Let Them Eat Cake... and have unlimited internet access
Elspeth Dugdale | July 2, 2020
Uganda has a serious educational dilemma and it is hard to see a way forward. When all schools closed at the end of March it was supposedly for just 30 days, although at the time that already seemed optimistic. Over 100 days later, there is no change in sight.
WTA closed after just 6 weeks of the first term of the academic year. There is already talk of 2020 being declared a ‘dead year’, meaning that schools will only open up properly late February 2021. Currently, 15 million students from nursery to university level are sitting at home – this may last for almost 12 months. There has been some talk of just the exam classes returning, but it is difficult to see how that will happen; it is already half way through Term 2.
All over the world, many countries have partly ‘solved’ the education issue with online lessons, Zoom face to face classes, endless worksheets, emails and phone calls to encourage students. But even then, there is still a great disparity between those who ‘have’ easy & affordable internet access and those who ‘don’t have’. In Uganda, there is also talk of the value of online studying. However this sounds rather like ‘let them eat cake’ (ie reflecting a disregard or lack of awareness for those in poverty). Access to online education only favours the children of the wealthy. Why? Because it requires the following:
- good internet access (realtively expensive in Uganda)
- a home with electricity and a laptop
- supportive, educated, English speaking parents (perhaps not essential, but certainly advantageous)
For WTA students, and the young children who attend Connect, the notion of online studying is way out of reach.
However, for rural students the government already promised a vast distribution of 10 million solar powered radios and 137,466 TVs (to be precise) for rural areas. But even as these are yet to appear, this still undoubtedly presents big problems:
- Increases the likelihood of large groups gathering closely together to watch or listen.
- Many families live in small huts or houses with no power at all.
- Such a vast amount of subjects and lessons to cover per age group – impossible to present enough material for students to keep up.
- Home learning is also not really feasible: parents can’t supply books & educational materials
- Lower primary materials are written in English – inaccessible for both illiterate parents and their children
- TVs alone could cost UGX 300 billion. Despite the official announcement two months ago, neither radios nor TVs have appeared. So far it all seems like more empty promises.
So what? Where is all this likely to be heading?
The ongoing effect of such digital and educational disparity..
Rural students from poor families are likely to:
- regress and actually go backwards in their learning without ongoing teaching
- drop out of school earlier if they are not able to return
- have reduced employment opportunities
- experience poorer health, & ultimately have a shorter life expectancy due to shortened education
In great contrast, students from wealthier families are likely to progress at the right level and be able to proceed to the next academic year. In general, they will make up for the lost education more easily.
As the Daily Monitor (Uganda national newspaper) writes:
“With more than three months into the coronavirus-forced lockdown, our rural school-going children have lost more than three months of learning and have gone rusty. This contrasts sharply with their counterparts in urban settings with more financially well off parents and guardians.
Moreover, these urban counterparts have easy access to Internet-driven learning media such as Zoom and TV channels. Yet such media are inaccessible or are unaffordable to the rural poor. This poorly matched scenarios mean that while schools remained shut for our rural learners, their counterparts in towns continue with virtual-supported learning. Yet the sets of pupils will be subjected to the same national exams.”
A recent radio panel discussion described this new inequality as the gap between technology and education – it seems so true in lockdown Uganda. For now, it is honestly very hard to see a way forward. But our hope and prayer is that the WTA students are made of sterner stuff and that their resilience, tenacity together with their desire to learn and achieve will bring them back to school – whenever that may be.