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COVID-19: Has the pandemic increased or reduced the number of out-of-school children?

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WHEN the COVID-19 pandemic started in Wuhan, China in late 2019, no one envisaged it will get to this point where almost every activity has been brought to a stand still the world over. We saw it as a Chinese problem until Nigeria had its index case in February. Nigerians were not afraid because everyone thought the virus would be brought to its knees before long as in the case of Ebola which was felt to be deadlier than COVID-19. Unfortunately, this was not to be as reports from the experts and the media were scary, stories of thousands of people dropping dead in various parts of the world with no solution in sight. To prevent the children from being infected, government ordered that schools be shut down. When the forced holidays dragged from weeks to months and no end in sight, most private schools began online learning.
In this report, Vanguard Learning sought the views of experts in the education sector on whether the new learning normal has helped to increase or decrease the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria. Excerpts:

By Ebele Orakpo

GROWING number of Out-of-School children

Responding, the retired Zonal Co-ordinator, National Teachers’ Institute, North-Central Zone, Dr. Edith Nwabogo Ekpunobi, noted that according to UNICEF: “All children, no matter where they live or their circumstances, have the right to quality education.” She, however, lamented the situation in Nigeria which is home to “one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children.” Though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged five to 14 years are not in school. Only 61 per cent  of six to 11-year-olds regularly attend primary school and only 35.6 per cent of children aged 36-59 months receive early childhood education.

“A recent research by UNICEF indicated that the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria has risen from 10.5 million to 13.2 million, the highest in the world. Most of these children are in Nigeria’s northern states where almajirai system is practised. Of recent, the Boko Haram insurgency has truncated academic activities in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, helping to increase the number of out-of-school children.

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Apart from the almajirai and children affected by activities of Boko Haram in the North, there is the issue of nomads and migrant fishermen’s children. The Federal Government had introduced  mobile nomadic schools and mobile schools for migrant fishermen. Here, the radio is also used to teach them. Again,there is the issue of migrant farmers in some states where children do not go to school during the farming season. In the South-East, there is the problem of the boy-child, who goes on apprenticeship instead of going to school. All these examples contribute immensely to the growing number of out-of school children in Nigeria,” she said.

In her response, the Founder/Coordinator, Education for the Vulnerable Project, Mrs. Peju Okungbowa said although she strongly believes that online education has the potential to reduce the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria but it is fraught with so many challenges.

“I understand that a lot of people have diverse opinions about the necessity of online education in the Nigerian context and I would like to start by defining education. Education is the act of teaching and learning and this can be achieved on a formal and informal level. The Oxford English dictionary defines education as the training of the mind and abilities. From the definition of education here, it is clear that education can take place anywhere; even where there are no physical walls.

“Going back to the subject of online education, it is safe to say that it is an education that requires a computer or mobile device and an internet connection. It is education without walls. I have taken a lot of online courses and I can boldly say that it is not inferior to face-to-face learning in terms of quality and content. The only difference is the physical presence and we have tried to close this gap through video conferencing and small study groups.”

Mrs. Precious Okaka, a pre-school coordinator, also believes that online learning has the potential to drastically reduce the number of out-of-school children only if the challenges are dealt with. “In the light of the situation that the world has found itself, every sector of the economy has been affected and the educational sector is one sector that this pandemic hit so hard. When schools were ordered to completely shutdown on March 20, 2020, everyone thought it was not so serious and that schools would soon resume.

“The reality started dawning on everyone by April and it was clear that the educational sector has no hope of resuming anytime soon. Most private schools started online lessons, exploring different educational apps like Google Classroom, Edmundo, WhatsApp, Zoom, Google Meet and the likes, to reach out to their students. It sounded like a wonderful development to both parents and school owners and most parents embraced it wholeheartedly until the challenges started setting in.

Challenges

The respondents listed high data consumption, lack of electricity supply, high cost of diesel, lack of access to gadgets and internet, high level of poverty, computer illiteracy, among others, as some of the challenges facing online learning in Nigeria. Said Ekpunobi, also a Fellow of the Science Teachers Association of Nigeria: “Online schooling has not been popular in Nigeria unlike radio learning. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most private schools resorted to online teaching and learning. Most public schools where the majority of the school children are, are not doing this although some states like Ogun State introduced online lessons in their television programmes.

For online learning, the issue of access plays a major role. How many children have access to computers, laptops, Ipads, tablets or even android phones which can access Zoom classes, through the internet? How many children have access to internet facilities? How many have access to regular power supply? “Therefore, online learning to me, has increased the number of out-of-school children.Those who were previously in school are now out of school because of lack of access to learning gadgets and internet facilities.

“Even those that have internet facilities battle with exorbitant cost. For example, SPECTRANET charges N19,500 per month for unlimited access. Some of the factors affecting online learning in Nigeria include: Lack of access by children to ICT gadgets such as computers, laptops, Ipads, tablets and Andriod phones, especially those in the rural areas; lack of access to the internet; cost; system and service quality; lack of  regular power supply; computer literacy of children; learner’s perspective/attitude, especially those in primary school, among others.”

Blended mode

As a popular adage goes, there are many ways to kill a rat so Okungbowa believes that there are ways around the huge challenges. “I understand that internet connection issues can disrupt the efficiency of delivering online education in Nigeria. This is why having a blended mode of online and offline activities will help to achieve the main objective, which is to educate the child. It would be helpful if teachers prepared workbooks/worksheets for children to do offline. This would also help to reduce the screen time for children. Photos of completed work can then be sent to the teacher. A lot of parents are also concerned about feedback and support for their children. This can be achieved through a phone call to the teacher or text message, where there is no active internet and the child can get clarification on a task. I have offered this support to my students a lot of times and consider it very effective.”

Apart from poor electricity supply, Okungbowa noted that most children do not have personal devices and rely on their parent’s devices. “Children whose parents are on essential duty would have to wait for their parents to get back home before they can do the assignments. To deal with these issues, we give students one week to turn in their assignments. Most of these children are active on weekends and this only means that teachers now work seven days a week.”

Corroborating what the other respondents said, Okaka said challenges ranged from “high data consumption, to having to turn on their generators because the electricity company can never be relied on, and to control the way the children use the different devices to access their lessons as some of the parents have to be there with them to help out.

Good learning platform

This even worsened when some sectors were called up to resume work and some of these parents had to go back to work with their devices and no time to monitor or be with the children. So, you see, these challenges coupled with the fact that many parents lost their jobs or their salaries dropped led to withdrawal of some parents from the online learning as it comes with a price,” she said.

Another respondent who craved anonymity said “although online teaching is good learning platform to utilise but the challenges are enormous, ranging from light issues, data consumption, availability of devices in the homes especially where you have more than one child to cater for. It seems to be working in some schools who cater for the high class. Issues like, should third term be taught, what happens when school eventually opens would third term be taught from scratch? How do you cater for children that did not take part in the online class at all? Will I pay for online classes and still pay for third term when we eventually resume? Am I getting adequate feedback from children when I teach? Do they really understand when I ask them questions? Is the curriculum being followed strictly? Are parents getting their money’s worth? There are lots of questions to be asked and answered,” she said.

 The way out

According to Ekpunobi who is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants and a Certified Management Consultant, “because of the restriction of movement and social distancing etc, children cannot access computer centres. This presupposes that children must learn at home. Emphasis should be laid more on radio learning for children nationwide. This is because most households have radio gadgets or can afford them. The stipulated schedule for teaching and curriculum should be given by the Federal Ministry of Education and anchored by Education parastatals such as National Teachers’ Institute, NTI, Universal Basic Education Commission, UBEC, Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council, NERDC, etc. This is better than asking government to supply ICT gadgets to every household in Nigeria or provide internet access. Most radios can use batteries where there is no power supply.

“There would always be times when children will need to be kept at home for safety reasons. Should this increase the number of out-of-school children? Instead of halting children’s education and giving them room to play all day; online education can keep children busy and engaged. I have been delivering all my lessons online since the lockdown and my students have been engaged and on task. I have done this effectively using two modes – synchronous and asynchronous. For synchronous modes, I deliver live lessons to my students on a video conferencing platform with Whiteboard features. This gives room for students and teachers to write on a board like they would have done in a physical classroom.

“Students are also able to ask questions during the lesson and instant feedback can be given to students where necessary. For the asynchronous mode, I make recorded video lessons available to parents and students on a learning platform or WhatsApp. They watch the video and complete the assignments given in the video. Children work at their own pace and replay the video as many times as they want. Photos of completed assignments are then sent to me and I give feedback on each student’s submission on a daily basis,” said Okungbowa.

Sharing her personal experience, Okungbowa said: “I have noticed that WhatsApp is the lowest common denominator for the Nigerian context. WhatsApp voice notes, chats, video and audio conference calls can be used for teaching and learning purpose (if planned with intention). If we look at the number of forwarded videos and messages going around social media today; think about the impact these would have made in the life of an out-of-school child if it was aimed at teaching English, maths, science, etc.? There is need to place more value on education and use mobile phones for educational purposes in the same way they are used for entertainment.

Government support

“In conclusion, I would say that support from government to make free internet access available for the sole purpose of education will go a long way to achieve quality and inclusive education for all children in Nigeria. The act of delivering online lessons should also be included in teacher training programmes in order to improve teacher preparedness for unexpected events like the pandemic,” stated Okungbowa.

Okaka said that online learning was mostly adopted by private schools leaving most public schools behind although the Lagos State Government is reaching out to children through radio school programmes. She said: “Do not forget that this was only done by some private schools while the government schools were not fully involved in online learning though they created some platforms in the media for students to participate while the monitoring and assessment were left for the parents. Bearing all these in mind, I will say that online learning has not been as effective as it should be and this has led to the increase in the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria. We hope for the best in the educational sector as online learning can never really take the place of  the physical classroom.”

 

Another respondent who craved anonymity said although online teaching is good learning platform to utilise, the challenges are enormous, ranging from light issues, data consumption, availability of devices in the homes especially where you have more than one child to cater for. It seems to be working in some schools who cater for the high class. Issues like, should third term be taught, what happens when school eventually opens would third term be taught from scratch.

How do you cater for children that did not take part in the online class at all? Will I pay for online classes and still pay for third term when we eventually resume?

Am I getting adequate feedback from children when I teach? Do they really understand when I ask them questions? Is the curriculum being followed strictly? “Are parents getting their money’s worth? There are lots of questions to be asked and answered,” she concluded.

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