• Authored By: Blessing Atwine
22 Oct 2021

Globally, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted education systems forcing learners and some schools to shift to virtual learning to curb the spread of the pandemic. While the pandemic has caused a drastic shift to digital learning spaces for mostly urban and children from well-to-do families, it has also excluded the majority of the learners especially those in rural areas, without access to electricity and the internet.

In Uganda, the COVID-19 pandemic saw more than 73,200 schools and institutions closed forcing over 15 million learners to stay at home.

Since school closures in March 2020, the government has explored various methods to keep children learning – from printed learning packages to radio, television (TV) and online learning (using computers, phones and internet). However, the reality is that most children are not learning.

Blessing Atwine, EPRC Research Analyst

Access to digital infrastructures is unequal across socioeconomic, urban and rural divides

While radio, TV and online learning are very useful, they are inaccessible to the vast majority of children especially those outside main towns due to high cost among other factors. According to the 2019/20 Uganda National Household survey, the proportion of the population that owns a computer or laptop is only 2 percent (Figure 1), with 50 percent noting the high cost of digital gadgets as a barrier to access. In addition, Figure 1 shows that only 9 percent of rural households own a television compared to 42.6 percent of the urban households.

Even though radio and mobile phones are widespread across the country (Figure 1), there are regional inequalities in radio ownership with a recent assessment by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicating that 80 percent of families in rural northern Uganda do not have radios. More so 70 percent of the mobile phones are basic and feature phones which are not internet-enabled. This implies that there are huge disparities in access to these technologies across the socioeconomic and urban and rural divides in Uganda to ensure inclusive learning.

Internet access is largely urban dominated and costly

Poor and unequal distribution of internet services in Uganda also makes it almost impossible for the biggest percentage of students, especially in rural areas to benefit from virtual lessons. A 2017-2018 survey conducted by Research ICT Africa (RIA) indicated that Uganda had one of the lowest (14 percent) internet penetration rates, with a huge urban-rural gap in internet use of about 70 percent. With these statistics, it is clear that the majority of learners cannot afford to study online.

More so, a study by the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), indicates that Uganda has the highest priced internet in East Africa. The cost of acquiring one gigabyte of internet is at UGX 9,819 compared to East African counterparts (Figure 2). The high cost of internet discourages the adoption of online learning. As if this is not bad enough, the government has imposed a 12 percent excise duty on data which will further increase the cost of data. Although it was indicated that education data would be exempted from this tax, it is unclear how data meant for education services will be differentiated from data for any other purpose.


Consequently, learners from urban and affluent families who have access to all these resources and technologies and who can afford internet and virtual tutors continue to leverage digital technologies for continued learning[1]. On the other hand, children from urban, rural and poorer homes who are faced with a lot of limitations in accessing and affording learning technologies continue to sit idle at home, frustrated and anxious about the future as the digital education gap widens.

What next?

Therefore, although the use of digital technology as an enabler for learning became increasingly visible during the COVID-19 pandemic amidst school closure, the education digital divide has never been as obvious as it is now in Uganda.

As the government embarks on school reopening, there is a need to ensure that all students return to school and those learners who were unable to continue learning due to the pandemic catch up on what they missed. A “one size fits all” approach to COVID-19 recovery measures will only widen the education access inequality gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged students which will leave a detrimental effect on the future labour market and the country’s development.

The government must also invest in ensuring affordable access to the internet to support online education and guarantee that it is inclusive. COVID-19 has shown that affordable, accessible internet is more necessary than ever. Therefore, tax-free internet packages for students should be introduced to reduce digital learning inequalities and enhance inclusive learning through access and utilization of the internet.

In addition government should emulate Kenya to provide free and solar chargeable internet-enabled gadgets for all learners especially in rural schools to foster access and use of digital technologies when schools finally reopen. This can be done by leveraging Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and education development partners to provide free computer per child.

Footnotes

[1] ACET (forthcoming) “Strengthening Education and Learning Systems to deliver a 4IR-Ready Workforce”

 

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