By Samuel Ajala
Due to an upsurge in Covid-19 cases during the first wave of infections, many countries including Nigeria imposed lockdown measures. To further contain the spread of the novel virus, on March 23, 2020, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Education announced the closure of all tertiary, secondary, and primary schools nationwide. For the next six months students across the country were left at home with no access to learning.
Compared to some other countries, Nigeria’s school-closure directive did not come with any clear-cut policy measures to mitigate learning disruptions for children, especially those from low-income homes. A Word Literacy Foundation report revealed that the majority of students who struggled were from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds and didn’t have access to computers or the internet when learning became digitized.
“In many cases, these children live in communities with poor or non-existent internet connectivity and unreliable power supply. Inevitably, this digital divide exacerbated the learning disparities among these children,” the report read in part.
On a grave scale, children from poor households were forced to quit school and support their families as COVID-19 left their parents jobless. Reports show that around 20 percent of full-time workers in the country (Nigeria) lost their jobs due to the pandemic in 2020.
As Nigeria contributes approximately 20 percent of the total global out-of-school population, the country was lagging before COVID-19 and was already unable to keep children in school. And while nations latched onto the revolutionization of digital and online education globally, the reality in Nigeria was however different, as kids in rural and underserved communities were left behind and were not equipped to adapt or transition to the new learning methods.
A mobile phone intervention
In July 2020, three months before the government announced the reopening of schools in Nigeria, a group of educational practitioners and learning specialists leveraged technology, championing an initiative to make education accessible for indigent students in local communities. The initiative called Digilearns is a learning intervention platform created and designed to deliver government-approved and contextually relevant learning content to students across the country. The platform allows learners to use textbook and revision materials, quizzes and mini-lessons via Short Message Service (SMS) and Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) on any basic-feature mobile phone and does not require internet connectivity.
The learning made available is accessible and affordable to students through personalized learning experiences, supplementary revision materials, periodic formative assessment, offline search engines, gamified and interactive quizzes and structured curricula in indigenous languages.
Findings by this reporter show the low-cost technology solution has been used by refugees, indigent students, and vulnerable children across numerous orphanages and communities in Nigeria.
Any user can access the low-cost education intervention by dialling *3549# and *347*774# code on any basic feature phone to explore the platform. With this, a message pops up asking the learner services needed to use the platform.
Here this reporter navigates the platform through a basic feature phone.
Emmanuel Ekeh, a female student at a community school in Abuja, narrated how the platform has been helpful to her, describing that while it helps her study, navigation was a bit of a challenge.
“The experience I had using the Digilearns platform was amazing. It was helpful to me but the difficulty I faced while using it was that it doesn’t stay for long when you’re using it. It’s very helpful for me and it has been a motivation to me because I don’t have all the textbooks. I only have Chemistry, Physics and Biology so I don’t have Geography. I used it in learning,” she said
Another student, Maba Promise, described his experience using the platform as interesting but explained that it had some level of difficulty.
“The experience with the phone was interesting but there was also some difficulty because, in the past questions, it was only from 2001 to 2013. And sometimes when you’re using it, the thing will cut off. Sometimes it will ask for information like the date of birth and before you add it, it goes off,” he said.
According to Promise, sometimes one needs to ask people for help. He explained that when he first started using the platform, some text required additional symbols like slashes for dates.
“You never knew that you would have the 06 05 and all these slash. So, it took time before we entered it. But it has been very helpful,” he added.
For 15-year-old Peter Aliyah from Government Secondary School, Abuja, Digilearns helped her prepare for the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examination during the Covid-19. But beyond helping with preparation the organization, Aid for Rural Education Access Initiative (AREAi), that developed the platform also paid for her examination fee because her parents were unable to afford it.
Miss Aliyah is one out of millions of school children who were affected by the shutdown of schools as a result of Covid-19 but lucky to have access to remote learning via the platform.
She said, “I am one of the candidates who AREAi came to help to fund us to be able to write JAMB this year. Though this year, I was not planning to write JAMB, my parents did not really have money for me to do it but because of their support, I was able to participate — to write the exams.
“Before the exams, they helped us, they gave us a platform called Digilearns and through Digilearns, we were able to study. That Digilearn was very interesting because after learning, you can go back to ask yourself questions and you can use any phone to do the past questions and quizzes.
Since launching in 2020, Digilearns has provided access to government-approved and contextually relevant educational content to over 1000 secondary school children in Nigeria, according to Gideon Olanrewaju, Chief Executive Officer of AREAi. The initiative has received support from One Young World, the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, and the Global Changemakers which has enabled the distribution of over 500 basic feature phones and provided zero-rated airtime support to secondary school students preparing for terminal exams to aid their preparation while schools remain closed.
“Over 90% of the students passed their WASSCE exams with at least 6 credits. As Nigeria’s first adaptive m-learning adsolution, DigiLearns is one of the 11 startups accepted into the UK-Nigeria iNOVO accelerator for creating innovative solutions to problems caused by COVID-19 across health, education and agriculture in Nigeria, ” Olanrewaju explained.
However a prominent challenge remains a lack of support of local stakeholders in government and private institutions including Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). A limitation that he explains impedes students from low-income homes from leveraging the services on Digilearns due to airtime cost.
“Similarly, we cannot achieve our mandate of providing access to quality education for every child anywhere and anytime except if the government provides adequate support for scale,” Olanrewaju concluded.
Can Digilearns or platforms alike revive the educational sector in Nigeria?
Speaking to Precious Ebere, an Education Policy Consultant and EdTech expert, it became clear that digitizing education in Nigeria or Africa can indeed revolutionize its educational sector but it will come at a huge cost and require deliberate investment.
Ebere in an interview urged the government stakeholders to establish and sustain a vision for transformative equitable EdTech use that will support local innovation through early-stage risk capital.
“Create a long-term vision, embodied in written policy, and (if applicable)supported by strong legislation so that the vision can survive changes in administrations. It should be a well-branded initiative that can be easily communicated to and by parents and school leaders.
“Describe what technology is recommended, for whom, why, and how it should be implemented. Ensure the vision aligns with funding opportunities for implementation. Also ensure it is integrated into teacher preparation programs and is updated regularly based on evidence of past practice, horizon scanning of current local and global innovations, and future thinking.
“Encourage local innovations to support the development of products and services that are more relevant in the environment. Support EdTech businesses at the early stages through seed funding, innovation hubs, competitions, and partnerships. The majority of countries that have scaled equitable access to EdTech have had this government support,” says Miss Ebere.
She further urged the government stakeholders to continue to strive for universal access to basic infrastructure, including internet connectivity. Although connectivity is not always necessary during product use, it has the benefit of creating opportunities for teacher professional development around product use, more efficient distribution and support for EdTech products, research and evaluation, product selection, and opportunities for more transformative use of EdTech through communication and collaboration among learners, Ebere explained.
This investigation was supported by the Education Report Project supported by Onyi Bala Foundation and Hamzat Lawal, a Malala Fund Education Champion, who’s working to accelerate girls’ education in Nigeria.