The Sunday News
Judith Phiri, Sunday News Reporter
NOSIZO Moyo is a student at the National University of Science and Technology. She hails from Gwelutshena in Nkayi district and stays in Bulawayo with her mother’s sister only going back home on semester breaks.
Life has lately not been very rosy as her mother’s sister has not been going to work due to the Covid-19-induced lockdown and can no longer take care of Nosizo who has not been going to school although lessons are ongoing, albeit online.
Coming from a disadvantaged background but academically gifted, Nosizo’s phone has not been a reliable one and so is her laptop which she got courtesy of a well-wisher who will need it when she acquires hers.
Feeling the pinch of town life, she decided to lessen the burden and chose to go back to remote Gwelutshena where a coterie of negatives conspire to make her academic life almost impossible. Mobile network is quite scarce, data bundles cost an arm and a leg for her and there is no electricity to charge her phone, making online learning a struggle for her.
Nosizo is not alone in the battle against poverty where the odds seem to be too steep for her. Plenty of learners in the country are facing similar challenges and are groaning in hushed tones that education has become elitist ever since the transition towards digital learning has been introduced but their murmurs are hardly heard as the e-learning train has been set in motion and is sure to leave those that are not on board despite the circumstances.
E-learning, which has become the main learning modality since the closure of universities in March 2020 has been viewed as only a good option if everyone is able to access it. The feeling among students is that e-learning demotivates a large number of students to not take their school work seriously.
“The problem with e-learning is that as students we can decide if we want to attend the online lectures or not. For some students it will not be like they do not want to attend the online lecture but they will not be having data bundles at that time. This then makes it seem like some of the students are not serious but it’s the challenges they will be facing,” said a third year Marketing Management student at Lupane State University, Miss Melody Mhlanga.
She added that online lectures have not yielded much results as compared to the face-to-face lectures where students would also be in a better position to ask questions. Another fourth year Applied Biology and Biochemistry student at the National University of Science and Technology Mr Bongani Ndlovu said so much needed to be done to assist students with online learning.
“As much as we agree that e-learning is the only option during this Covid-19 pandemic period, a lot needs to be done in order to assist the students. Some of them are not abreast with these new technologies and they find it hard to catch up,” said Mr Ndlovu.
He added that there are instances whereby other students ask their friends to send them screenshots so that they also try to navigate the platforms. As a result most students waste a lot of time trying to familiarise themselves with the platforms rather than getting much of what their lecturers are teaching.
Concerned parents have said it has been a bumpy road when trying to ensure that their children get some form of learning using the fairly new online concept. Some have even doubtfully raised concerns that their children are likely not to graduate this year if measures such as lockdowns are continuously employed to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Yes, we do agree the lockdown is necessary and it is wise for our children to partake in online learning but the phenomenon also comes with its own challenges of cost. Some of us are informal traders and our businesses are closed, sometimes when my child who is a final year Banking and Finance student at Midlands State University asks for data money when I have nothing it hurts me. Sometimes we have to forgo bread and make sure that my child can do her researches for the dissertation project she is doing. My worry is that she may not graduate if these lockdowns continue,” said a troubled parent Mrs Morleen Sibanda.
Mrs Sibanda said it was her hope that after all has been said and done, the students get at least two months of face-to-face lectures so that they can polish up some of the issues they may have missed during e-learning.
Lupane State University webmaster Mr Calipher Ndlovu said as a lecturer some of the important ways of carrying out e-learning include correspondence courses which are conducted through regular mail with little interaction, telecourses whereby content is delivered via radio or television broadcast.
“CD-ROM courses are those whereby the student interacts with static computer content, online learning is the internet-based courses offered synchronously and/or asynchronously, while mobile learning is by means of devices such as cellular phones, PDAs and digital audio players (iPods, MP3 players),” he said.
Mr Ndlovu also noted that before one can talk about online learning (e-learning), people should look at the acceptable behaviour of using such platforms, which he called netiquette which in general is the correct or acceptable way of using the internet.
He said there were some basics rules of netiquette that students needed to follow so as to adapt well to the reality of e-learning, such as respecting other people’s time and bandwidth, making themselves look good online and respecting other people’s privacy.
Mr Ndlovu added: “The advent of online learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic has brought some implications on how education is delivered to an extent of having virtual graduation ceremonies being carried out. Lectures have managed to be rolled out to students in the comfort of their homes through the appropriate use of the learning management system (LMS).”
He also highlighted that the use of e-learning has managed to help reduce the spread of Covid-19 since the lecturer would not be physically interacting with the students and in some instances the lectures will be offered synchronously through the use of services of BigBlueButton (a video conferencing plugin for MOODLE) and under normal circumstances it usually saves time.
Mr Ndlovu added that the students can also ask for a recording of the lecture which they can use for revision purposes and the resources (notes, course outline etc) for the course are easily shared online.
“The use of LMS for e-learning has also made possible for students to write their test, quizzes online and submit their assignments online and they can have group discussions virtually, for instance the LMS that we use at my institution has got a Chat function, a forum function where students can interact with each other so as to assist each other on certain topics.”
However, he said despite the effectiveness of e-learning there were some challenges as well. He noted that for students to use e-learning they need a lot of training also even for some lecturers since it has become a new normal which many people were not used to.
Mr Ndlovu added that Government should also work with ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to zero rate some educational websites because data is a big hindrance when it comes to e-learning and was also a bit expensive in Zimbabwe. He added: “The Government and institutions should devise a plan where they can get gadgets for use by the students because this is another hindrance in delivering e-learning. When these two above are met, it will be easy for students to fully adapt to this new normal.”
LSU marketing and communication director Mr Zwelithini Dlamini said the university will continue with blended teaching mode with a view of minimising if not completely eliminating any physical contact between the student and lecturer. He added that resources permitting it was their plan to strengthen LMS so that they deliver an efficient and quality service to the students.
Mr Dlamini added: “Zero rated data or anything close to that which would make data more affordable would go a long way in assisting educational institutions to deliver online learning with minimum challenges. From the look of things there is no going back to the four walled, chalkboard lecture rooms. The future is in technology-based learning and therefore it’s only prudent that adequate outlay is directed towards the requisite infrastructure.”
In an interview, Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Amon Murwira said that in view of increase in Covid-19 cases and tightened lockdown measures, his ministry will continue to use available options to ensure that learning does not stop. Prof Murwira said Government was not blind to the fact that online learning comes with access challenges, especially to those who lack financial resources.
“We progressively try to make sure that we are as inclusive as possible. We want to solve problems of those who are struggling with access. But we can’t stop because there are challenges, we will continue while we are improving. It’s almost like we are making a road, while we make the rehabilitations others are inconvenienced for a moment but we will continue to make it convenient for everyone,” he said.
He added that universities and tertiary institutions were using innovative methods that would ensure that students are able to finish their degrees and graduate as did other classes last year that graduated between October and November amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.