- COVID-19 school closures in Africa have widened existing educational, socio-economic and gender inequalities.
- Along with poor access to distance learning resources, the continent's children have been hard hit.
- Digital technology could level the playing field, but huge public-private sector investment is needed.
The world continues to deal with the disruptive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on every sector of the economy and the wellbeing of its people. The path to recovery from the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for systems redesign or better still, a reset. However, one cannot overlook the negative impacts of the pandemic which only exacerbated the existing inequalities across the world.
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Many school children across Africa received no education after several governments shut down schools as part of the strategy to quell the spread of the virus. Parents, especially in remote and rural areas looked on as nothing could be done about their children’s education. No instruction, feedback or interaction with their teachers took place. Even in cases where this happened, fewer topics and less content was transmitted through distance learning modules either facilitated by the television or radio.
Unfair distribution of opportunities
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa constitute 87% of the countries in the world where more than 30% of primary school age girls remain out of school. Young girls and many other vulnerable groups of children continued to experience unique challenges detrimental to their access to education, especially distance learning. Study materials, guides for learning and even tutoring remained inaccessible as reports of harassment by fathers or uncles heightened. Guardians with low or no levels of formal education continued to grapple with supporting their wards with home learning.
Several African governments have rolled out a number of interventions to facilitate distance learning. A number of great innovations have emerged as a result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education. The acute disparities in accessing education in Africa remains a huge challenge, despite incremental investments by both private and public sector in recent months. Nonetheless, 89% of learners across Sub-Saharan Africa still do not have access to household computers and 82% lack internet access. As schools reopen, there will be a need to play catch up for lost time. However, children living in rural farming communities are most likely to be excluded once again as a result of the clash with crop cultivation periods.
Children living in conflict zones, those with learning difficulites, and those living in extreme poverty seem to have been left out in such difficult times. As parents lost their sources of livelihoods due to the pandemic, the already strained living conditions worsened.
Equal access to education in the digital age
While we may not be out of the woods yet with the pandemic, one thing remains true. A reset of our education system is necessary. Especially if we are committed to unlocking human capabilities and harnessing the demographic dividend of the continent. The socio-economic background of a family should not determine a child’s ability to access quality education or become successful in life.
Education should be a basic human right. Technology is increasingly playing a role in the quality of education and more importantly how learning is done. The online education market is expected to reach $350 billion by 2025 as flexible learning technologies scale-up. Online education enables learners to access resources from any location, at any time, at their own pace, and can be tailored to their individual interests. Huge potential lies with these technologies. Training can be easily scaled-up if the relevant infrastructure is in place.
To address the digital divide and the challenges that hamper access to quality education, we must think of inclusive and innovative ways of transferring knowledge and digital skills to young Africans in rural, underserved and marginalized areas to enhance their prospects of becoming active participants and contributors in the digital and knowledge economies.
African governments must boldly pursue a collaborative approach in transforming education and enforce digital inclusion by investing in both basic and digital infrastructure such as digital public service delivery, internet coverage, and data storage capacity among others. By laying the groundwork for improved access to services and technologies, we will be bridging the gaps in learning and teaching which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.