E-learning: an expensive, elusive dream

We applaud the efforts of our decision-makers who are trying their best to carry the country through the COVID-19 crisis. That said, we cannot avoid pointing out that recent comment by the Executive Director of the Ministry of Education that the country was never ready for mass e-learning for all learners, is no surprise at all. Who seriously believed that Namibia could substitute home learning using the internet (in English) for primary and secondary school classroom lessons? We certainly did not. The entire effort was a waste of resources.

Is our government actually telling the country that it had no idea that only 13,000 of the nation’s more than 800,000 learners had access to e-learning platforms? A simple Google check tells us that only 52.50 (2019) of our households have electricity. How can consistent e-learning happen with no power? Our poverty levels make it clear that ownership of tablets, PCs and smart phones in our households is a luxury, not norm.

According to Dr Josephine Ola-Busari in her thesis, Lack of reading culture and literacy in the Namibian educational system, “the poor level of proficiency in the English language among Namibian learners is sometimes attributed to a lack of reading culture and low literacy levels in the Namibian educational system.” One Google check reveals pages of articles re-stating these very obvious facts.

Have our decision-makers who likely have full internet access at work and home taken a look at the costs of data? Many of the kids in our schools come from homes where food is insecure, how then, can money for data be found even if they did have tablets, PCs or smart phones (which they do not)? Most of our rural learners don’t even have televisions or indoor plumbing, much less a PC linked to an online server. Let us get real.

Rather than e-learning, we should have invested in supplying text books and story books to young learners while at home. Where were the math worksheets to be done at home and dropped off at designated central locations to be reviewed and corrected and then returned? What about radio lessons for the young ones? We needed to examine Namibian realities, think outside of the box, and innovate. Instead decision-makers blindly followed a wrong belief that whatever works in New York, Berlin, Montreal or London can work in Katima Mulilo, Oshikuku, Keetmanshoop, or Oranjemund.

Whoever first suggested e-learning as a viable option in Namibia as a substitute for classroom learning during the COVID-19 lockdown does not know the Land of the Brave. They could have as well suggested that the kids put books under their pillows at night and the information would magically enter their brains while they sleep. Each option is improbable.

E-learning works in developed countries with access to the tools needed. This is not the case in Namibia and we know it.

Many learners do not have English as their mother tongue. Their adult caregivers at home cannot assist them with e-learning lessons as they do not speak or read English. This is not news. This is known.

We want to follow all that government is telling us to do during this unprecedented State of Emergency. But, we need to be given credible instructions. The e-learning mandate was not credible.

How frustrating it must be for professionals trying their best to do their jobs and care for the education of our children, when they are handed an assignment that was dead-on-arrival before it left the planning pages.

The affluent could utilize the national e-learning program while the poor (the vast majority), once again, could not. We must stop making requirements that better suits the wallets of the rich and rather, deal with the previously disadvantaged majority who are from underserved communities.

If the policy ‘wish’ for the distant future is e-learning at all levels of education, then we agree. Let make a 10-20 year plan for country wide e-learning for the primary and secondary school levels. First assess what functional, durable and practicable equipment is needed. Get training plans in place for teachers and learners; huge budgets will be needed. And software practice for teachers and learners and parents on tablets and PCs would be mandatory. The equipment will break, attract viruses, be stolen, dropped, screens cracked, dust will get in the circuits and damaged in 100 ways. Let us prepare for this too with maintenance training.

E-learning for all students at all levels IS possible, with national electrification, free data, planning, budget, community/family buy-in and enough time to make a program that fits Namibia.

Let us hear informed advice from consultants and development partners, but we must always Namibianize it. “E-learning during COVID-19 in Namibia” – may sound like a great research paper to be presented at a UN Conference, for a dissertation defence or in a donor aid committee room, but it is impracticable for our children (at this time.)

E-learning is suitable and successful in adult education; workplace training programs, and tertiary education programs. But let us stop making spur-of-the-moment primary school educational policies based on futuristic, expensive, and elusive dreams.

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