on building a resilient education system using digital solutions in Eswatini. Participants among others, included students, education practitioners such as the Ministry of Education, the National Curriculum Center, and local universities; mobile and internet telephone companies; the ICT industry; and the Innovators Association of Eswatini.
Like many other nations we have witnessed during the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions the shutting down of schools revealing the gap between the children and youths who “have” and those who “have not”. While private schools have continued to access learning through digital platforms like Zoom and Google classes, students from the public schools remained home with no access to educational resources. One key issue highlighted in the dialogue was the need to transition from internet being a “nice to have” to being a universal right especially as part of the basic education rights, bringing to the fore the debate that all children should have equal opportunities for development and intellectual growth.
Key focus by the Ministry of Education in Eswatini has been on the students who would be taking external examinations. Lessons were introduced through radio, TV and YouTube. While this is a good and innovative response for the country, there remains many students from poor households without the digital tools or access to radio or tv. They continue to remain behind as they cannot access these learning opportunities.
The question and challenge for the Lab has been how to ensure that educational opportunities, through whatever means, do not leave anyone behind. So, while the opportunities for using digital technologies in education are huge, they need to be supported by other mechanisms. The UN75 Dialogue gave perspective to real “on the ground” challenges that various players in education are facing in dealing with the COVID-19 and the sudden impact of technology use and access.
From the Government perspective there is need for public-private partnerships (PPPs) as government cannot go at it alone. Eswatini is lagging in the adoption of digital technologies in education and the focus for the Ministry on ICT in education is two-fold –ICT as a subject in schools and using ICT as a tool for teaching and learning. In 2021 ICT will be introduced as a subject in primary schools. There is need to train teachers for the transition to digital technologies in the delivery of learning. The National Curriculum Centre highlighted the issue of human capital to transition to using technologies in learning including appropriate and adaptive curriculum development for digital platforms. A key challenge that remains is the infrastructure in schools to enable adoption of digital technologies. At the tertiary level, there has been improvement through compulsory computer classes for all students.
Tertiary students spoke to several challenges presented by the sudden migration to online learning. They highlighted that the introduction of digital technologies without addressing some key underlying challenges, have the potential to widen inequality gaps thus pushing the poor further down the poverty line. Even though many of their lecturers tried to offer online learning classes, many students, especially those from poor households could not access these classes due economic challenges, thus revealing the inequalities that such initiatives have a potential of presenting if not carefully implemented. COVID 19 has exposed the digital divide between the students and exposed fractures within the educational system, outlining how the SDGs themselves are interlinked, such as SDG 9 ( Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) cannot be achieved without achieving SDG 1 (No Poverty). The country needs to strengthen the weak ICT infrastructure and the prohibitive costs of internet services. The students acknowledged that Artificial Intelligence is already here and is presenting a new future for jobs, further challenging tertiary institutions to prepare students for the future they will find in 2030. Importantly, they highlighted the issue of not leaving behind those people with disabilities (including learning disabilities), in the planning on appropriate digital learning technologies.
The mobile network company present at the dialogue, highlighted efforts that are underway to support institutions of higher learning in the country and regionally where Swazis are studying by white listing the schools’ websites and apps to ensure that they have access to learning materials. Future opportunities for support include supporting apps, websites, and other educational platforms for institutions of higher learning to enable access for students to learn. The pricing for access to internet services is one of the key challenges due to the regulated space. While the country has managed to get a high level of coverage of the telecommunication network, the investments in hardware infrastructure remain an impediment towards ensuring access especially in the rural areas. Several schools in the rural areas have no electricity coverage which is a prerequisite for connectivity, this limits the ability to provide even the basic connectivity infrastructure required.
Other key issues raised for the private sector include those of infrastructure and hardware that would allow students to access learning through digital technologies. This points to the private sector supporting skills development for digitisation, i.e. through providing opportunities for students to learn hands on coding skills outside of the classroom and funding to support infrastructural and capacity development for digital education.
The dialogue raised several pertinent questions. Are digital technologies enough to build a resilient educational system for Eswatini? What role can partners such as the UN, non-governmental and the private sector play to support government to ensure every Swazi child is being reached and that all students are equipped for 2030? Should access to internet be made a universal right?