Nigeria

The cost of reopening schools in the pandemic  (III)

By Asawo Ibifuro

Although this discussion is focused on Nigeria and Africa, it has a global appeal as the pandemic and its effect is global. Looking at China, South Korea and Israel who tried to reopen their schools, amidst tight resumption protocols, it was observed that these countries went into another wave of increase in infection which has forced them to close schools.

As we all know, one of the major goals for education administrators is to improve access to quality education but this is to be done without risking the lives of the children. Access to quality education now transcends brick and mortar schools; the virtual learning environment is at present considered globally as a major way to access quality education, especially in the pandemic.

Here in Nigeria, from the feedback so far, it has been observed that many Nigerians including government officials have also come to realise the true cost of re-opening our schools in the pandemic.

Hence, the consideration to use virtual learning as a veritable medium of learning in the pandemic and as a complement to our existing traditional learning post-pandemic.

The following are some key areas to consider in order to ensure a successful implementation of a virtual learning plan adapted to Nigeria during the pandemic and post-pandemic

Government Policies

Policies in education established by the Nigerian government at all levels going forward should include and encourage the use of virtual learning environments as a complement or alternative to the existing physical learning environments, depending on the state of things in the country per time.

To ensure this policy is effective, the government must provide adequate power supply to its citizenry.

The government should also make policies that ensure public and private schools are guided on how to implement virtual learning for school-aged children in both urban and rural areas.

Developing a Framework

Once the government puts forth policies for schools to have virtual learning environments to complement or be an alternative to physical learning environments, the next major task will be to adopt the use of virtual learning during the pandemic and a blend post-pandemic.

Subsequently, all stakeholders should develop frameworks on how the virtual learning will work within their localities.

The following questions can serve as a guide for a good framework: How can a cost-effective and quality learning experience be provided for the learners? What cost should each stakeholder bear? Can all the learning objectives be achieved through the virtual learning environment or are there some that can be achieved only through the physical learning environment? What kind of content will be effective for virtual teaching — considering the various class categories?

How can the content be created at a cost-effective rate? What distribution channel is most available? How can the content be distributed to the learners? What are the possible challenges that are likely to be faced? What are the peculiarities in the various geographical zones and how can we adapt the virtual learning environment to them?

Further considerations to be made for this framework include the age and presence of disabilities in the students.

These considerations give the direction to all stakeholders on the kind of content that needs to be developed, the kind of delivery/distribution medium to be adopted, the infrastructure that needs to be in place, the partnerships to be leveraged, the areas of limitations, etc.

Overtime, all these and more will be used to draw up key performance indices for effective monitoring, evaluation and continuous improvement.

Content curation

In education, the quality of content matters a great deal; in fact, in virtual education and digital business, content is king.

Nigeria runs the 6-3-3-4 system of education where a total of nine years is used for compulsory basic education. Children between ages five and 13 (about 30 million Nigerians) fall within this class category.

This is the formative stage of our children and needs our best input. At this level of education, the children require content that will get their attention; they also require lots of audio-visuals with illustrations to drive home the learning objectives.

The way and manner their content will be curated for virtual learning will be different from that of the older children in the senior secondary schools and those for the undergraduates. It is therefore important for the government and school administrators to work out generally-accepted content curation guides that will appeal to and be easily understood by the various segments of learners.

Furthermore, content curation should be based on the language of the target audience. For example, it will be foolhardy to use advanced English language to teach out-of-school children in the rural areas of the North, South, East or West of Nigeria; for children with hearing impairment, the use of sign languages is a necessity.

One fast way to jump-start this phase is to partner with existing content developers, ensuring that the content curated is based on the national curriculum and can be delivered in the appropriate format (e.g. audio, video, text, animation, graphics, games, assessment, etc.) via multi-platforms to accommodate the diverse segments of users in our 6-3-3-4 system of education.

Once this is well determined, only then can we look at how these contents can be delivered or distributed to the various target audience.

Delivery/distribution platforms

The platform or environment through which the content is delivered by the teacher or consumed by the student gives the distinction between the Physical Learning Environment and the Virtual Learning Environment. While in our Physical Learning Environment, we all assemble in classrooms; in the Virtual Learning Environment, we meet virtually in what could be termed as a virtual classroom and this could be live or pre-recorded as audio lessons, video lessons, etc.

Virtual Learning Environments or platforms can be delivered through the Internet, online apps, TVs, radios, online(web).

Terrestrial television/radio broadcast, satellite television/radio broadcast, desktop and mobile software applications, DVDs and CDs.

For the virtual classes to be transmitted through any of the above-listed channels or media by the schools, teachers or government, the students are expected to have the requisite devices to receive the transmission.

Internet/online

Most often, virtual learning has been mistaken for online learning. The internet is just one of the platforms through which virtual learning can take place; virtual classes can also be accessed via terrestrial television, radio broadcast, DVDs, etc.

Via the internet, classes can be broadcast using applications, portals, online, television and radio, social media applications, etc.; these classes can be live or pre-recorded just as in the case of both terrestrial and satellite television or radio broadcasts.

The internet remains the most flexible and interactive of the platforms for virtual learning. However, according to Statista, the internet demographics show that in 2018 there were only 92 million internet users with 50 million of the users accessing the internet only through smartphones.

According to the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, as at May 2019, Nigeria has 122,000,000. Although Statista predicts that over 30 million subscribers will be added in 2020, we can safely assume that most of the new subscribers will also be accessing the internet via their smartphones.

Looking at these statistics, we see that the percentage of internet users is quite small compared to our total population as a country. This leaves us with some questions: if the entire internet users are only 10% of families, what will happen to the remaining families with school-aged children? How many of the 10% can support the increased and recurring personal cost of data subscription? How easily will the primary school-aged children cope with learning using a mobile device that is limited by size?

The internet is the most expensive and perhaps the least reliable due to the current state of broadband infrastructure in the country.  Given that only about 10% of the internet users can afford the use of the internet for learning purposes at the moment, the remaining 90% will have to make do with other platforms that may not be as effective as the internet, until the broadband infrastructure becomes accessible at an affordable cost.

This is a wake-up call to the government at all levels to invest in broadband internet access as critical infrastructure in order to encourage virtual learning, work and life-style in the 21st Century.

Terrestrial television/radio broadcast

To transmit through terrestrial television or radio broadcast, students will need televisions or radios, respectively. The upside to this medium is that over 70% of households in Nigeria have access to these media(i.e. television and radio).To use this, however, they will require constant power supply.

Satellite television/radio broadcast

For satellite television and radio broadcast, students will not only need televisions and radios, they will also require an antenna and decoder that will enable their television or radio to receive the satellite broadcast. This will be at a cost.

They will probably also require the payment of a monthly subscription fee. It is however possible for the government to make this an unscrambled service (free-to-air), thereby eliminating the monthly/prescribed recurrent cost.

Desktop and apps

There are few desktop and mobile applications that support offline learning. Offline in this instance means no use of the internet. Such offline applications are designed to work on desktop computers with the entire learning content(videos, books, audios, games, etc.) all installed on the personal computer (PC) or mobile device of the individual; they do not require internet.

Howbeit, the high cost of personal computers has made PC penetration to be less than 10% of households.

Although smartphone penetration is estimated to be over 65% of our population by 2025 (Statista), using smartphones for learning at present or in the future will not give the best learning experience because of the size of the screen and also the limitation of their storage capacity to hold the offline lessons(especially if the content is in a video format).

Nonetheless, with a high level of creativity in content curation, especially for younger children, it may still be appealing and effective to have virtual lessons using smartphones.

DVDs and CDs

As part of the ways to enshrine virtual learning in our education system, DVDs/CDs can be used. Using these media, pre-recorded videos will be stored and distributed to pupils/students. All such videos will be prepared using the scheme of work for the term for all subjects that are offered in the school.

With over 70% of our school-aged children having access to DVD players and television, the use of DVDs/CDs provides us with a Virtual Learning Environment that most families already have or can easily afford.

An advantage this option has over the television and radio broadcasts is that it gives control to learners to learn at their pace and not the pace of the teacher. Also, power outage does not cause them to miss out on their classes as they have control and access whenever power supply is restored. Furthermore, this option is relatively affordable as compared to most other options.

Although this option cannot meet all the desires of teachers and their pupils/students in terms of interactivity and real-time assessment/evaluation/feedback regarding lessons taught and learned, it still provides convenient, affordable and controllable access to quality lessons.

Challenges in adopting virtual learning

Power supply is a necessity for the successful incorporation and implementation of virtual learning in our educational system; virtual learning hinges completely on its availability. All the platforms listed above will not function either at the transmission point or reception point without electric power supply.

In fact, even at the point of content curation, electric power supply is needed. Thus, the issues of power supply in our country needs to be addressed if we must integrate virtual learning into our education system.

Although power supply is a major challenge, in the interim, we need to utilise alternate means of obtaining power supply for schools and homes that are cost-effective – pending when the nations power supply will be improved on.

Curating content for over 6,000 topics covering over 60 subjects in 12 classes (i.e. Primary 1 – SSS3) is a daunting task. Also, teaching in front of a screen is a different ball game altogether from regular classroom teaching.

It will thus require a dedicated set of content curators with the right experience and exposure in developing virtual learning content to address the needs of the pupils/students across the length and breadth of the country.

Also, cross-cultural diversity and localisation across the country is an issue that needs to be considered. This is a challenge that Nigerian content curators face but can be overcome within a short period if given the necessary support.

From the devices(i.e. computers, tablets, smartphones, television, radio, DVD players, flash drives, satellite decoders, DVDs and CDs) to the delivery platforms used for virtual learning–all are costly to purchase and manage.

While the use of the internet as the platform for virtual learning will give a better level of interaction and overall user experience, its cost implementation is highly prohibitive at the moment. For example, if a child is to learn virtually via the internet, he/she may require up to 15GB of data monthly, which will cost about N4,000.

Again, if we consider the use of radio or television broadcast, at delivery platforms, the cost of airtime on radio or television for an entire 30 – 40 minutes class across the nation can be exorbitant. However, harnessing existing devices used at home like radio, television, DVD players, etc. could give us the required leap in actualizing our dream. This perhaps leaves us at the moment without traditional television, DVD player and DVD lessons to create our Virtual Learning Environment even as government and stakeholders intensify efforts to improve broadband infrastructure to help drop the cost of acquisition and improve accessibility.

Although we all agree that change is the only permanent thing in life, it remains a difficult journey to embark on by most humans. This is also the same for most educationists across the globe. The gradual but steady migration of education from Physical Learning Environment to Virtual Learning Environment is meeting a lot of resistance across the globe–especially in developing nations like ours.

Nonetheless, there is an urgent need for everyone to embrace this change that is now inevitable (as the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has made evident).

It is a change we cannot resist for long and if we do, it will hamper our development and growth as a nation. I, therefore, call on all stakeholders, governments, schools, parents and students to embrace the use of technology in education as we recreate a new learning environment as the rest of the world.

Way forward

The cost of reopening our schools in the pandemic through Physical Learning Environment will be to our detriment; there will be unnecessary loss of lives and a huge financial cost will be incurred as a nation. This financial cost can be seen in Part 2 of this series in which we estimated that to ensure basic COVID-19 protocols during the pandemic if schools were to reopen, for 20 million school-aged children, the country will spend over N2,000,000,000 daily on transportation, hand sanitisers, water and soap.

This will grow to over N40,000,000,000 monthly and to N120,000,000,000 for a term (3 months). Also, an additional N5,000,000,000 is likely to be spent on face masks and non-contact infrared thermometers. Hence, an aggregate of over N125,000,000,000 would be spent by parents, schools and government by the end of a term (See Part 2 of the series).

On the other hand, the cost of reopening our schools in the pandemic through Virtual Learning Environment will always be less and is a positive investment in our education sector and for our children.

The huge cost of reopening our Physical Learning Environment as explained above can be avoided with the use of DVDs for virtual learning, while still awaiting the establishment of better internet infrastructure by the government. With the DVDs, students can achieve over 60% of their work for the term (scheme of work).

The use of DVDs will cost only about N2,000 per DVD/per student/per term. This cost will cover for the curation of content for the term, production of the DVD and distribution to the student.

Although this may not give all the experience required, our country would have however developed a home-grown solution that can provide access to over 70% of its school-aged children.

Furthermore, if this option is properly-harnessed at the state and community levels, it will help to provide quality education for over 30% of the 13 million out-of-school children and will bridge the gap in localities with unqualified teachers, even as the government seeks ways to train existing teachers and hire new qualified teachers. It will afford us the right foundation for virtual learning as a country.

Conclusion

As I conclude the series of ‘The Cost of Re-opening Schools in the Pandemic’, x-raying the cost of virtual learning, I humbly submit to all and sundry that it is a wise investment that should be embrace now rather than later.

Although the odds are against us, we can brave it and take baby steps in introducing virtual learning through the use of DVDs and other media as listed above.

The following action plan can be used: adopt the ministry’s standard and framework of delivery, review of existing video lessons produced by local content curators based on the Nigerian curriculum, engage local content curators, develop a schedule for delivery of content, develop a process of funding the curation and distribution of the content, develop an evaluation/feedback process.

Gradually, our Virtual Learning Environment would become developed to such a standard that as a country, we can support outsourcing of our content and platforms to other countries in Africa! Let us, therefore, embrace virtual learning despite the cost and inherent challenges as we seek to make our children globally competitive and relevant.

Ibifuro wrote in from Port Harcourt.

Vanguard

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