The government of the central African nation of Cameroon has, since the outbreak of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the country in March 2020, been forced to fully embrace e-learning as an alternative to normal classroom learning. As part of the plan to expand and consolidate the experience, the government has announced that online learning will henceforth be fully integrated into the academic programs of primary schools, colleges, and universities across the country.
This plan is due to begin this school year which kicks off on 5 October 2020.
To make this work, government authorities have been building partnerships and mobilizing resources not only to get the necessary equipment and infrastructure but also to put the required technical expertise at the disposal of the various educational establishments. However, as all of this is going on, there lies a litany of hurdles that will have to be surmounted for the country to succeed on this initiative - which government says it has adopted as a result of constraints imposed on schools by COVID-19.
Digital divide, weak internet connectivity a major problem
The wide digital divide in the country and weak internet connectivity are the first hurdles that stand in the way of the national E-learning project in Cameroon schools. A significant number of primary schools and colleges in the country are in remote areas that have neither electricity supply nor telecommunications services.
Just a small number of pupils and students study in areas with access to an internet connection.
According to statistics from the National Agency for Information and Communication Technologies (ANTIC), internet coverage rate in Cameroon stands at just 30 percent, equivalent to just about seven million of a population of nearly 26 million people. And most of the areas covered are largely in urban settings.
“The most obvious challenge we encounter is that of a poor internet connection. This is coupled with the high cost of it, which makes many students and parents unable to meet up,” said Dr. Daniel Shu, President of the LEAD Higher Institute, a privately-owned higher institution of learning in Yaounde.
On the problem of weak connectivity, government authorities have been working to improve the situation – at least at the level of universities. Recently, the country’s Higher Education Ministry sealed a partnership deal with the state-owned telecommunications company, CAMTEL, to increase the internet bandwidth in state universities to boost online learning. The project, which will begin in 2021, will see the speed of the internet on campuses of state universities boosted from 263 megabits per second to 9, 334 megabits per second. This, many agree, will make surfing much easier. But what about the case of primary schools and colleges across the country? The government will have to work out a solution in this regard by making internet connectivity not only good but at affordable rates.
Concerning infrastructure, experts argue that most of the country’s schools remain lacking in this aspect despite efforts by the government ameliorate the situation. Also, some United Nations agencies such as the UNESCO and UNICEF, as well as mobile telephony companies operating in the country, have been donating multimedia equipment and technical expertise, but authorities will have to go an extra mile to ensure that learners in all parts of the country can enjoy the E-learning program when schools eventually reopen.
Is there a solution to the problem?
While Cameroonian authorities are looking out for short-term solutions to effectively implement the national e-learning program at all levels of the country’s educational landscape, some ICT experts have however been making proposals that could yield fruits in the long run. According to Victor Mbarika – a United States-based Professor of Information and Communication Technologies – one solution to some of the E-learning problems faced by Cameroon and other countries of the developing world is the putting in place of technologies that require low internet connectivity.
“Cameroon faces very many challenges in terms of technologies that are needed to sustain E-learning. Students in rural areas do not have the same kind of access as those in urban areas. That is why it is important to develop technologies for E-learning in such a way that it requires very low bandwidth. This way, a student with mobile data in any part of the country can access various online learning resources without much difficulty,” Prof Mbarika said.
The Founder of Yaounde-based Pan African ICT University also added that apart from the availability of resources for the E-learning process, Cameroon authorities must also emphasize training personnel to be able to make better use of the equipment and infrastructure. “It’s important for institutions to train teachers and even students on how to use E-learning resources. It’s not just about having the equipment, it is also about being able to use them. You can have all the equipment you want but if the users are not properly trained, the tools will just lay dormant and gather dust,” he said.
Although officials say they are doing all they can to make the e-learning component of the teaching and learning process a success this coming academic year, skepticism however remains about how effectively government will be able to tackle some of the existing challenges that stand in the way of the process.
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