Kwabena Opoku-Agyemang, a lecturer at the University of Ghana, is looking for new ways to carry on teaching his students.
He has no other choice. Ever since Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo ordered last month the indefinite closure of all schools to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, many of the country’s higher educational institutions began exploring options in online learning.
“I plan to use WhatsApp and Zoom to make the classes more interactive,” said Opoku-Agyemang, who teaches literature courses at the Accra-based university’s Department of English. “I will also be having guest artists and guest lecturers join in. The artists will use Instagram Live, while the guest lecturers will probably use Zoom.”
Yet, it won’t be easy. “Stable electricity – we had an extended power cut yesterday; reliable internet; student engagement,” said Opoku-Agyemang, listing some of the challenges threatening the success of the move online.
Ghana confirmed its first case of coronavirus on March 12 and has since reported a total of 287 infections and five deaths. In a bid to keep the rapidly spreading virus at bay, the government has announced a series of sweeping measures including banning mass gatherings and shutting down all borders and schools.
But the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the stark regional, social and economic inequalities in Ghana’s educational system.
Closing schools indefinitely has long been the reality for many high school students in northern Ghana, where educational facilities operate with limited infrastructure compared to those in the more affluent south. This has often manifested in high schools’ inability to resume classes on time due to a shortage of teachers, delays in feeding grants and a lack of building facilities which, on occasions, have resulted in children having to study under trees.
Beyond regional disparities, social class has also been a determining factor in the quality of education. Many wealthier Ghanaians send their children to private schools (primary and junior high) given that public schools are often resource poor.
Homeschooling as an alternative
Since the shutdown of schools on March 16, some parents have opted for homeschooling to mitigate the effect on their children’s education. But many are quickly realising that this is not as easy as they anticipated, despite receiving support from schools to facilitate homeschooling
“There are many distractions. Some days she wants to watch TV only,” said Nora Akemson Avicor, an Accra-based parent of a four-year-old girl based in Accra. “Some days I am super busy with the business and we don’t even get time to do anything at all.”
While parents who have formal education can actively manage their children’s learning via homeschooling, this is not an option for those who are not formally educated, especially in the country’s north.
“The shutdown will affect the pupils drastically. Many children will not have the chance to learn while at home,” said a basic school educator in Tamale, northern Ghana. “They think they are on holiday. Even in the community, you see children roaming about and it looks like they don’t even know that they are supposed to stay at home.”
An educator at a junior high school in the Sagnarigu municipality added: “Many of the children only learn at school, they don’t study at home. Since we have been home, if you ask many of the students, they will tell you that they haven’t opened a book. And these are students preparing to write the BECE.”
BECE, or Basic Education Certificate Examination, is the standardised exam junior high school students have to take to get into senior high schools, while WASSCE, or West African Senior School Certificate Examination, is the exam taken by senior high school students to get into universities and colleges. Although the WASSCE has been suspended indefinitely, the Ghana Education Service is currently “in serious discussions” with the West African Examinations Council about the conduct of the BECE.
To address the situation, the Ministry of Education on April 3 launched TV learning for senior high school students. State broadcaster GBC will also begin airing TV lessons for primary and junior high schools on April 13, and there are plans to produce similar content for radio learning.
Struggles in higher education
At the same time, higher educational institutions have begun training lecturers in online instruction as they actively turn to web-based alternatives.
So far, the University of Ghana has worked with Vodafone to make SIM cards available to students to enable them to access the college’s digital learning platform, Sakai.
But according to a student of the university, the cards’ 5 gigabytes of monthly internet data are hardly enough to cover their needs. Students have been told they will still be able to use their SIM cards to access learning platforms even after they have run out of data, but some of them are not confident that this will happen until they actually witness it.
Although some universities are using built-in, already existing learning platforms such as Sakai to facilitate learning, others have to turn to services such as Google Classroom, WhatsApp, YouTube and Zoom.
In one class at the University for Development Studies in Nyankpala, class sessions are currently being run on WhatsApp.
“The WhatsApp is purposely for discussions pertaining to the course – and it’s not all that effective,” Abdul, a student, said. “And not everyone is on the platform. Some don’t have smartphones and others can’t afford a bundle [internet data]. So they usually tell you some areas to learn on your own and if you have any problems you can raise it in the class group chat and then we can discuss it.”
At the same time, many students worry about the effectiveness and feasibility of online pedagogy since lecturers who are not technologically literate may find it difficult to manage online teaching.
“I only have confidence in two of my lecturers being able to teach online,” said Titi, a student at the University of Ghana. “The rest, God will provide.”
A lecturer at the University for Development Studies, Eliasu Mumuni, said he expected technical issues, “especially with the grownups”.
“It will take some time to orient people to it,” he added. “The students are feeling like it’s time to rest but we are here pushing them to learn in an environment that is not conducive.”
Digital divide and alternatives
Despite recent efforts by the Ghana Education Service and various higher educational institutions to move pedagogy online, there is a wide digital divide that will make the goal of online learning difficult to achieve in a country where less than half of the population is believed to have mobile phone internet access.
On March 30, the Ghana Education Service announced that it had developed “an online study platform” for all senior high schools and that plans were in place to develop and make available a learning platform for basic schools. People who have attempted to use the platform for senior high school students have already began reporting challenges in accessing and using it.
Once fully operational, these platforms will only be available to those who have access to internet data, smartphones, tablets and computers, which leaves out a large number of students who lack access to these technologies. Even with students with them, high costs of internet data can mitigate their access to learning.
As a result, many students at the higher educational level who have little to no access to digital tools will find themselves stuck at the periphery of the educational system while their more privileged colleagues continue to learn.
Looking ahead, it is important to consider how the most marginalised will be affected by moving education online.
Telecommunications companies should also step up collaboration with higher educational institutions to facilitate access to free unlimited data to students to participate in digital learning.
Parents should explore ways to teach their children by drawing on Ghana’s indigenous knowledge systems This type of pedagogy can take the form of storytelling in indigenous languages; teaching children folksongs; helping children improve their indigenous language proficiency; teaching children about indigenous gastronomy and nutrition; sharing family, ancestral, ethnic and national oral histories among others.