Education in COVID-19 Times

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Ayodele Okunfolami canvasses investment in online educational programmes

Hopefully, the back and forth on the partial reopening of schools should have come to rest following the decision of secondary school students in exit forms to return to class to write their certificate examinations. Educational authorities have asked that schools be unlocked nationwide as from August 4, specifically for students writing the West African Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination. Dates for the different qualifying examinations have been fixed and so the students can resume, do some revision and sit for their exams.

To refresh our memories, in order to curb the spread of coronavirus as it entered the country, schools were immediately closed as a safety measure. That made common sense as the fear was that children are perceived as super spreaders considering their naïveté to not social distance, regularly wash their hands and observe other coronavirus secure guidelines. Places of worship closed. Large public gatherings followed. Markets and ultimately the entire economy went on a lockdown to curtail the pandemic. Nigeria was simply following a global template set by more developed nations in their fight against the virus.

Swaggers became stammers on if or when the pandemic would be defeated and life returning to a sense of normalcy led to humanity working remotely in order to carry on enterprise. This meant businesses (schools) had to device means to keep up transactions with their customers and clients (pupils and students). Thanks to the Internet. The hitherto zygotic e-economy hatched and zoomed into gigabyte adulthood.

Education practitioners began exploring diverse technological channels to continue the learning of students. The effectiveness of this can only be matched with the effectiveness of the school feeding programme during the period under review.

As much as we have to commend government at different levels and private practitioners that didn’t fold their arms but used miscellaneous media to keep the education of children running, Nigeria’s infrastructural deficits came to the fore. They explored radio, television and online outlets. Electricity was the major drawback while unaffordable and inconsistent Internet speed was either out of reach for or data signals fluctuated during downloads. Plus, those in far-flung areas where modern communication remains a mirage, one can surmise that the larger percentage of students remain unschooled throughout this period leaving mainly children of the elite in elitist schools with the advantage, further increasing the educational gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Before COVID, education disparity was rife because aside the unhealthy commercialization, education in Nigeria has turned into where the rich reach for the quality schools, the poor for the below par public or substandard schools. Research has also shown that two-thirds of a child’s academic performance is influenced by outside classroom conditions. Meaning a child returning to a home where his assignments has parental supervision in a room with a study desk, all things being equal, has a greater chance of doing better than his classmate that returns to a home too small for learning, or to parents indifferent of his school work. So, although this remote learning gives a sense of normalcy, not every parent can homeschool. Some, even if enthusiastic about their wards’ academics, are not economically and cerebrally capable of doing so. They are neither financially empowered to provide the gadgets needed for the child’s e-learning nor apt enough to understand the science and literature of the child’s scheme of work.

Aside the infrastructural and intellectual downsides, getting the attention of the pupils without the help of pedagogues that are trained to do so is very demanding. With several competing signals on the airwaves and environment, asking naturally playful children to tune in or log on to tutorials through a screen without the deliberate supervision of a parent or adult caregiver renders academics through these media learning channels less effective.

Some schools used virtual electronic means to conclude their curriculum and conduct exams for the terms covered by corona. Of course, this was in no way seamless as humans are by nature social beings, so interacting virtually with peers on the part of the pupils, and students, on the part of the teachers, was met with a lot of hiccups and reinventing of the e-classroom environment. How was the integrity of those e-exams guaranteed when students were tested unsupervised in the comfort of their textbooks or adult aid? Except the questions were unconventionally fashioned to put these out-of-school environments into consideration anyway.

On the delivery of the lectures, I think it can be better. Because the learning medium is different, virtual and most times non-interactive for those that are using mass media to nonspecific audience, telegenic presentations with matching animated visuals would have gotten more attention. Just standing blandly in front of the cameras dishing out from a textbook a particular topic won’t get the required reach.

The kids these programmes are designed would be bored listening to or watching a drab stranger on radio or television speaking inaudibly and writing illegibly on a magic board. The facilitators should undergo reskilling tailored for broadcast with producers to make the bundle more entertaining. This may even entail using nonteachers to pass the message, after all it is not meteorologists that give us the weather report. The learning content should also be edited to be more generic so that the topic of the day would cut across different educational cadres instead of teaching SS2 algebra only for SS2 students. The generic topic, if properly done, would even endear nonstudents alike.

Although, the numbers of coronavirus infections are still increasing and keeping children at home is becoming logically unsustainable, the lockdown is being eased in phases. Markets, banks, offices, travel and places of worship have all opened in almost every part of the country even if skeletal with prescribed adherence to coronavirus control measures. However, can we guarantee bio bubbles to school our children? How would private school teachers, most of whom went unpaid or half-paid, be motivated to do their jobs considering the occupational hazards of either contracting the disease or the social effects of losing their jobs outrightly?

Nevertheless, other sectors of life have already plugged into the post-COVID world where virtual transactions are the new normal and so, even though in-person schooling is likely to resume after those external exams, education should be ready to take the cinematic journey from classrooms to the studios and online. We should be ready to have 21st century version of the educational belts we had on TV when Sesame Street, Square One, Bright Sparks, I Need to Know, Kiddie Vision 1O1, Speak Out and the other foreign and indigenous educational shows that enlightened the Nigerian child in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Edupreneurs should be more commanding in this digital economy by stretching the bands of social media to invest in educational programmes online that would be the trending feature, attracting viral views for the edification of this generation.

––Okunfolami wrote from Festac, Lagos