The Pandemic and the Advantages of Online  Education

Tawanda Matende is a lecturer in the Department of Languages, Literature and Culture at the University of Zimbabwe. He teaches a wide range of linguistics courses covering structural aspects of Sign Language in Zimbabwe.

“People are dropping like flies. We need all the help we can get and we are not really sure what the cause is.”

These sentiments dropped on our ears with a force that surpasses that of a sledge hammer. We had been baffled when we first noticed the leaked censored-aerial-images, supposedly from Wuhan, China, of dead people lying in the streets.  Covid-19 burst, unrestrainable, from mainland China in 2019 and bloomed its way into Europe, extending its stay in Italy briefly, and then immediately crossed the seas to land in the Americas, and in no time it was wreaking havoc in all the first-world countries. The scientists were frantic, trying to discover the origins and the nature of this beast as much as restrain its spread because everywhere the virus was, there were dead people. The consequences of Covid-19 were perilous, whole households, and everyone who came to console bereaved families had high chances of carrying the virus home with them. “Stay home, stay indoors and avoid meeting anyone” became the new mantra.

We watched all these developments from our TV sets in the comfort of a slumped Zimbabwean economy, and wondered how a thing so accursed could trouble those with the capacity to fight it health-wise. “It is a finger from God,” I remember one of us yelled ever so loudly, and we cheered her on, content that somehow our poverty had spared us from the fangs of death, and then the rooster came home to roost. “We are shutting everything down. Everybody stay indoors for three weeks!” The declaration came from the President of Zimbabwe in March 2020, serving as the official announcement that the virus had decided to tour the seventh wonder of the world (Victoria Falls), and we scrambled around, trying to forage for enough food to last us twenty-one days of the first national lockdown. Further to this, students who had been jubilant at the dawn of an unexpected crash holiday were now fed up of staying idle at home without any schooling, and we were also fed up of them staying at home without going anywhere even for a few hours. Slowly but surely, they unlearned everything learnt while we waited with abated breath for any sort of news on the development of a cure. “We know nothing as yet. We are trying to develop a vaccine. But keep indoors and don’t venture outside unnecessarily, also sanitize and wear masks always,” the scientists kept saying these words. We apparently had a new normal way of life to adjust to.

With schools closed, and any possibility of them opening for classroom learning posing a great risk for the continued transmission of the incurable virus, our minds have been opened to online education. New communication technologies have become integral assets of our modern lives and facilitators of communication from one person to another regardless of the distance between the sender and the receiver of the communication. The pandemic has triggered new methods of carrying the teaching and learning process online. Schools, colleges and universities world-wide have equipped themselves with the new development by adopting the latest technology for educational purposes.  Learners have to learn, and if it means meeting their teachers online over ‘Zoom’ or getting lessons over ‘WhatsApp’ or accessing some learner website, then it became the race we need to run despite the continued rising costs of data to access online educational materials. A year later into the lockdown, we have adjusted and come to grips with safe, virus-transmission-free online education.

The provision of ICT resources to the education sector in Zimbabwe has been growing in leaps and bounds due to the Covid-19 pandemic. ICT stands for Information and Communication Technologies and covers diverse forms of equipment and devices that enable the transmission, processing and use of information and knowledge. This includes phones and computers, which people use on their day-to-day activities. These technologies have taken over the lives of many people. Reading hard copies of novels is slowly diminishing as most people now spend time on social networks like Facebook and Whatsapp, inter alia. Further, Mpala and Ndlovu (2013) observe that students now access the internet through phones and computers for research. Thus, in such a world, it is difficult to ignore the role that ICT plays in nearly all the aspects of human existence. ICT has become the key to the efficient running of virtually all facets of the national economy (Posthumusa and Solms 2005; Shanker 2008). It encompasses all technologies that enable the handling of information and facilitate different forms of communication among human actors, between human beings and electronic systems and among electronic systems (Hamelink 1997). ICT is becoming the harbinger and epicentre of global socio-economic transformation, in addition to being a strategic resource and foundation of every economic activity (Bedia 1999; Kabanda 2011).

Online education helps in de-coupling students from time/space constraints and physical contact with their lectures/teachers both of which are definitive characteristics of distance and asynchronous online modalities (Black, 2022). During online education sessions, learners have a one on one interaction with their teachers and the student-to-teacher ratio is low especially on platforms like ‘Zoom’. This was formerly a privilege enjoyed only by the students attending ‘A’ schools in Zimbabwe, while the rest of learners in middle class schools had to bear with overcrowding in classes. In addition digital learning offers uninterrupted teacher concentration and learners can also follow up on courses learned afterwards since lectures learned online can be recorded and replayed without limit. This has immensely aided slow graspers to keep up with lessons learnt, hence no one is left behind.

According to Black (2022) the Covid moment has accelerated shifts to online learning, entrenching techno-solutionism as dominant in a particular struggle regarding education provision and re-imaging. Open learning is an approach which combines principles of learner centrednes, lifelong learning, flexibility of learning provision, the removal of barriers to access learning, the recognition for credit of prior learning experience, the provision of learner support, the construction of learning programmes in the expectation that the learner can succeed and the maintenance of rigorous quality assurance over the design of learning materials and support systems (DHET, 2017).

Marx outlined in detail in Capital, Volume 1 how the introduction of machines to a labour process both lengthens the working days as well as intensify the rate of production per unit of time. Anecdotal evidence suggest this has indeed been lecturers and teachers experience of moving to online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Online learning is an efficient way of delivering lessons to students, it is accessible (students can attend classes from any location of their choice, it is affordable (it eliminates cost points of student transportation and meals) and suits a variety of learning styles. As much as there is a possibility of cyber bullying over the internet, with proper monitoring learners can be protected from such a menace. The frequency and severity of cyber bullying is surpassed by that of physical bullying which learners were constantly exposed to during the days of physical learning. However, online education has eradicated that risk and learners learn whilst in an environment that promotes uninterrupted learning, thus online learning becomes the perfect solution to one of the age old risks associated with physical learning. In summation, the old adage, ‘education is life,’ is true but with the dawn of the pandemic, accessing education the traditional way is a gamble on your life and places it on the line. Today digital learning has emerged as a necessary resource for students and schools all over the world.

According to Means (2018), education is central to solutionist ideology. Alongside technology, education is now widely framed as an instrument for addressing almost every conceivable global problem, from joblessness to urban redevelopment. Cisco observes ‘to help solve some of the world’s most challenging problems: water, scarcity, hunger, poverty, migration and unemployment’ the key lies in finding new approaches to education and learning so as to unleash ‘the power of technology to launch a generation of global problem solvers who innovate like technologists, think like entrepreneurs and act as social change agents. Science and technology writer Steven Johnson notes that ‘the internet is much more than just a cheap way of sending skype messages or adding hilariously unfunny captions to photos of cats, rather it’s an intellectual template for how society itself should be recognized: it’s not the solution to the problem, but a way of thinking about the problem. Thus, writes Johnson, ‘one could use the internet directly to improve people’s lives, but also learn from the way the internet had been organized and apply those principles to help improve the way city governments worked or school systems taught students (Monorov, 2013).

Post-COVID, Zimbabwe is implementing Education 5.0 which promotes online education and blended learning. Tawanda is implementing Education 5.0 focusing on Sign language teaching and learning and deaf education. Contact Tawanda via Linkedin to follow up on this conversation.