LEARNERS STRUGGLE TO ACCESS LEARNING MATERIALS AS GOVERNMENT GAMBLES ON HOW TO COVER THE GAP

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Martha is a Class seven candidate at a primary school in Wakiso district. Her day starts at 7:00am with house chores before turning on Television at 9:00am for televised lessons. She also receives work from her school on a weekly basis through her mum’s phone. “When I wake up, I brush my teeth, bathe and then do my assigned house chores for the day before getting ready for study sessions on TV”. Martha says. Martha’s mother, Maria Mbabazi who has three other school-going children says her biggest challenge has been keeping the children engaged during this trying time. Her children are among the 4,697,036 primary school children affected by the school closures. In total, 10,646,478 learners —608,973 pre-primary, 1,031,520 secondary and 165,396 tertiary— are at home waiting out the pandemic. Ms Mbabazi says not many of them are used to studying on Television and end up watching other channels which she can’t control. “I keep telling them to read their books but it’s not easy, they keep dodging and end up watching other channels and because you don’t want them to go out and loiter the village, you let them be”. She said. Martha is lucky to come from one of the few families with a TV set in Uganda. The most recent household survey conducted by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics was carried out in 2016. It indicates that forty-two per cent of households in Kampala owned a working television set as opposed to areas like Karamoja where no single individual owned a television set. Overall, 83% of the households in Uganda do not have their own television sets. Children in the rural areas and informal settlements where communally owned televisions (7%) are the norm cannot make use of the televised lessons as this would be in contravention of the government orders on physical and social distancing to stop the spread of the Covid19 virus. Soon after the government announced the closure of schools on March 20, different local Television stations have introduced lessons and relied on teachers from different schools to deliver them. Some of these Televisions include BBS Television under its program “Somera mu Ddiiro Lyo” which translates to, “study from your living room” Others include Bukedde Television, Top Television and the National broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation. These lessons have only benefited children in urban areas where households have television stations as they are connected to electricity. According to the survey, only 57% of the households are connected to the national power grid with the rest depending on tadooba, dry cells and batteries, solar and other sources of lighting. Over and above the lessons available on television, teachers at Matha’s School (Kimanje parents’ school) have been sending lesson plans and questions to her mother’s phone. Henry Ssemanda, a teacher at one of the private schools in Wakiso said the teachers were using WhatsApp to deliver lessons on phone for those parents who can afford the internet data charges “The parents take care of the internet charges on an agreement basis between a teacher and a parent and we write the work. We draft questions and answers and then take pictures of the work and send it via WhatsApp and later on, we send the answers still through the same method”. Teacher Ssemanda said. He also says for parents who can afford, the lessons are conducted on phone and the notes are sent on email or WhatsApp. “We receive work from the teachers with questions and after some days, the teachers send the answers and we mark the children” Mrs Christine Mukasa, another parent whose child (Dan Mukasa) is a Class seven-candidate said. She, however, says accessing the internet especially social media that comes with a tax has been a challenge. “My older son has a phone and the work is sent on his phone. We download it and this has helped a lot. We also photocopied past papers that we printed and he uses that for his reading”. Mrs Mukasa added. The situation is however different with regards to public schools. A parent identified as Ruth Anderah says her child receives work free of charge from the teacher via WhatsApp. “Since schools closed, I have received work twice on WhatsApp and they send us a lot that can take the children some time. I have never paid any amount of money.” She said. According to the World Internet Statistics by 31st-Dec-2019, Uganda had 18.5 million users with a penetration rate of 46%. However, according to a 2018 report by the Uganda Communications Commission in 2018 showed that the number of users had been slashed by 5 million after the introduction of Over -The -Top service tax (OTT) on social media platforms. This made internet access more expensive, especially for social media platforms. According to the survey, more than 68% of the people own mobile phones compared to 32% of households with radios. Less than 3% of the population own or have regular access to computers or laptops. For children in rural areas who have no access to these resources, all they can do is wait for the schools to reopen so that they can resume their lessons. Children in Mafubira-Kyamaggwa village in Mafubira sub-county, Jinja district in the eastern part of the country, this forced closure of schools is an extended holiday for them. “It is time to play and more time in the gardens because there is no option. It’s only the urban schools that are using the internet but here children are spending time in the garden and playing,” says Ms Justine Nakibuuka, a mother of 3 children with one in primary four. All the platforms mentioned by the parents call for the usage of the internet which is still very low in Uganda. This was confirmed by findings from the Uganda National Information Technology survey which indicated that social media platforms are some of the popular avenues for citizens to engage with each other and pursue businesses and educational opportunities. On the 20th of April-2020, the ministry of Education unveiled plans to continue engaging children in learning through the Internet, radio and TV lessons. The government also introduced a free online learning platform Kolibri a free and open-source education technology platform. The learning material is downloaded onto a laptop or any other internet-connected device. This can then be shared “seeded” with other devices over an offline network. The spokesperson at the Ministry of Education, Patrick Muinde says the ministry together with the National curriculum development Centre is developing content for the online program that will mainly cater to children in candidate classes. The platform currently has content developed by Khan Academy, an American non-profit established by Salman Khan with the goal of creating a set of online tools that help educate students. The organization produces short lessons in the form of videos. Its website also includes supplementary practice exercises and materials for teachers. Muinde said the ministry had drafted guidelines for the televised and radio lessons to ensure the children were getting the right information. “Kolibri is a good platform and we are developing content for those that can access the internet. This is in addition to lessons we are to roll out on both Television and radio,” he said. Addressing the nation recently, the minister of education and first lady, Janat Museveni said the government was doing this for only children with access to the internet and TV or radio. She also said the government had also finalised the printing of reading materials for those children who cannot access lessons on Television, Radio or the internet. This material will be distributed to the children in their homes. “The materials will be handed over to the district leaders led by the RDC who will move them down to the sub-county leaders and later to local council offices that will distribute the materials to children in homes. Our target is to reach out to the children,” she said. A total of 1.5 billion learners, which is 90.2% of all enrolled learners are out of school in 190 countries worldwide due to the Covid19 pandemic, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In Uganda, over 20 million learners with 36.6% of these in primary, 26% in secondary and 19% in post-secondary education have been at home since schools were closed due to the pandemic. Education experts have urged the government to prioritize providing learners with the reading and study material they need instead of depending on radio, television or the internet to fill in the gaps. The national secretary of the Federation of Non-State Education Institutions, Patrick Kaboyo says those children who have access to phones, the internet, television or even radio are unlikely to stay focused on their lessons and will invariably engage in other non-educational activities. His concern is borne out by data from the UNBS which indicates that even among the general population; only 6% of them used mobiles for education purposes. More than 52% used these devices for social networking such as WhatsApp. “Even for children who have been using ICT to learn, online learning is not practical as the cost of data is extremely high and reach is limited,” he said. He is skeptical about the government’s plan to deploy the RDC to deliver the learning materials to learners. “Why deploy the RDC at the expense of the district education officer? Why deploy a local council chairman and not an education secretary at the councils or even school head teachers? This should be changed and evaluation meetings should be held weekly to assess the program,” Kaboyo said. As the lock-down continues and with the academic year calendar drawing to a close, concern continues to grow as to whether learners like Martha will have to write their end year exams which will determine whether they transition into secondary or post-secondary education. Of even greater concern is the lack of information for parents and learners how at-home learning will be assessed. Story done by Hadijah Mwanje. Email:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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