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High internet tariffs push online learning out of reach of many

by Staff reporter
12 Aug 2021 at 06:39hrs | Views
THE rising cost of internet services at a time when learners countrywide are required to engage in online learning as a Covid-19 mitigation measure is a cause for concern. Schools have been closed since June and on Monday, President Mnangagwa further extended the Covid-19 lockdown by two weeks amid a surge in Covid-19 cases. This means that all learning institutions - schools, universities and colleges - will remain closed.

Thus, e-learning has become a necessity in the country due to disruptions to the education sector caused by the pandemic. The National e-Learning Strategy for Schools in Zimbabwe which commenced last year is set to run until 2025 and is part of Government's priority programmes on Innovation, Science and Technology Development to industrialise the country using ICTs. Government said it is implementing a smart education programme whose aim is to complement traditional forms of learning.

Director of Communication and Advocacy in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education Mr Taungana Ndoro said online and digital lessons are the most convenient amid the pandemic hence every child should be able to access them.

"Online and digital lessons are the most convenient and are recommended. Online learning, in particular, is not only a good alternative during the Covid-19 crisis, but is also probably the most relevant mode of learning during the internet era," said Mr Ndoro.

However, the frequent increases of internet tariffs by service providers has prevented many learners from being involved in the new way of learning as they cannot afford to buy data bundles. This has denied many their right to education. Recently, Econet reviewed its tariffs which saw the cost of the e-learning monthly bouquet which was introduced for learners, rising to $2 240 up from $1 560.

According to Mobile Money Africa, Econet has market dominance in Zimbabwe, with 6,5 million customers, which represents 70 percent of the market share of cellphone users. This means that 70 percent of Zimbabweans are affected by the tariff hike.

Along with the country's first cellular network operator, NetOne, which has its One-Fi private Wi-Fi bundles on $2 000, this has been the utilised by most students. Users have described the high tariffs by the service providers as inconsiderate saying that their income generation has been disturbed by the Covid-19-induced lockdowns.

They have said they cannot afford to pay the high internet tariffs hence this has had great impacts on online learning recommended by the Government as students are funded by parents whose businesses have been crippled. They called for affordable tariffs that will ensure that every student is not left behind. "The Covid-19 pandemic has increased dependency on the internet.

With face-to-face interaction being banned, schools have introduced online learning with lessons being conducted everyday hence internet tariffs should be affordable so that every learner is not left behind. Personally, providing data for my child who is in Form Three has been a challenge. Sometimes he misses lessons when I fail to provide. It is really heartbreaking to know that your child failed to access class because you cannot sustain the funds. I worked as a waitress at a local restaurant which has been closed since the beginning of the first lockdown last year.

I do not have a permanent job right now.  I have since resorted to second-hand clothes vending. I get less than $300 on weekly basis, sometimes I sacrifice money for groceries so that he is able to access class for a week because I cannot sustain the monthly tariffs," said Miss Lwandile Mzizi, a single parent.

 Mr Khosi Sikhosana, a student at Lupane State University said attending class every day is too costly.

"Econet provides the e-learning bouquet which is meant to cater for students but that has become out of reach for some of us. It is too expensive, instead of buying it I buy monthly data bouquets which go for $126 for 100 megabytes but still it doesn't last because I do a lot of research. Some of our lessons are conducted on Google classroom, there are tests and quizzes which are conducted on the platform, it's quite sad for me to say that I have never become a part of that. Sometimes I liaise with my lecturers so that I send the assignments on WhatsApp. Missing lessons is really worrying because you do not know how important the chapter you've missed is. Maybe it's the one that you are going to find in the examinations. Internet service providers need to consider our plight," said Mr Sikhosana.

The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) urban livelihoods assessment which was conducted in December last year shows how seriously Covid-19 has affected urban families, including schoolchildren. The report looked at children between the ages of four and 17 years across the country and found out that the majority did not access online learning. It challenged the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education to come up with proper interventions.

"Only 19 percent of the urban children were accessing online schooling during the nationwide lockdown in 2020. The disparity in access to education services could lead to future inequalities in the education sector. The ministry responsible for education should take up innovations and scale up context-specific interventions to ensure universal access to education by all deserving children during the pandemic," reads the report.

Masvingo Province had the highest number of pupils doing online lessons at 35 percent while Matabeleland North had the least at 11 percent.

According to the report, Bulawayo had 24 percent while Matabeleland South is at 28 percent and Midlands at 14 percent. Mrs Nombulelo Dhliwayo, a parent, said she has been spending 60 percent of her earnings on data.

"The Covid-19 pandemic has put my school run business on a halt so now I keep chickens for sale. I have dedicated most of my earnings to internet bundles which is quite a cause for concern. My child is at ECD level so most of their lessons are conducted in voice notes and videos which require much data. There are books which we are also required to download and all that requires data. So, the tariff hike came at a wrong time when the internet has become a priority, a priority which has become a privilege," said Mrs Dhliwayo.

Miss Anathi Mthethwa who works as a house help said her daughter has never attended any online lesson since the onset of Covid-19.

"I work as a maid at some residence in Paddonhurst. I am not full time so every month I earn $5 000. From this amount I have to pay rent, buy groceries for myself and my daughter and also for my mother in Nkayi who is taking care of my two other children. Buying a cellphone for her took time of budgeting so now providing data which is expensive every month would strain me. I may look fine but I'm not at peace, it's painful to know that your child is being left behind," she said.

Zimbabwe Teachers' Association (Zimta) secretary-general Mr Goodwill Taderera said data tariffs must be affordable so as to ensure accessibility to all learners.

"Many learners could not afford the tariffs before they were hiked, what more now that they have been increased. This means that education is now unreachable to many children. Tariff increase at a time when people are on lockdown, schools are closed and many others are working from home. It is inconsiderate. Exceptions should be made for learners, whereby applications are made that the people want to use the tariffs for educational purposes therefore, reduces the tariffs for them.

"Learners in rural setups, mining communities, farms and the less privileged should be considered. Some cannot only afford the tariffs but also the gadgets. Connectivity is also a challenge for them. Such things have to be considered when planning on hiking tariffs thus there is a need for them to be revised so that every child has access to education," said Mr Taderera.

Source - chroncile