There is no doubt that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic will increase the digital divide in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, the quality and inequality of education could widen further for learners at all levels.
The digital divide will be widened because not all the learners will have uniform access to gadgets like laptops or phones, the cost of Internet data packages is a deterrent, with 1GB of data, which is enough to stream a standard film for one hour costing nearly an average of a monthly wage for people living in sub-Saharan Africa.
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Africa's digital divide is widening during the COVID-19 pandemic
Education experts discussing at an e-learning webinar organized by Axiom learning solutions held on 28 April 2020 agreed that the digital divide is further widened by inequality between the rich and poor, the rural and urban, women and men.
According to UNESCO, only 47% of households are connected to the Internet in developed countries and 19% in the least developed countries. Globally, women are 23% less likely than men to use mobile Internet. The gap is widest in South Asia, followed by sub-Saharan Africa. Experts recommend that specifically after COVID-19 higher education has to be considered as a business to be effective and efficient.
A case in point is the Botho University, which in 2008 implemented a policy to equip all its students with laptops with a purpose to integrate distance learning into the campus learning approach.
“Owning a laptop was not a luxury but a prerequisite for learning. Giving them laptops as learning gadgets in 2008 is what has put us at an advantage today,” explained Aravinda Ram, the Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Employability and Technology, Botho University, the largest private tertiary education provider in Botswana.
“We bring the advantages of running a corporate into the education sector,” said Ram who said they are running the university as a business.
What are the solutions to addressing the digital divide?
"The future of education is different after COVID-19 and may require traditional in-person classroom learning to be complemented with virtual reality learning experiences," said Mansur Liman, the Director-General of Federal Corporation of Radio Nigeria (FCRN).
The solution to the digital divide is to deliver the lectures online or offline, broadcast through TV, and especially through radio, which is used by about 80-90 households in sub-Saharan Africa.
Professor Aziz EL Hajir the program specialist, ICT4E & ICT4D at the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) said after COVID-19 education could permanently be shifted towards online and open education.
Liman who argued that the solution to the digital divide is radio, which is affordable since television sets could be pricey for poor families and electricity for access could be unavailable to rural residents also said production costs for instructors for TV programs could also be a problem further widening the digital divide.
Radio is a powerful mass media and has been used by traditional BBC for learning English since 4 April 1924, when the first national education program aired.
However, although radio could be a solution to create equity the issue of it being a ‘one-way’ with limited feedback from students and what would happen to subjects that require the students to do practicals.
“Radio is a virtual classroom but you have to combine it with another form of technology to make it a reality. The radio may solve the digital divide but it needs to have add-ons like texts, SMS,” said Liman. Lecturers have created WhatsApp groups where students can reach them.
“There will need to segment the markets because there is no size fits all,” advised Mr. Ade Adekola, an advisory board member at Axiom Learning Solutions. Adekola said the pandemic may divert scarce resources and will take a while before we get policy change but opportunities exist which shall require Africa to leapfrog and benefit from new technology.
Although education could be shifted online and complemented with classroom experience the issue of assessing students knowing that their parents and other relatives are supporting them remains a critical concern. If teaching is done online it will be difficult to know what marks to give the students.
Aravinda Ram cited using quizzes, online lessons for assessment, and plagiarism software. However, for students in rural areas, Africa could rely on postal services to deliver a paper-based assessment. She advised that a lot of consultation along the way needed to be done by the government, for the students, parents, and all stakeholders.
Professor Aziz said continuous assessment has to be done to maintain fairness and equity but the solution for the digital divide has to be driven from the grassroots.
“The digital divide will leave some students behind but those can be assessed on a case-by-case basis but we have to move on,” said Aravinda Ram.