Dablin Mpuuga & Ambrose Ogwang

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The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest global disruptions in recent decades. On the economic front, it resulted in changes in the different supply chains and transmission mechanisms, leading to disruptions in many sectors of the economy. Despite a few manufacturing subsectors benefiting from the pandemic through manufacturing sanitizers, facemasks, and other COVID-19 prevention and related products, the pandemic generally disrupted other sectors, such as education.

For several countries, the COVID-19 containment measures included the closure of schools to reduce the high concentration of learners in a given area which would have exacerbated its spread. According to the United Nations Education Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the closure of schools due to COVID-19 has affected 1.29 billion students in 186 countries, which is 73.8% of the world’s student population. With the majority of students at home, many governments devised measures to ensure the continued learning and engagement of learners.

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 Uganda’s experience

 Uganda was not any different in its endeavor to ensure continuous learning. As part of its intervention to this effect, in June 2020 the government announced that it would distribute over 10 million radio sets to households countrywide to aid learning. The radio sets are supposed to complement other ongoing efforts such as the supply of study materials for different class levels by the Ministry of Education and Sports. At an estimated cost of Ugx. 38,000 per radio set, the government needs about Ugx. 380 billion to provide radio sets.  This has been widely welcomed by rural parents, despite a few critics arguing that it may not be sustainable.

With radios yet to be distributed, a new variant strain of COVID-19 has emerged in other countries and recent evidence indicates that it could be more rapidly transmissible than other circulating COVID strains.  Notably, there is also an exponential rise in community infections and deaths (over 38,000 total cases and 300 deaths by 20th January 2021). Consequently, the government may consider further containment measures such as the delayed re-opening of schools or, at worse, another phase of national lockdown as in Rwanda, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Statistics from the Uganda High-Frequency Phone Survey (UHFPS) on COVID-19 show that there is a widening gap in participation of learning activities between rural and urban households. The share of rural households with at least one child participating in any education or learning activities stands at 54% according to UHFPS round two (July 2020), a decline from 56% from round one (June 2020) of the survey. On the other hand, the same data shows that urban households reported an increase in learning participation from 67% to 73% between rounds one and two (Figure 1). Implying that the learning participation gap widened from 11 percentage points to 19 percentage points.

Figure 1: Households with students engaged in learning activities since schools closure (%)

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Source: Uganda High Frequency Phone Survey (UHFPS), 2020

Are radios the solution?

Considering the different avenues through which students and pupils can continue learning while at home, for example, Television programmes, use of the internet (google meet, zoom classrooms, Microsoft teams, skype classes, among others), and radio programmes. Radios provide a comparatively better alternative in narrowing the rural-urban gap in learning activities participation because of their availability, portability, and access in areas without electricity. In addition, radios also provide learners with an opportunity to call in and participate or ask for clarifications during the learning sessions. Most students can easily operate radio sets compared to televisions and computers. In addition, to note is that a significant proportion of rural households do not have access to electricity, which leaves radios as the most appropriate for such households. However, if a learner needs to see what is being taught especially for practical modules, radios comparatively become less effective to other means such as television sets and computers.   

In response to the pandemic, countries such as Ghana, DR. Congo, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire, rekindled dormant radio programmes for high school students so that they can be engaged in learning while at home. Language programmes on radios help students to master vocabulary and pronunciation as they learn to imitate the radio presenters. If this learning resource is carefully selected and used, learning becomes more interesting, effective, and meaningful.

Way forward

  • Coordination: To ensure that radios achieve the intended learning goals, there is a need for the involvement of all key stakeholders such as parents, schools, the private sector (telecommunication companies), and the different ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) like the Ministry of Education and Sports. In regard to the sustainability of the programme, parents need to partner with the government i.e. the government should supply radio sets to households but parents should endeavor to provide battery cells regularly as well as maintaining these radio sets in case they become faulty.
  • Create sustainable funding modalities of the intervention: In addition, funding the programme should be given priority by the government amidst other competing government needs such as investing in infrastructure development and investing in security.
  • Tighten the monitoring mechanisms in usage: Amidst the competing household needs such as students’ and pupils’ engagement in income-generating activities like agriculture, family businesses, and other household chores, there is a need to establish clear monitoring mechanisms involving parents, guardians, local council leaders and the community at large to ensure that effective learning takes place.
  • Sensitization: The community should also be sensitized about the available radio programmes and their time schedules in order to ensure effective monitoring of learning by the students and pupils.
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