Pulse Editorial: In the face of a pandemic, Ghana's education system crumbles under the stress of e-learning

On April 8, 2020, a tweet went viral in Ghana for controversial reasons that created division in opinions. Ken Lynch Leonard who had visited Ghana as a guest lecturer at the Ashesi University posted on his Twitter page:

In the face of a pandemic, Ghana's education system crumbles under the stress of e-learning

“I am teaching at a Ghanaian university this semester. We have gone virtual and let me just say that sounds of goats and chickens in the background on Zoom meetings is heartwarming. This is very hard, but we are going to succeed.”

The lecturer was criticised for being ‘condescending’, not celebrating ‘diversified cultures’, making ‘mockery of a land you get your bread from’ and tweeting with ‘prejudice’. Others who did not see anything wrong with his tweet claimed people are ‘just too sensitive and clutch on nothing for attention’ and that there was ‘humour in that tweet’.

Fast forward and remote education in Ghana has moved on from a debate around a single tweet to more troubling and controversial topic of how the West African county’s education system is crumbling under the stress of e-learning.

When a tertiary student scored 1 out of 20 in his online examination, one of the major topics around internet penetration and connectivity as a hindrance to e-learning in Ghana was laid bare.

Prince Gatsu is a level 400 student at the University of Professional Studies, Accra studying Banking and Finance. Prince lost weeks of academic work after his school rolled out its e-learning directives because he was still owning fees, a requirement for login access unto the e-learning platform.

After struggling to find a way around paying his fees and accessing the e-learning platform, the resident of Madina was faced with another problem: internet connectivity. Prince during one of his IAs (Interim Assessment) scored 1 out of 20 because of a break in his internet connectivity. When he raised the issue with his lecturer, he was asked to make that complaint to his internet service provider.

“I was writing an IA and my network just went off. When the marks came, I had 1 over 20,” Prince told Pulse.com.gh.

“When I talked to the lecturer about it, he was like I should go and ask MTN or Vodafone meaning I lost marks because the network was not strong.”

Kausar Umar Bawa is a final year English and Political Science student at the University of Ghana. Despite backing the e-learning rollout in Ghana for academic work to continue amidst the closure of schools and ban on public gatherings, Kausar raises a major issue around the topic of electricity supply for remote teaching and learning.

‘Dumsor’ is a popular term in Ghana that characterises persistent, irregular and unpredictable electric power outage in the country. The term is now loosely used for whenever there is a power cut.

Having been at its highest peak during the last term of the biggest opposition political party in Ghana, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), ‘dumsor’ has become a hallmark of political opportunism for both old and new government. The former boasts of how it could fix the problem before leaving power with the later taking it as a reference point to attack its opposition for poorly handling one of Ghana’s lowest points in the energy and power sector.

This ‘dumsor’ story (as a problem and political battle) has been no different as Ghana fights the global pandemic coronavirus COVID-19.

On Monday, May 4, 2020, Ghana’s vice president Dr Mahamudu Bawumia in a response to Ghana’s former president John Dramani Mahama used the later’s handling of the ‘dumsor crisis’ to make his point.

“If you want to test the robustness of an economy, you test it in a time of crisis,” Dr Mahamudu Bawumia told local media.

“Thankfully, we have had two crisis. Under the NDC we had an internally generated crisis which was ‘dumsor’. Under the presidency of His Excellency Nana Akufo-Addo, there has been an externally generated crisis which has been the global coronavirus pandemic.

“I just want you to ask yourself ‘How has these two crisis been managed?’. The ‘dumsor’ crisis which crippled this economy for 4 years. What was the mitigation measures offered to business and individuals during ‘dumsor’? This was an internally generated crisis,” the former governor of Bank of Ghana questioned.

Although ‘dumsor’ has not been at its peak like when Ghana was on a schedule for electricity supply, citizens have raised issues around power cuts as the country battles coronavirus. Its effect on working from home and remote learning have stood out tall in conversations.

“E-learning hasn’t been bad. It is sometimes confusing and frustrating especially when your lights are out and you don’t have enough power on your laptop or phone, or the network is just terrible,” Kausar Umar Bawa talks about the electricity disadvantage Ghana has when it comes to remote learning.

She further explained that being at home also has its own responsibilities and expectations that sometimes become a distraction to the whole process.

The best e-learning platforms like Udemy, Teachable and Skillshare use multimedia to deliver effective ways of teaching and learning. There are also downloadable materials for reference and test widgets to aid grading and give every student a fair chance.

Despite most schools in Ghana having some form of a virtual learning platform, a lot of the teaching and learning follow the newfound love of the world when it comes to distant communication, Zoom. In Ghana, WhatsApp has also been a popular option but its effectiveness in delivering an efficient way of teaching and learning is a delimma for most students.

“UPSA was the first school to roll out the e-learning platform. That was where the government copied from. The school did not make sure the system was properly built and students get enough orientation on how to navigate their way through. Lecturers and students were finding it difficult,” Reginald Acheisu Boateng, a third year student studying Business Administration, a student activist and Student Representative Council (SRC) presidential aspirant tells Pulse.com.gh.

Rating the e-learning initiative and its execution at 40%, both Israel Aboagye, a second year undergraduate student studying Public Relations and Sashan Ani Appam Diploma, a Public Relations Management student tell the limited ability of e-learning platforms used for teaching and learning in Ghana compared to traditional classroom work.

“Most of the lecturers just post slides. A few of them discuss on the page. All the others do is post slides. It is better than nothing though so I will take that. However, most of the slides are self-explanatory. Once you read, you get an idea of what the topic is,” Isaac narrates his experience to Pulse Ghana.

Sasha experience was no different from Isaac, saying:

“We don’t get to understand the slides we’ve been given. The lecturers just upload the slides unto the website and you’re supposed to go and read it yourself and understand. We do not understand everything in the lecture hall that is why we are allowed to ask questions.

Despite this inconvenience, she further explained that lecturers who give the opportunity for students to raise their concerns about the course of study have had their efforts ruined by the unnecessary conversations that go on in the various e-learning WhatsApp groups.

“Although some lecturers have made it possible for us to ask them questions on the WhatsApp platforms relating to the courses, people sometimes bring up irrelevant topics which cause distractions and a whole lot of mess,” the second year undergraduate says.

Dr Abena Yeboah-Banin is a lecture at the Department of Communication Studies, University of Ghana with a core research area in Marketing and Communication.

For her, distractions in teaching and learning have not been limited to remote education that was triggered by coronavirus COVID-19. Students, according to the lecturer, have been increasingly distracted since the introduction of mobile technology and the internet to the classroom, things that when used effectively enhances and complements the quality of education.

“I do get a sense of students being distracted. That is very true,” Dr Abena Yeboah-Banin tells Pulse.com.gh.

“It brings a bit of responsibility on the lecturer to be innovative in how they are engaging the student.

“Since mobile phones, tablets and internet came to the classroom, our students have been increasingly distracted. What we are seeing online is more of what used to be. It’s not a new thing.”

Being a lecturer who adapts to the flow of conversations in the classroom while keeping students up on their toes like randomly calling on them to contribute, Abena, as she likes to be called is not perturbed on having other conversations on the various e-learning platforms as it is a reflection of what the physical classroom looks like.

“I am flexible. I believe that learning is not straight-jacketed,” the University of Ghana lecturer continues her conversation with Pulse Ghana.

“In my physical classroom too, sometimes the conversation will go to things that on the face of it you would think were not related to the topic. Eventually, if you would come back to make the point you were trying to make, I am fine with it.

“When it happens on Zoom or WhatsApp, it just shows what my physical classroom used to look like. I am not too worried about that.”

With all the challenges that come with a sudden move of Ghana’s education online for all, school tutors are still trying their best to give students what they truly deserve in terms of education - whether in person or otherwise.

A female lecturer at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) who spoke to Pulse.com.gh based on anonymity said her initial challenge was getting the students to understand the use of the online system. For the entire institution, it was a bigger problem than that.

In a letter dated April 9, 2020, some students from GIMPA wrote to management with the Dean of Students in copy with parts of the letter reading:

“We would like to urge all students to boycott the online lectures till management responds to our concerns which you all are aware of.”

The female lecturer from GIMPA said despite the threat from the students to boycott lectures, they did not see it through as examinations were imminent.

She tries as much to find solutions to some of the problems students have raised after Ghana moved to find a fix for what social distancing due to coronavirus COVID-19 had done to the education system. On how she delivers her teaching, it was a gradual and strategic process.

“I set out parameters at the beginning of the class telling students to mute their mics,” she tells Pulse Ghana.

“If they want to ask a question, they can unmute and ask. I record the lectures. I share slides on zoom but I don’t think all students have adapted.”

For her, the impact of this rigorous training will be good for the education system in Ghana as she can “conduct lectures anywhere” she is.

Ghanaians have a way of making jokes out of their most stressful moments. One of the viral videos in the country when various schools started rolling out their e-learning strategy was a guy creatively outlining how he was not ready for it in his class’ WhatsApp group. He talks about how he has to stand at a specific location to even have telecommunication network on his ‘yam phone’, the fact that it’s always on charge and not having enough money to afford the data that remote learning requires. That was a reality for most put in the form of comedy.

In the larger scheme of things, Ghana’s e-learning initiation is not one that favours all with the haves having a better shot at it than the have nots.

According to the National Communications Authority (NCA), the 2G/3G mobile figures in Ghana as of January 2020 were 28,675,506 with an estimated population of 30,250,461. Those figures put the penetration at 94.79% aside from other internet providers that are non-mobile.

However, these figures don’t tell the full story of the number of people with multiple registrations and quality of service provided to these users across the county.

The average price of a laptop is between GHc1200 to GHc2000 (approx $200 to $350) for a student in Ghana where the minimum wage is GHc11.82 ($2.05).

Smartphones are still a form of luxury for most people despite the rise in social media culture.

With the above mentioned being an integral part of an efficient e-learning process, most students have been left in the dark with their grades hanging in the balance.

“There are several students who live in remote areas and would not be able to get access to the internet or are without smartphones and laptops,” Reginald tells Pulse.com.gh.

“The challenge has to do with airtime. I am not talking about just me but my colleagues too. Most of them rely on what their parents give them and during this season, there’s been a little hardship so airtime (for internet) has been a problem,” Israel says on the challenges on the new form of learning Ghana is trying to adapt to because of coronavirus.

Sasha highlights the point of not having the necessary freedom to be behind the laptop always with the excuse of learning for some students who have to “help out at home and don’t have time as they would in school.” Then there is the lack of access to the platform because school fees have not been fully paid.

One factor is constant for both students and lecturers when it comes to having the requirements for operating efficient remote learning and it is access to the internet. Despite the University of Ghana making efforts to address students’ complaints about the cost of data by partnering with a telecommunication network to provide some data for the students, the quality of service is one the goes beyond the schools, lecturers and students.

“I don’t like the fact that technology can sometimes be a big hindrance so I’ve set up a system at home so I can go online and have my classes. But the connectivity most of the time is very slow,” Dr Abena Yeboah-Banin discloses.

“And it is very uncomfortable as a lecturer when I have a very poor connection so every sentence I speak is slurring online with the students coming back to say we didn’t hear, can you repeat that? How many times can you repeat the same sentence without getting frustrated?,” she queries.

“When the internet connection is bad, it gets in your way and you feel like somebody is taking your ability to deliver the learning.”

Regardless of whether a student has the necessary equipment and service, e-learning is not an easy task for all involved.

Kausar shares why e-learning should have been integrated in Ghana’s education long before coronavirus forced the nation into making a decision.

“E-learning should have been made a part of us a long time ago,” the Kasoa based Ghanaian in the Central Region tells Pulse.com.gh.

“It shouldn’t be something new to some of us. Because it is new to us, it is creating a lot of problems because some people do not know how to use it and find their way around. Simply, it could be made simpler.”

“When school reopens, we are not going back to meet the same children that we left. We will meet most of our children coming back to school having retrogressed in whatever level that they were before they went home,” Yaw Amponsah (name changed) shares his story as a basic school teacher with Pulse Ghana.

Yaw predicts the hard work teachers have to put in when students finally can come back to school when coronavirus is contained.

His school which is in Ga South Municipal Assembly in the Greater Accra Region did not have any remote learning plan for its students. Since the students left for home due to the coronavirus pandemic, the only knowledge Yaw had of a means of learning for some students in his school was a few parents gathering their kids in a compound house to do the basics in reading and writing.

The teacher reveals how difficult it is to get these students to study in normal times. With a pandemic and a break of school on the card, the situation could only get worse. Although there is a general lack of eagerness to learn for most of these students, there are times too when the situation is out of the students’ hands.

For instance, Yaw discloses some of the students are both workers as they school. The reflex thought that jumps to mind when there is a break is for them to work more as they try “to do something to make a living.” His thoughts on integrating e-learning into the education system for public schools is one that lacks hope in a truly heartbreaking manner.

“E-learning has come to stay. For the children who attend these international schools, they are going to benefit. For government schools, there is going to be a very serious problem. Maybe the institutions of higher learning, not at basic schools and Junior High School.

“It is going to be very difficult. You enter a government school and realise most of the children are taking care of themselves. What time do they have for e-learning?

“Parents will also not allow it. Some parents need these children to go and do some selling and chores so they can get something small (upkeep money) for the house. Bringing e-learning to government schools is going to be difficult,” Yaw says as his voice echoes the suppressed sadness in the shared thought.

Madam Mensah (name changed to prevent targeting), a headmistress in the Greater Accra Region has hands-on experience of what it looks like trying to initiate the basic concept of e-learning at a public school.

When she realised her students were not coming back to school anytime soon, she had to find a plan.

She called for a meeting with her teachers to find a way to help her students. With limited resources for execution at the back of their minds, the Junior High School students who had to write the next Basic Certificate Examination (BECE) were the focus.

Despite concerns around students not having the time to participate in their plan since they were at home and parents might need their services, the teachers went ahead to create a WhatsApp group, starting with the few contacts of students they had.

“I am monitoring it online,” Madam Mensah tells Pulse.com.gh.

“They have a time table. A teacher goes in as and when their time is due.”

Although the number of students on the page keeps growing, the headmistress admits it is still far from a full house with the class size. Some of the challenges, for instance, are due to parents’ inability to afford data for their kids or student not owning a smartphone. Teachers also go online for lessons and have to keep texting ‘I am waiting oo’ several times before some students join the class - a situation that is the opposite of how normal classroom lessons work.

Asked if there were plans to widen the scope of the initiative to the entire school, the headmistress quickly said no.

“We are having a lot of challenges with the JHS 3 students. For the whole school, it is impossible,” Madam Mensah says.

In addition to preparing the Junior High School students for the 2020 BECE, teachers who live close to some lower primary students are liaising with parents to give occasional assignments to their pupils.

The Ghana Education Service is aware of the gap between private schools and public schools which is based on a lot of factors. The service in collaboration with the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation launched the Ghana Learning TV, a free to air 24-hour channel with classes beginning on April 3, 2020.

With mathematics, English language, social studies and science as the service’s focus, not even the impressive timetable of this distance learning and TV learning agendas rolled out on private stations could take away the glaring challenges as weeks went by.

Television is not a basic electronic device in many homes for public school students. Those who have it have to reasonable adjust its use to fit the family’s budget for the electricity bill. And then there is the topic of one-way communication with traditional media and helping a parent go about their source of income (mostly petty trade) to feed the family at a time where financial challenges are turning out to be the new normal due to a pandemic.

In millennial/Gen Z terms, all the means to get public schools to participate in remote learning during these abnormal times could be graded as ‘E for effort’ considering what quality education looks like in some of these schools during normal times. Grade A is far beyond reach, at least in the year 2020.

Some students from the University of Ghana in mid-May started a petition for the school to refund part of the 2019/2020 fees due to the break that was triggered by coronavirus COVID-19. This followed similar petitions across the globe from students.

Before the UG petition in Ghana, private and international schools had already initiated these conversations with parents.

In letters dated April 8 and April 16, Galaxy International School and the British International School respectively alerted parents of changes in their fees.

Management of Galaxy International School reduced their 3rd term fees by 50% as a ‘supportive gesture to parents in these trying times.’

The British International School also reduced their fees for primary and secondary by 50% assuring parents that the students will ‘fully benefit from our remote learning programmes we have put in place; providing live experiences and some recorded lessons.'

Ghana International School, however, gave a 5% discount (10% for Infant School) explaining ‘the cost of operating our building infrastructure accounts for less than 20% of our total cost; our biggest investment is in our management and staff’.

The cost of operating a fully functional e-learning school is still new to most schools in Ghana who have divided opinions on pricing. For parents, the opinions differ too.

There are numerous conversations on social media with parents complaining about why they would pay huge sums only for them to be sent assignments by schools to guide their 2 and 3-year-olds through. In their minds, they are doing the teaching; the teachers just handed them the syllabus.

Considering the short attention span of kids, some parents felt zoom classes were also not the way to go for some of these little children. But it’s all a matter of different opinions.

“There are schools offering online tuition, not just assignments. Some teachers go to a virtual classroom and teach. Even though my children go to school A where they are getting assignments, I have signed them on to another school’s online programme,” a parent narrates how she feels her children need the virtual teaching and learning while they stay at home due to coronavirus. Others are withdrawing their little children and saving the fees until coronavirus gives the clear.

Coronavirus COVID-19 has hit the world hard. According to Dr Abena Yeboah-Banin, schools will begin to realise how hard the world was hit as some may not be able to bounce back on their feet. The way to a more prepared future is to think about measures to curb the challenges if this ever happens again whether it’s individual schools, media learning offerings or plans by the Ghana Education Service (GES).

Dr Yeboah-Banin explains that the chance to integrate certain remote learning elements in our education system is an opportunity that has come because of coronavirus and it is going to stay which is “generally good” as it gives a more hands-on approach to technology. Despite Ghana having displayed previously for being seemingly incapable of taking learnings from mistakes and hard times, Abena, still has a wish that will possibly take off the stress on our education in a similar situation.

“I think that education in Ghana ought to take a more proactive view on the place of technology in whatever we are teaching our children,” she says.

Pulse Editorial is the opinion of the editorial team of Pulse. It does not represent the opinion of the organization Pulse.


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