The advent of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has caused the world its greatest disruptions in recent times, as it shut down the world’s socio-economic, educational, entertainment activities, among many others. The pandemic, in fact, forced the world to a standstill.
Available statistics indicate that more than 1.6 billion people in more than 190 countries around the world had their education systems disrupted, with the disruption affecting poor nations and households more than the rich.
Due to safety protocols and lockdowns imposed by various national governments around the world, online schooling became a Hobson’s choice (of taking what is available or nothing at all) for those who could afford it.
Unfortunately, Africa seemed to be left behind as all forms of online schooling available were based on private arrangements between rich parents and expensive schools.
Faced with the huge challenge and not knowing when the pandemic would end, the ECOWAS Parliament, led by Speaker Sidie Mohamed Tunis had to take steps to confront the clear and present difficulties.
It was toward that end that the Tunis-led ECOWAS Parliament converged on Togo to discuss ways of digitising education in West Africa.
At the meeting, which had as its theme: `ECOWAS in the era of COVID-19 and beyond: Focusing on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to promote distance education and training in the ECOWAS Member States’, Members of Parliament were charged to ensure access to ICT in their countries.
Tunis in his opening remarks at the meeting of the Joint Committee on Education, Science and Technology -Telecommunication and Information Technology and the Committee on Political Affairs, Peace, Security, as well as Committee on Infrastructure, stressed that it was time for West Africa to latch on to the new normal in education.
He underscored the urgent need to embrace technology in educating the populace, saying that technology must be made available and easily accessible to ward off a looming tendency toward educational inequality.
For him, there was already inequality in education as it were, and moving to an ICT-based education which is capital intensive, may leave many poor people behind if proper legislation were not in place to carry everyone along.
“Technology has advanced so much that the geographical gap is bridged with the use of tools that make you feel as if you are inside a classroom or a meeting hall.
“Some of the most important developments in education have happened since the launch of the internet.
“These days, learners and workers are well versed in the use of smartphones, text messaging and using the internet to participate in discussions from practically any place.
“With these innovations and as the world plans to chart out a post-COVID-19 period, we at the ECOWAS Parliament believe that addressing access to information and communication technology to promote learning, is a matter of urgency.
“As you may all be aware, the general objective of this delocalised Joint Committee meeting is to reflect on the possibility of guaranteeing a truly digital learning environment with unhindered access to the internet.
“It will also lay the basics for Parliament’s identification of a relevant intervention mechanism in order to make meaningful contribution to the implementation of the ECOWAS Protocol A / P3 / 1/03 on education and training, as well as make recommendations geared toward impacting the sector,” he said.
Unfortunately, with internet penetration and access still low in West Africa and internet penetration in Africa still at 39.3 per cent, many of the lawmakers who converged on Togo expressed concern over the cost of digitising education in the continent.
From the internet to computers and other digital infrastructure as well as manpower and training, the lawmakers opined that it might require a new funding source to actualise the quest as West Africa is already grappling with the paucity of funds to tackle the myriad of challenges confronting it.
It is perhaps for this reason that a Nigerian lawmaker, Sen. Biodun Olujimi advocated the use of the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) to fund the ICT infrastructure required to digitise education in the sub-region.
Olujimi who educated other lawmakers on the availability of this fund, also charged them to push for the use of the funds in their respective countries.
In Nigeria, the Fund was established to facilitate the achievement of national policy goals for universal access and universal service to information and communication technologies (ICTs) in rural, un-served, and under-served areas.
The Fund is being managed to facilitate the widest possible access to affordable telecommunications services for greater social equity and inclusion for the people of Nigeria.
Speaking further, Olujimi pointed out that the fund was wrongly domiciled with the Nigerian Communications Commission and was not being exploited.
“In ECOWAS today, we are concerned about the effect of COVID on learning, education, and social life. The general belief is that education has moved from the classroom to the streets to the villages and everywhere.
“The only way we can monitor and fund this is through the USPF fund which is earmarked for the underserved.
“We need to sit down together, and have an agreement across board, by all fifteen states, on what we want to do with the USPF in all the countries.
“This is because COVID-19 has shown us that there is a need for education to be funded through a body, and the body must be able to provide free computers for those who cannot afford it.
“Schools must be equipped with internet and cheap computers that can help the students,” she said.
According to the Togolese Minister of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation, Cina Lawson, who also made a presentation to the joint committee, education in West Africa is already facing daunting challenges.
She identified infrastructure including classrooms, lack of power supply, and inadequate number of teachers, among others as part of the challenges
She noted that the proposed deployment of ICT to promote distance learning could solve some of the challenges, but pointed out that ICT deployment still required huge investment, taking into cognizance the provision of internet connectivity in rural areas.
A major concern for the Speaker of Togo’s National Assembly, Hon. Yawa Djigbodi Tsegan, was how to ensure that education is not disrupted bearing in mind the significance of that aspect to the youth and sub-regional development.
She charged parliaments in all member states to move away from their strict traditional roles and position themselves to proffer solutions to our respective governments.
The move to implement digital distance learning in the sub-region may be paramount to the ECOWAS Parliament, but the lawmakers are not alone in that quest.
The ECOWAS Commission had also been pushing for digitisation of education in the sub-region with an e-learning policy that was established as far back as 2012.
Although the policy seems not to have gained a lot of traction with it being in its early stages.
However, great progress had been made, Mrs Rachael Ogbe, Principal Programme Officer for Education in the ECOWAS Commission said.
The progress includes the conclusion of an arrangement of collaboration with the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation UNESCO; the provision for the revision of the ECOWAS e-Learning Policy to accelerate distance learning, and the survey and equipping of Youth Innovation Hubs (YIHs), in member states.
According to Ogbe, the collaboration with UNESCO is aimed at strengthening the capacity of designated teacher training institutions and personnel in all member states, on the use of technology for teaching and educational administration.
She, however, noted that COVID-19 has led to the reconsideration of the proposed trend hence the provision to revise the eLearning Policy to fast-track distance learning.
ECOWAS Parliament, she stressed has a strategic role to play in advocacy with member states and a renewed commitment to partnerships for the implementation of distance learning programmes.
It is indeed pertinent that West Africa keys into the new normal of education using information communication technology as Just as Speaker Tunis says, latching on to technology will ensure that education is not disrupted again even in the event of another pandemic.