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EDUCATION: Why the sector is ripe for digital disruption

School children using computer during digital literacy classes

ANALYSIS  | THE INDEPENDENT |  On June 6, 2021, President Museveni delivered his much-anticipated speech in his second address to the nation since the newest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country.

With scores of students infected according to recent media reports, the president only confirmed a lockdown many saw coming. He closed schools for 42 days to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.

“There has been an increased number of infections in schools since March. A total of 948 reported cases in 43 schools from 22 districts. Kampala, Gulu, Masaka and Oyam districts combined, constitute 61 per cent of reported cases in education institutions,” a report in the Daily Monitor reads in part.

For students and parents, the closure presents an uncertain future. On the other hand, the new lockdown serves as another reminder that there must be deliberate actions towards long-term investment in digital learning.

Government, according to the National Budget Framework Paper for the financial year 2021/2022, is prioritizing digital transformation of the economy to lessen physical contact as well as improve efficiency in service delivery. For now, projected budget allocations to fast track the implementation of this strategy stand at Shs 134 billion. Government plans to roll out broadband infrastructure in key areas including schools.

The framework paper includes plans to support the rollout of e-services including e-learning. Government estimates indicate about Shs344 billion has been set aside to build a well-coordinated science and innovation ecosystem to increase the application of technology in service delivery.

Players speak out

Secondary school teacher Hamidah Nabatanzi expressed enthusiasm on hearing this move. “With the new lower secondary curriculum being focused on student-centred learning, there are barely notes for the student to consume. As a teacher of sciences, I believe the introduction of virtual science laboratories or digital platforms will really aid in supplementing my students’ academics. The only issue will be in making sure that there is good internet access for all,” the Mathematics and Physics teacher says.

As Nabatanzi waits for the government’s intervention, Paula Acen’s children, aged three and five years, have continued school thanks to e-learning. When the government shut down schools, the family simply shifted classes to Zoom, an online video communication platform. Was it a smooth transition?

According to Acen, this has barely been a piece of cake. “It was hard to adjust at first, not just for the child but the parent too. My daughter kept asking me when she would return to school because Zoom class hadn’t registered as a school in her mind. Even when the school asked students to take a break off Zoom, not being around a playground with the usual schoolyard swings was hard for her to adjust to. In the meantime, I also had to attend school with her because she didn’t know how to use the laptop yet I had work to attend to,” she says.

In addition to that, Acen speaks of the high costs of digital learning in terms of costs incurred to buy data and laptops for more than one child.

Regardless, she believes there aren’t other alternatives to learning besides the use of technology.

Another parent, Job Baraza chips in to supplement on the trials of digital learning. He expresses skepticism over a method that lacks the element of social interaction with other children and teachers because this is where impactful learning and development occur. He has taken to a hybrid format of digital learning and homeschooling with a teacher.

So many questions continue to plague the minds of students, teachers and other key stakeholders. In the past year, what has worked? How do we continue to learn in light of these new pandemic waves? How wide has the gap grown in education and how do we bridge it?

Promising Technology

As a barrage of questions regarding education come out, The Innovation Village has been on a mission to nurture the innovators who are working towards solutions in the sector.

“With traditional approaches of learning that converge students in one place currently impossible, there is a need to allow digital transformation to enable learners to access material anytime and anywhere,” according to a statement from the The Innovation Village

The Innovation Village statement adds that while digital transformation allows for more freedom in the way students interact with teachers, it is also key for the sector because learners have a chance to choose from a variety of information and be in charge of their own learning.

The EdTech Lab at The Innovation Village, launched a Business Development Program geared towards providing holistic support to innovations offering solutions towards the Future of Education. The program was designed to refine, validate, and sustainably scale ideas designed to increase access to quality education and add relevant skills for development. The EdTech Lab invited Institutions, Businesses, and Early–Stage Startups in Uganda with a Product or Service already in the community with evidence of customers that are looking to reimagine education and accelerate positive change in learning.

Through a very competitive and intense selection process, 10 ventures that are innovating in the space of education from areas of Research in Education, Skilling, E-learning, STEM among others were chosen.

Among the top impressive solutions is Nimarungi, a local startup that hopes to use data to provide a proper outlook into the future of education.

Its co-founder, Sabrina Atwiine, is a university student living through these uncertain times. She explains what Nimarungi is trying to solve.

“With one of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals aimed at eradicating inequality, Uganda’s most vulnerable or marginalized children and rural schools were at the top of the most affected people during the COVID-19 Pandemic. At this point do we have enough information to know?” Atwiine ponders.

To answer that question, she says there is a need for data. Therefore, Nimarungi harnesses the power of data to eradicate urban-rural inequality that was further accelerated by the pandemic. The pandemic has exposed the digital divide between not just learning institutions but households as well. Atwiine believes measuring the extent and reporting on glaring issues such as these would draw the much-needed attention to schools and influence decision making and policies.

With data in place, other entrepreneurs are coming up with innovations to make homeschooling as engaging and effective as traditional learning.

Because they understand the concerns of parents like Baraza and Acen whose children are disoriented by the non-interactive school virtual, innovators like Think Play have created engaging and educative games for young learners. These games are geared towards easing learning of Science, Technology and Mathematics.

Through teaching critical thinking, leadership and communication skills, Izere Education is a social enterprise bringing 21st Century Education to Ugandan children.

The academy’s lead, Shamim Nirere, feels that there is no turning back. She believes that the incorporation of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in education is long overdue and she is glad that it is becoming a priority in this national budget.

In her work with Izere Education, she has been able to replicate her lectures and create resources that can be downloaded and reviewed offline by students during this period at an affordable fee.

“Technology cannot replace teachers and that’s for a fact. It can enable and amplify our impact,” she says.

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