Dry ICT skills are not enough

Eliada Gudza

Zimbabwe’s educational system, once a shining example for the entire African continent, is now struggling with severe problems: At the beginning of 2009, the country experienced a fierce battle between teachers and the government. Teachers were not able to make a living, the majority of schools closed and school fees shot up. Although there are signs of a slight improvement, many difficulties remain – above all financial issues. How does eLearning work in such a setting? In the interview below, Eliada Gudza, Executive Director of World Links Zimbabwe and a member of the eLearning Africa Organising Committee, describes the status of technology-driven education in his country. It seems that a great deal of energy and enthusiasm is still being expended to make eLearning resources available for education, including schools, higher education, and vocational training – despite the many problems Zimbabwe faces.

eLA: How can eLearning proceed in Zimbabwe, confronted as it is with such severe educational problems?

Eliada Gudza: Our education system basically faces two problems: the lack of adequate funding for schools and the continued massive drift of qualified teachers and professional leadership to other countries and the private sector.

The first problem emanates from the Government’s poor capability to fund education, as well as the powerlessness of parents, especially those living in underserved rural and urban high-density areas. This has resulted in a highly noticeable degeneration of schools both in terms of their infrastructure and the quality of teaching and learning. We hear appalling reports of pupil-text book ratios of 10-1. Also, where computers exist at all, there could be as few as ten computers in a school of over 400 students. Class sizes in some schools still exceed fifty and double sessions (popularly known as hot-seating) have not yet gone away. Many children remain undernourished, and the minimum conditions for learning are not being met.

The second problem is about good teachers running away from the harsh economic environment, in which they cannot have a decent lifestyle on the meagre government salary. You have a situation where the average teacher (i.e., not those in expensive private schools) cannot afford to send their own child to the very school they teach in; neither can they afford to feed and clothe their family. Efforts to address the issue of civil servants’ salaries remain beleaguered with a lot of challenges, as whatever government can afford seems to fall far below expectation.

It is fair to ask how eLearning can proceed under these conditions. But perhaps in the long run, eLearning is part of the answer, as it has proven to be elsewhere. Zimbabweans cannot wait for the day when all their political and economic woes will be no more and then engage in eLearning. A lot of progress is being made in some schools, and it is important that we move with the rest of the world in these hard times. Things will get better as we go along.

One key lesson I have learnt about implementing technology – especially in education – is that it is about facing the right direction at any given time and always moving forward rather than being stationary. I believe this is what Zimbabwe should do, and we need to draw all the help we can get from cooperating partners and counterparts the world over.

eLA: eLearning seems to be becoming a more relevant educational issue in Zimbabwe. Those responsible face severe problems, but there are also many initiatives and good ideas. As an important player in the field, how do you assess the current situation?

Eliada Gudza: Because of its history of high quality education, Zimbabwe has always had very good potential for leading the way in innovative educational practice. However, the economic and political strife that has characterised the country for the past decade or so has brought about numerous challenges to real nation-wide educational progress. As I write this, it is said that the country needs more than 10,000 teachers, especially in the areas of the sciences and mathematics. This shortage is largely due to the drift of qualified teachers into South Africa in search of more rewarding opportunities, a trend that is likely to continue.

In the educational sector, it is widely accepted that eLearning means a lot of things, from very simplistic uses of electronic content on CD-ROMs, flash drives and servers to asynchronous access of online content by learners working either on a LAN or the Internet. There is not yet evidence of a good understanding of the various eLearning models or that choices are being made in regard to those that work and how they should be designed and implemented in Zimbabwean schools. Many of the ongoing ideas and programmes seem to be driven by entrepreneurs who are really in it for the business and not from an educational value-chain perspective – as is the case of World Links.

Until Ministries of Education have internal capacity to envision and drive eLearning models of their own choice, my guess is that it will remain a hit-and-miss game in which programmes come and go without any aggregated results, best practices, or benchmarks being established.

eLA: How do you view the eLearning situation in Zimbabwe compared to that in the other African countries with which you work?

Eliada Gudza: Comparatively, I would say Zimbabwe is lagging behind simply because, by scale, many of its schools still lack the basic resources necessary for eLearning implementation. By way of example, neighbouring Botswana achieved very high levels of computer availability in all schools long ago, whilst here in Zimbabwe, as I mentioned before, computers remain a scarce utility in schools – and are generally only found in the elite schools.

Whilst Zimbabwe is waking up to the reality of eLearning in all schools, things have already moved on in neighbouring South Africa, for example, where some schools are already experimenting with mobile learning (mLearning). In Zimbabwe, school connectivity remains one of the greatest challenges, even for urban schools. Gone are the days when a school could boast of a dial-up connection to connect the whole school lab to the Internet. Today trying this is a recipe for frustration and time wasting for teachers and students. Clearly, in this regard, Zimbabwe is operating below its potential, and the majority of its students remain disadvantaged compared to their counterparts in the sub-region and ICT-advanced countries like Rwanda.

Be that as it may, where the resources are available, Zimbabweans have a better record of utilisation than other African countries, such as Botswana. Not forgetting that the term eLearning covers a wide range of applications and processes – some new, like the Internet, extranets, Web 2.0 and others that have been around for a long time, such as audio/video tape, etc. – it is important to contextualise what one means by eLearning in such a discussion. In the case of Zimbabwe, I venture to say that, for the vast majority of students at school level, eLearning is about using digital content stored on a computer or CD-ROM. The national curriculum syllabuses are still not digitised and only a very, very limited number of schools have attempted to offer instruction, including homework, electronically. If the majority tried, out of the whole class, only Johnny would see it and do it, and the teacher would most likely fail to access it and mark it for reasons clear from the above.

eLA: World Links Zimbabwe, over which you preside, has a great deal of responsibility. You are, for example, the most important partner when it comes to equipping schools. What are your plans in this regard?

Eliada Gudza: Equipping schools has always been a great concern of ours, simply because we realise that without computers of whatever form, one cannot talk about the Internet and online access to educational resources, let alone eLearning in its broad sense. So equipping schools for us is not an end but rather a means to an end. Today, we realise that there are potentially so many projects and programmes that can and are equipping schools, but far fewer that adequately deal with effective and beneficial utilisation of the ICT resources. Many donors derive great satisfaction from getting computers into schools but do little to provide staff development and development of digital content that enable computers to offer good returns on the investment. So whilst we still want to see computers in every school, we are paying increasing attention to content generation, digitisation and dissemination. Good examples of this are our recently ended Virtual Reality project funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the ongoing THRASS programme, and our partnership with eLearning Solutions jointly to provide e-content and hardware solutions for schools.

This year we expect to embark on a programme in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture and some suppliers of both refurbished and new PCs that will see the importation of computers that will be offered on a demand-driven basis to schools and individual educators at a nominal fee. Each computer will be sold pre-loaded with an appropriate, licensed operating system and educational software that will ensure it is used for teaching and learning right from day one of deployment.

eLA: Furthermore, as a consultant, you are also working on programmes to enhance employment and vocational skills. What are the most important regional topics for Zimbabwe?

Eliada Gudza: Being in possession of sound ICT skills has been one of the biggest differentiating factors in terms of school leavers’ ability to get a job in commerce and industry. In a tracer study conducted by the World Bank some years ago, it was noted how many students’ exposure to ICTs through the then World Links for Development Programme had influenced their career path significantly and positively. World Links in Zimbabwe has its own examples of such students.

It is said that having a driver’s license for a car used to be a great advantage in getting a job; today it is having an ICDL (International Computer Driving Licence) certificate or equivalent. However, dry skills alone are not enough; they have to be reflected in application and creativity. My view is, therefore, that if our countrywide network of Telecenters offers skills with such added value to youths both in and out of school – with special support for girls – then we are being relevant and playing a significant role in national development. And more importantly, we are helping our young people to learn and to live to their full potential in the 21st century.

There are tremendous opportunities in software development, system design and programming, web design, networking and graphic design, etc., in Zimbabwe. I think these are some important topics in which we want to see more and more training and grooming of youths.

eLA: How can people coordinate the various current eLearning approaches efficiently?

Eliada Gudza: This is a big issue and one that is badly needed, especially in Zimbabwe. Schools, which by and large fall under the Ministry of Education, remain the most visible entity for the implementation of eLearning in education. With so many players who have  wide-ranging interests, there is a need for coordination of eLearning approaches and activities.

My belief is that, in these early stages, Ministries of Education have the mandate to do this but it is often observed that they lack the capacity to play this role. In this case, the answer lies in Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), in which the Ministry assumes a convening role of bringing together key elearning players frequently to share and exchange ideas and build synergies where desired and applicable, as well as create tensions for healthy competition, all to the advantage of learners and their educators. The lack of such coordination results in duplication of effort, wastage of resources and sometimes, conflict among the players with no national success being measured or registered in any particular endeavour.

eLA: Mr Gudza, thank you very much for your time!

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