DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania 

The lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic came as a blessing in disguise for many technology innovators, but it also exposed a deep digital divide in the East African country of Tanzania.

While students of many elite schools like Ali Hassan Mwinyi Elite School, swiftly switched to Google classrooms to continue learning, their peers in government schools spent lockdown period to play hide and seek in dilapidated streets and slums.

Tanzania, which stopped releasing pandemic data in late April become the first country in East Africa to open educational institutes in late June, three months after enforcing the lockdown.

The move to allow students back to school was received with mixed reactions in the country, which to date has reported 509 COVID-19 infections with 21 deaths.

Declaring victory against the virus, President John Magufuli said that there was no need to keep schools closed further.

A busy economist Josephat Msafiri, working with a French oil company facilitated his daughters Sasha and Sandra to attend a virtual classroom, studying at an elite school.

Their uncle Makoye, a skilled communicator joined in to devise quick solutions for e-learning. “It was a bit challenging before, but they got used it and their performance improved remarkably, as attested by their school’s weekly progress reports,” Makoye told Anadolu.

The demand led innovations of many e-learning programs like Ubongo Kids for kindergarteners, Shule Direct, for secondary school students, KitKit, and My Elimu — online portals providing educational content to help students continue studies during coronavirus holidays.

“We have witnessed a big technology rush with the government and educational stakeholders exploring what solution to school closure technology can offer,” says Gemma Todd, an expert in education at the World Bank.

Tanzania adopted a free education policy in 2015, which helped to propel enrolment to a whopping 15.4 million in elementary to advanced level secondary classes.

The Ubongo Kids app, through innovation, has combined cartons, entertainment with learning. -Cartoons help to learn A 2018 study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, suggested that children improved their drawing skills and learned language faster through cartoons.

The Ubongo Kids also allows parents to filter and supervise the content. To ensure equal access, most of these innovators partnered with local telecom operators to ensure access even without an internet package. Shule Direct and Mtabe App use artificial intelligence to help secondary school students interact with virtual teachers.

The KitKit program helps to improve early learning skills for out of school toddlers both in English and Kiswahili or Swahili languages.

While Karen Shigela, a grade VII student at Mwl. Julius Nyerere primary school and her sisters continued schooling through online classes throughout the lockdown period, in Tandale — an impoverished city slum — less fortunate students spent time roaming around streets.

With roughly 1.2 billion children globally out of school due to COVID-19, lack of online platforms to deliver education has deepened the crisis in learning, the United Nations Children’s fund warned. To help to bridge the yawning learning gap, authorities in Tanzania have also used the state’s radio and television to deliver lessons.

Despite innovations challenges persisted that included frequent hacking of some of those online platforms.

Pandemic changed student routine

Charles Wandwi, acting head teacher at Julius Nyerere Primary school, said in some classes half of the students could not participate in the virtual classrooms due to lack of necessary hardware.

“Some dishonest innovators were hacking our systems and pretend to have the solution to swindle money,” he said.

The pandemic has not only changed students’ routine but also their perceptions about everyday life.

“I enjoyed staying at home with mother and father, I have also learned a lot about the internet although my father put parental control that frequently notified him whenever I wanted to download something,” said Karen.

But not all students were upbeat about the coronavirus holiday.

Rabia Kisena, 15, at Mabwe girl’s secondary school said the coronavirus crisis has made life harder. “I couldn’t see my friends for a long time, that was painfully bad,” she said.

Even with schools opened, some students still live in fear of contracting the deadly virus.

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