For Students without Brick-and-Mortar Buildings or Internet Access, School Is Closed, but Learning Goes On

The pandemic has forced school closures in 191 countries. More than 1.5 billion students face shuttered schools. 

Disparities in distance education are particularly evident in low-income countries. According to UNESCO, nearly 90 percent of students in sub Saharan Africa do not have household computers. Even if computers were suddenly available, 82 percent would not be able to get online.

Even cellphones can’t bridge the gap; more than 50 million students live in areas that are not served by mobile networks. Almost half of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

All these new challenges with new technology have forced some to reconsider doing things the old-fashioned way.

Countries are increasingly promoting remote learning through traditional mass communication tools such as radio, and sometimes television. Radio’s wide reach and relatively low need for technical know-how makes its deployment faster and easier than scaling up internet connections.

For example, Ghana’s public broadcasters have rekindled dormant programs on TV and radio for high school students. Similar programs are running in Madagascar and Côte d’Ivoire.

In Senegal, the government’s efforts are encapsulated in a catchy slogan: “Ecole fermée, mais cahiers ouverts,” (School is closed, but learning goes on).

Radio Okapi, a UN-sponsored radio network in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), launched Okapi Ecole (Okapi School) — a twice-daily remote learning program for primary, secondary and vocational school students.

In Rwanda, the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency has started to produce and air nationwide basic literacy and numeracy classes. Malawi is starting a similar program.

For many of the affected students the hardest work comes in simply accessing their lessons. This isn’t a new experience, since many school-aged children are chronically barred from school because of other access issues — chiefly school fees and travel distance. Some may find this new way of learning brings new opportunity, but for most, this is another level of disadvantage for poor students and families.