AD371: Limited Internet access in Zimbabwe a major hurdle for remote learning during pandemic

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Dispatches
2020
371
Simangele Moyo-Nyede and Stephen Ndoma

An estimated 1.59 billion students in 194 countries, or 91.3% of the world’s student population, have been affected by school closures as a result of the COVD-19 pandemic (UNESCO, 2020). That includes 297 million students across the African continent and 4.13 million in Zimbabwe. With support from the World Bank and others, countries are trying to keep education going through remote learning via radio, television, the Internet, and social media (Kuwonu, 2020; World Bank, 2020). In many places, however, inadequate electricity supply, low Internet connectivity, the high cost of data, and an urban-rural digital divide threaten to leave millions of students behind. According to UNESCO (2020), 89% of learners in sub- Saharan Africa do not have access to household computers, and 82% lack Internet access. Even traditional tools such as radio and television can be difficult to access for many.

In Zimbabwe, as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase slowly, Parliament has cautioned against a quick reopening of schools (CGNT, 2020). The government is encouraging the use of digital platforms to provide remote-learning services (World Bank, 2020). For example, the private Higher Life Foundation has provided free access to its online Ruzivo learning platform, though uptake has been limited. In its Education Sector Response Strategy, the Ministry of Education plans to focus on ensuring the continuity of learning by providing remote-learning services via radio programming, digital/online resources, and the distribution of supplementary learning materials (Zimbabwe Education Cluster, 2020).

Is this a viable option for students in Zimbabwe? Afrobarometer survey data from 2017 and 2018 show that a majority of Zimbabwean households didn’t have mobile phones with Internet access, computers, or reliable electricity supply. Even among the youngest adults, only one in three regularly went online. While these numbers may have improved in the past two years, they suggest the enormous hurdles that young Zimbabweans would face in participating in online learning (e-learning).

Radio and television ownership is more widespread, but even remote learning via these traditional channels would exclude significant portions of the population, especially in rural areas.