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Nigerian schools are being forced to rethink their digital limits and education models in a pandemic

Yomi Kazeem
By Yomi Kazeem

Africa reporter

At the start of May, Bernice Sowole was trying to figure out a way to keep her mother’s 20-year old private secondary school alive.

Despite the easing of the coronavirus lockdown, the enduring ban on large public gatherings meant schools and religious organizations have remained shuttered given the obvious risk of students becoming vectors for spreading the virus.

But with a new school term approaching, like many other schools around the world, the Sowoles’ Lagos-based private school faced the risk of making no income despite mounting overheads, including rent and salaries. The solution was to hire a rapid-action team to digitize the entire term’s syllabus, across all subjects in the six grade levels, converting the lessons into videos that the school’s 350 pupils could access online. Put another way, Sowole’s solution meant the team had to transform all of the term’s planned classes into about a thousand 20-minute long video lessons within a month.

That’s the kind of machination private schools in Africa’s largest country are adopting to stay alive as the Covid-19 pandemic forces educational organizations to adapt quickly. Despite the increasing emergence of edtech startups offering digital learning models, the delivery of education in Nigeria has mainly been through in-person learning taking place in classrooms with very little embrace of digital options by schools. Indeed, even private after-school lessons at home typically involve in-person sessions with a tutor despite the growing abundance of online options and resources.

Yet, in a few short weeks, a historically slow-moving, giant industry has been forced to retool its entire model. Primary and secondary schools have scrambled to figure out ways to retain their pupils—and business—while the pandemic rages on. For edtech startups however, the disruption of the school calendar year was a rare opportunity to prove their unique value and relevance.

Take uLesson, an edtech startup which launched in February and notched nearly 250,000 downloads in its first three months due to sharp demand amid the lockdown. uLesson’s  service is anchored on a mobile app through which users can take lessons and tests, and have their learning progress measured. It also has an offline component which sees it send its full library of learning content to registered users via SD cards which can be plugged into phones and accessed without the extra cost of downloads or streaming online.

“What these crises do is accelerate trends,” says Sim Shagaya, Nigerian tech veteran and founder of uLesson. “There was already an acceleration towards a combination of education and technology. And there was already a changing calculation in the minds of parents and learners as to the value that’s delivered through offline teaching—that calculation is only accelerating now,” he tells Quartz Africa.

It’s a position that’s been recently validated even in high-level government circles. “Private school owners should accept that school has changed [and] learning has moved to another medium,” Folasahde Adefisayo, the commissioner for education in Lagos, said in a recent interview. “The onus is on private schools to convince parents to join online lessons.”

Despite a month-long lockdown in April, Nigeria has struggled to stem its surge of coronavirus cases. Since confirming the first case in sub-Saharan Africa in late February, the country has struggled to deliver large-scale of tests which are critical for identifying and isolating confirmed cases unlike regional neighbors, Ghana and South Africa. Nigeria now accounts for the third highest cases on the continent, with over 800 fatalities. Government campaigns to drive the use of face masks and hand sanitizers have also been undermined by misinformation.

Part of the challenge for schools, as they play catch-up, will be adapting offline classroom methods for online lessons during which they have limited or no interaction with pupils. It’s a process that requires not just pupils (and their parents) to adopt a new mode of learning but also for teachers to develop new teaching methods. A potential pitfall in that regard, Shagaya warns, is trying to “squeeze the traditional school format into the online model.” That’s already seen in some cases where private schools are offering online models with video lessons lasting as long as an hour per class (as they would offline), possibly in a bid to justify unchanged school fees.

Limitations

One lesson Sowole quickly learned in the process of adapting to new realities was not to take parents’ internet savvy for granted. “Not all the parents are tech savvy so they struggle with accessing the online platform for their children. Some parents couldn’t even log in,” Sowole tells Quartz Africa. There’s also the extra strain that the process of unplanned homeschooling puts on parents who have to be hands-on while possibly working from home themselves.

But those are not the only limitations of online-based learning that schools and edtech startups face. While internet costs and access are unlikely to prove a barrier among middle-class households that can afford high-end private schools or sign-up with edtech startups, the quality of access remains in question. With a mean download speed of 1.56 megabits per second (Mbps), Nigeria is rooted in the bottom quarter of global broadband speed rankings for 2019 by UK analytics firm Cable. The slow speeds and short attention spans of young students present a problematic combination that could undermine learning.

Among lower-income households however, the scenario is very different with online learning being out of reach given costs of broadband access and internet-enabled devices. Wise to that reality, state governments across the country have adopted mass media options for remote learning while schools stay closed with lessons broadcast on state-owned radio stations as well as through partnerships with private stations. For its part, the Lagos state government is distributing 10,000 radio sets to ensure students in under-served communities are not left behind.

But there are also growing signs government schools too will adopt online teaching methods to provide the interactivity that one-way radio transmissions do not. In fact, since starting online classes last month, a teacher at a government-owned high school tells Quartz Africa lessons have been delivered to students through WhatsApp and Telegram groups. And, in cases where students do not own personal phones, they are expected to sign up with their parents’ devices or even team up with neighbors who have access.

However, a few weeks on, the flaws of the model are manifesting as several students are missing out on classes and learning due to a lack of access, the teacher hints. “For students who don’t have parents with phones or access to Whatsapp, I don’t know how they will do it.”

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