By Venia Kontogianni,
Trying to find a part of our lives that has not been touched by the effects of the pandemic is a head-scratcher. In the midst of each other’s personal troubles, it makes sense to gloss over the shift in others’ lives. However, a light should be shed upon how COVID-19 has been affecting education in Africa. From elementary school classes to university lectures, everything functions on the basis of “remote learning”. Therefore, students have grown heavily dependent on electronic devices, since they are now their indispensable source of education. On the other end of the spectrum, Africa is still struggling to adjust to this new educational status quo and once again falls behind in getting a chance to partake in the most basic advances technology has to offer. This digital inequality is particularly prevalent in this continent; hence it is so intriguing a case to see how people conceptualize remote learning outside of the western world, specifically in Africa.
In the “West”, most children have access to online classes, meetings, tutoring, guidance and, albeit this method of interaction is not always smooth sailing, they are generally able to continue their courses or semesters relatively unscathed. In Africa, the affordability of electronic equipment poses the biggest challenge against remote learning for most of the population, especially after the rise of Covid-related unemployment. Thus, since schools closed down across the continent in 2020, many children have not been receiving tutoring and can neither access online syllabus or interact with their teachers. Vice versa, teachers are also struggling to keep in touch due to substandard connectivity or lack of a means of communication. On top of that, even for the minority of those who possess the means to do so, Wi-Fi connection is so weak that they usually have to bank on a family member’s mobile internet data to keep up with their courses. Consequently, children often wind up having to teach themselves.
COVID-19 is also the principal cause of the drop in attendance. With school not being as time-consuming anymore and their families’ finances being challenged by the virus, children have to spend most of their day supporting the household. Even if they can access study material in some other way -UNICEF has been providing radios for learning in Mali-, it has been reported that less children attend their classes because they have to engage in farm work, house chores or look after family members. Therefore, the effects of Covid paired with a fragile educational system stretch as far as to hinder their personal development and potential future.
This situation has brought forward the issues of Digital Literacy and Digital Divide that most of Africa still tries to tackle. The first one pertains to familiarity with digital procedures, use of tech skills to accumulate and evaluate information and all-around adaptability and comprehensive navigation of the online realm. The latter refers to the inequality that occurs when a demographic or region has restricted or no access to modern information and communications technology, i.e., television, computers, internet etc. Reportedly, one in three Africans lives below the poverty limit, which paired with restricted access to a normal educational environment even before Covid, makes sense how Digital Divide has the space to flourish and Digital Literacy is a lesser concern. Africa lacks both the principal infrastructure for connectivity availability and the funds to back connectivity’s affordability.
What is the impact of COVID-19 on education in Africa overall?
It has only exacerbated preexisting inequalities and underlined social issues and shortcomings that implicate the development of not just individuals but entire nations. It has also taken a mental toll on children who face this education barrier.
What can be done?
It would be easy to stand on a soapbox and preach about how the governments should reform the education system and solidify everyone’s equal chances at literacy. On a realistic note, though, the inadequate education system is a testimony to a deeper-rooted decay in the way a country is run. In other words, a large part of Africa is dealing with extreme poverty, high criminal rates, terrorism, diseases (mainly AIDS), social inequalities, child labor and famine. So, the condition of the school system is a mirror of the general state of society and when society is in this bad of a shape, its rectification is not high on the to-do list. Unless those minacious issues at hand are mitigated, education in Africa cannot prosper.
To a dramatically lesser extent and with the risk of it sounding too far stretched, perhaps we could draw a parallel between students in Africa and the developed world, since in both, a number of them do not possess internet access or a computer. Obviously, there is no comparison to be made between the upbringing and living conditions, but even in generally well-off countries, a portion of students has trouble accessing remote learning. It goes to show that inequalities exist everywhere and that digital learning is often not an option regardless of your whereabouts.
- Brookings, Poverty in Africa is now falling—but not fast enough. Available here
- DO4africa, Digital literacy in Africa. Available here
- Global Partnership for Education, COVID-19 and education in sub-Saharan Africa: 5 actions for the way forward. Available here
- Human Rights Watch, Impact of Covid-19 on Children’s Education in Africa. Available here
- UNICEF, Radio-based learning gets its day in the sun in Mali. Available here