Exclusion by Assumptions: A commentary

Is online education workable?

In today’s editorial in the Zimbabwe Herald on bridging the Digital Divide, an important issue of the digital divide had been acknowledged. In my opinion, such an acknowledgement is important whenever policy is to be crafted to better improve the educational system in Zimbabwe.

The problem in the past had been that whenever issues of technology had been discussed, some media pundits would be quick to state that “people should do online education.”

The problem with statements like that is their tendency to be normative: this should be done, people should do this because of (A), (B) or whatever. Some anecdotal evidence would be used:

  • A student of this background beat alll odds, so all other students should do the same.
  • My child can now conduct his lessons online. He is only four, so if he can do it, it means older kids should do so.

There is nothing wrong with such anecdotal incidents and for them to be broadcast or written down. The problem comes when policy is to be developed based on those experiences.

Over the past ten years, we have seen the trend whereby our country celebrates itself over some achievement which would be intangible. Because media is good at promoting certain narratives, our country at this point would have been a powerhouse. Except that it isn’t, because words alone cannot build a nation.

The damage that can be done when a responsible authority works from mere suppositions not backed by data is that this creates more bridges. Those at the top, whose voices are heard, have the tendency to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to the majority of children who are poor.

This certainly includes children with disabilities and other marginalised groups.

I am thinking of the effect of the once touted STEM1 programme. This would have helped children who are into STEM subjects receive free education during their Advanced level.

This would have been a good opportunity to review some policies that disadvantage children with disabilities when it comes to pursuing STEM subjects. This programme had an unintended effect of further sidelining these groups as they would in no way enjoy such funding.

So when Covid-19 struck early this year, we all mourned for not only lost time, but business and education. For those in the urban areas, who are already privileged, those who can afford, their quick solution was: let’s put this education online.

Sure, the Covid19 disaster only reminded us of some priorities when it comes to a nation’s ICT policy. It reminded us that, given another chance, we have to digitise not only education, but even governance itself (e-governance).

Digitisation helps even in the fight against corruption as some bureaucrats and gatekeepers would be made redundant by this move. The fact that it is not yet done makes one suspicious why it isn’t being done.

This call for having children conduct online lessons was, in my opinion, insensitive considering that this assumed that a majority of children in the country had access to the Internet. I address the folly of this assumption in this post, but suffice here to state that some assumptions should be better left to private citizens and not form a national policy on delivering education. If there is no infrastructure to support that, then why would one make this bold move?

The problem had to do with our influence from Western countries. In those countries, they already have infrastructure. In fact, they have a culture of Internet access which goes beyond Whatsapp and Facebook use.

In short, the editorial by the Herald team is based on the findings of UNESCO on how access to education had been affected in the wake of the Covid-19. Their findings make for a grim reading: that only 50% of children have access to online education in the wake of the Covid-19 disturbances.2

In some local communities, the percentages may even be higher than the reported 50%. What is of interest is the idea of harnessing traditional mass media with the national curriculum. Thus, radio and television could be used to deliver lessons.

When it comes to delivery of lessons, this may be a working solution. Of course, more needs to be done by the education inspectors to make sure that such lessons are effective. Parents have to help in monitoring attendance of those lessons by their children. Assessment of some kind as to effectiveness of those lessons should also be done.

Otherwise, thanks for reading this ranting: it just made me think and I had to share my own reflections on this important debate on online education.

The bottom line is that education must be thought of as an indispensable asset of our nation. Its delivery must be taken seriously: we want our future generation to succeed where we failed. Providing education should not be done in ad hoc fashion, but be part of a national ICT policy. We hope that our future direction will be based on empirical findings that reflect the experiences of all the communities in the country.

  1. An acronym referring to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines. ↩︎

  2. Of course, it would have helped if we were informed of the study in full detail such as which population was studied, which countries took part in the study etc. I’m sure the original report provides all those answers, this is just a secondary commentary based on the editorial. ↩︎

Ishe Chinyoka
Ishe Chinyoka
Access Technology Instructor

My research interests include operating systems, access technology, programming, and science fiction.