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Implications of online education in Africa

As of 8 June, Africa has recorded more than 88 000 confirmed cases of COVID-19  and many governments of the continent have taken the decision to close schools and higher educations institutions, which have had to rethink their methods and switch to online education. This seems to have revealed the unpreparedness of many of those institutions to migrate online.

While challenges with online learning have become more visible everywhere in the world, Africa’s students do start off with a clear disadvantage. According to UNESCO, 89% of students in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to a computer in their homes and 82% simply lack internet access, which is a clear issue at a time where classes have been forced to move to online platforms. While figures from Teacher task force, international alliance coordinated by UNESCO, says that about half (43%) of the total number of learners in the world kept home by the pandemic have no internet connection at home, disparities seem to be much starker on the African continent. About 56 million learners live in places not even served by mobile networks, half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

In Uganda for example, access to computers and the Internet to continue attending courses online is severely lacking. In South Africa, problems have been noted as well for the access of hardware as well as a stable internet connection.

As poor connectivity is an obstacle for online lectures on Zoom or Skype, some institutions have decided to broadcast lessons through radio platforms in an attempt to make up for that issue.

Recently, Blade Nzimande, minister of Higher Education of South Africa put in place a national financial aid scheme to ensure students could receive free data and laptop, however many have not yet received such help and the fear is that the most vulnerable students will be falling behind without being able to catch up.

But there are many more problems to overcome such as the training of teachers to deliver distance and online education in an effective way: across Sub-Saharan Africa, only 50% of secondary teachers have minimum training, which often does not even include ICT skills.

Finally, even when students have access to data, most may not be able to afford it: in Zimbabwe, students rejected online learning as data costs were spiked by 225%
Some networks operators were also expected to increase its SMS and data prices. Amon Murwira, minister of higher education, innovation, science and technology development said that they had proposed the zero rating of university websites so that students would not be charged when visiting website to obtain learning material.No forced measures were introduced, however. According to the Zimbabwe’s student union, only 15% of students have access to wi-fi and data in the country.

The University of Cape Town in South Africa seemingly solved that issue by deciding to offer pre-paid data to students who have valid South African numbers and have also agreed with some providers to obtain zero rate access to certain university websites, while some others had already put that measure in place for 6 UCT websites. Universities in Ghana, such as Ashesi University, has also decided to offer 10GB of monthly data to students for access to online courses.

Measures are, however, mostly done by a few universities and government policies on the topic are extremely scarce.