Online learning; a survival for the fittest

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OPINION– When schools were first closed following a presidential directive, on 20th March, 2020, it only looked like it was going to be just a short time (three weeks as per the directive) before business could resume. 

However with the extension of days in the multiples of seven that came in the subsequent presidential addresses, the hopes of ever meeting in a four-walled classroom for student-teacher interaction grew thin. 

As a result, lower levels of education resorted to radio and television learning on top of the self-study material that was designed by NCDC and disseminated to the students. 

To cope with the situation, higher institutions of learning especially Universities adopted the Open Distance E-learning ODeL, which was especially championed by private Universities for that period. Some of these private universities even went on to do online examinations. 

Later, a number of public universities also adopted the online learning but never went up to doing online examinations with a rationale of guarding the examination integrity. Most of these public universities opened and had their students sit their exams between December and January. 

The effect of online studying and a year-long semester on the grades is part of a story that I will need to tell another day. In March, schools were allowed to open in what was called the staggered fashion but at least the students got to enjoy the long craved physical presence in school. However, this still didn’t last as long as forever like any students or their teachers would have wanted it to. 

With the coming of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, directive to have schools closed for 42 days was given on the of 6th June, in a presidential address and came with a ban on public transport and cross-district movements among others. Informed by the experience from the first wave, higher institutions of learning have not had to wait until the 42 days are done to pick on. 

A number of them immediately sent out communications of the date and updated time tables for the new semester. This comes at a time when students and their parents are grounded in their homes. It poses a major challenge to parents who without going out to work are supposed to deliver on their obligation of keeping their children in school. 

The mode of delivery in the ODeL system is zoom- a mode of video conferencing that was designed without a Ugandan student in mind. This mode of delivery is problematic on so many grounds, one because of the high data consumption per hour and two because of the kind of stable network it requires. 

Speaking of the network, zoom works on the all or nothing principle and this is not favourable for a student attending a real time lecture. Public universities are known to pool students that run their education on a low budget. A number of these poor students have been impoverished even further by the current lockdown and its well-known effects. 

There is little to no chance that these students will meet their data needs to keep up with the internet-delivered school material. All these challenges notwithstanding, public universities have not at all moved a muscle to waive off part of the tuition or functional fees. 

So the grounded parents are going to have to meet the daily costs of having the students catch up with real time lectures as well as pay for even the services that their students won’t utilise at school. The prospect of students giving up on the dreams they have lived and worked for, for about two decades gets clearer every day. 

We need tuition waivers. We need data packages. We must finish what we started and you know we need this because you have seen us live for it. The government should care about us.

The Writer Beda Witness is student leader at Mbarara University of science and Technology.