Since March 2020, students in most African countries have left their traditional lecture halls to have lessons online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With the outbreak of the novel coronavirus halting many activities such as education, it was a good step without a doubt to shift academic activities online.
What began as a quest to allow students to access education during the pandemic has evolved into a challenge hindering student’s accessibility to knowledge. The pandemic has forced individuals and institutions to be creative and are finding new ways of doing things. The authorities in charge of the educational sector in West African countries like The Gambia, Ghana, Togo, and Cote D’Ivoire have introduced electronic learning platforms which seem to be a suitable way to change and grasp new knowledge in the era where physical distancing is now the new normal. According to Dr. Marcus Specht (Professor of Advanced Learning Technologies, Open University of Netherlands) “The students of the future will demand the learning support that is appropriate for their situation or context. Nothing more, nothing less.” But what is the essence of learning support that puts many students in West Africa at an inequitable position? A learning support without government provision of adequate tools needed to make such initiative effective is bound to fail.
Suffice to say that, to be able to participate in virtual lessons both students and teachers must be equipped with laptops or smartphones. For those that do not have such gadgets to access lessons or communicate with colleagues to relay what they learned also have a big nut to crack. Because at the end of the semester regardless of one’s genuine concerns that handicapped their ability to partake in lessons, they will have to prove themselves during virtual exams.
Most often, electronic learning is conducted using applications like Telegram, Google classroom, Moodle, and WhatsApp. As a result of the expensive nature of internet bundles or data, students are forced to spend a lot of money in cases where their institutions will not provide any. In an interview with Assa Aude, a student of Institut National Polytechnique Houphouët-Boigny in Cote D’Ivoire she lamented how internet data was expensive. To participate in a virtual lecture for a course or subject she needs 500 megabytes which is 700fcfa ($1.22).
After spending a lot of money to purchase internet bundles to participate in virtual lectures or examinations, students suffer from indignation due to the malfunction of applications such as Moodle. In an interview with Samira Mohammed from the Ghana Institute of Journalism, she said “Being a student of a renowned communication school I thought e-learning will be easy and interesting since it’s our first transition to using the internet for traditional lecture hall activities. In the beginning, it was frustrating as I battled to study the algorithm of the apps scheduled for the study but with time it became okay. During the online examination, all was well until the website stopped responding and it took forever to submit your work.’’ Again, network congestion causes innumerable students to hurriedly submit their works due to fear of delay and malfunction of the virtual examination system.
It was also revealed that telecommunication companies like Airtel Tigo, Qcell Gambia, and Gamcel in Ghana and The Gambia respectively were in the process of providing internet bundles to students. However, that was limited because it required the use of a sim card from them when you are not a subscriber to their network. This is a demonstration of the concept of Competitive Benefit of helping where telecommunication companies take up Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives so they can also directly increase subscribers of their network and gain a favourable image from the people.
Fatoumata Sanneh, a student of the University of The Gambia said “The online classes started two weeks after the pandemic. The school provided data for every student. Personally, I do not have challenges, I have a clear network because I live in the city. But it was challenging for other students because they complain about the poor network.’’ This raises the concern about what is being done for students who live in rural areas yet must access the virtual lessons. In Ghana, Abdul Haq Ibrahim a third-year university student says that as a result of poor internet connectivity in his community which is in the Northern part of the country, it is almost impossible for him to enjoy virtual learning like his other colleagues in the urban areas.
Poor network connectivity renders electronic learning difficult. According to research conducted by Global Digital statistics in 2014, Africa recorded 18 percent of internet penetration which is significantly lower than the global average of 30 percent, and only one in ten households are connected to the net.
Thus, it is fair to conclude that students encounter a lot of problems with electronic learning. Hence there is a need to equip students with adequate tools to participate in virtual lectures otherwise the electronic learning will remain an inequitable phenomenon.