Monday, 9 September 2013

Call for Focus on ICT in Education for Zimbabwe

The release of ‘O’ Level results from last year examinations was met with an unprecedented outcry across the nation. Now that the dust has settled and emotions have calmed down, and the nation is preparing for a new government, it is time to take a sober look at this vital aspect of the nation’s future. The majority of the reactions were peddled with blame finding and finger-pointing with a number of prominent figures playing political gymnastics with the results. This was evidenced by various headlines such as :  “O’Level results ; who is to blame”,  “Education in free-fall, “Pass Rate increased from 2009”, “Coltart  admits O’ Level Results Crisis” , “Fall in O Level Results blamed on de-motivated teachers”  and “Coltart making a bad situation worse” ,  to name a few.

It was apparent that some of these statements were based on mis-information, hidden/political-motives or just irresponsibility and recklessness. It is not acceptable for prominent figures to play political games with the country’s biggest asset – education. Instead of throwing mud at each other and burying our heads in the sand, the nation should now do some serious soul-searching and try and find ways in which this situation can be arrested and improved. It is irresponsible, to say the least, to play political gymnastics with the welfare of future generations. Education and human capital are fundamental to the socio-economic development of Zimbabwe.

It was evident that the outcry was a reflection of the high standards in Education that Zimbabwe has set since independence, and consequently the high expectations. Despite the sanctions-inspired crisis in the education sector Zimbabwe’s literacy rate remains the best in Africa as reported in the most recent survey; and this is credit to the government which made education on government schools free at independence, built thousands of schools, trained thousands of teachers and availed opportunities for higher education studies previously unavailable to the majority pre-independence. Historically Zimbabwe has always prioritized education and training at all levels as the government rightly considered it as the foundation for social, economic and national development as reflected in the highly successful ‘Education for all’ policy launched at independence, which is set to be reinforced as indicated by the incoming government in its manifesto. The Presidential Scholarship Programme has been a glowing example of how much advancement of education is prioritised at the highest level. Further evidence of this is in that Education has consistently received the highest budgetary allocation since 1980 until the GNU when the MDCs took over the Finance and Education ministries.

Complex, multi-faceted challenges being faced by the Education sector in Zimbabwe can be linked to the socio-economic conditions that the country finds itself in which were exacerbated by the illegal sanctions. These range from brain drain to lack of basic infrastructure. Despite these challenges, it is the belief of this author that prioritising the utilisation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in education will go a long way in addressing them. ICT includes radio, television, and digital technologies such as computers and the Internet which are powerful enabling tools for educational change and reform. When used appropriately, different ICTs can help in expanding access to education, strengthen the relevance of education to the increasingly digital world, and raise educational quality by, among others, helping make teaching and learning into an engaging, active process connected to real life. It can be utilised to resolve structural problems and deficits in the education system such as enhancing administrative and teaching efficiency, alleviating under-resourcing and supporting teachers who may be under-equipped.

The government is well aware of the potential of ICTs to help address some of the above challenges. The recognition of the prominent role which ICT can play in improving Education in Zimbabwe was signified by the establishment of a fully-fledged Ministry of ICT.  Most recently, the National University of Science and Technology hosted the 5th Annual Conference for ICT for Africa 2013. Awareness at the highest level has been demonstrated by the launching of programmes such as the “Presidential e-Learning Programme”, “Presidential Computerisation Programme” and opening of E-Learning Centres across the country. This trend is set to continue with the incoming government pledging to develop a national communications grid for ICT based on fibre optic network linked to the submarine cables located along the eastern seaboard of Africa. Anecdotal evidence has demonstrated that the availability of such tools has helped to bridge the ICT gap, although more could still be done by the relevant ministries to complement these efforts.

Despite numerous benefits of ICT there are many varied issues and challenges countries face when integrating ICT in Education. Overreaching all of them is the need for an ICT Policy in Education. Embarking on ICT projects without clear policy directions will result in stunted development. It is argued here that, the lack of a clear and dedicated body that specifically deals with ICT in Education in Zimbabwe has been hindering the government’s noble objectives, and will continue to do so if not addressed by the incoming government. Any significant ICT-enabling education initiative has to integrate within the national education systems and needs to be developed on a national scale, for it to work sustainably. Efficient integration of ICT in Education requires a unified strategy for the whole sector. This is in view of the fact that each system of education leads into the other and the skills accumulated at one level of education could provide gains in the next level. University computer science students, for example, could be integrated to assist in the development of ICT in schools. A harmonized strategy and implementation framework would accelerate progress, complement other initiatives and maximise impact.

The fundamental purpose of producing a specific policy would be to articulate and clarify goals and to provide a conceptual framework to guide progress towards these ‘ICT in Education’ goals. Only a systematic approach can ensure that ICT educational goals are met in the best possible way, and the hard to reach are educated in an effective way. If appropriate objectives are set to meet the overall goals, the outcome of this strategy will become realistic and measurable resulting in people involved getting a clearer picture of the steps to follow and the rationale behind doing so. The current lack of a coherent policy is likely to contribute to the development or prolonged existence of ineffective infrastructure and a waste of resources if not addressed.

ICT in itself is not going to radically change education systems for the better. An overall view of what education should be seeking to achieve is needed for ICTs to be utilized to their full potential within education systems. In Zimbabwe, the outgoing ministries of ICT and education between them failed to incorporate ICT in the curricula; and therefore the integration of ICT in education and learning remains largely un-initiated. There are no frameworks in place to guide the integration of ICTs into teaching and learning and the curriculum in its entirety has not been reviewed. Without review and overhaul of curriculum to integrate ICTs, their integration will only be an “add-on” and may consequently not have the desired transformational impact. The primary reasons for this were a lack of awareness, understanding, requisite skills and specific institutional or sectoral policy that would support the integration of ICTs in education.

The fundamental issues of ICT in Education development and integration cannot be resolved in isolation and therefore require a coordinated framework that establishes clear goals and priorities for reform. Zimbabwe does not have a dedicated National Policy on ICTs in Education.  ICT in education is loosely dealt with in the “Revised ICT Policy 2012” from the Ministry of ICT as a subsection on ‘E-education’.  It features in the Science and Technology Policy from the Ministry of Science and Technology on a paragraph on ICTs.   In the Ministry of Education and Culture Medium Term Plan (2011 – 2015) the use of ICT in Education is dealt with in a subsection on E-Learning and appears on various sections of the plan where it is captured via provision of computers etc to schools. It is not clear from these current policies, who institutionally cater for the programme of ICT in Education. It is therefore not surprising that the country is populated by a number of NGOs claiming to be spearheading ICT development in education in one way or another. However, without the shared vision of a dedicated national ICT in Education Policy, and a dedicated body to oversee its implementation, the efforts of NGOs and corporations may very well go in divergent directions or work at cross-purposes and their contributions to the nation’s education effort are more likely to be marginalized or even neutralized.

A targeted ICT in Education policy can open ways in which the sector can strategise and explore alternate affordable solutions. The country is faced with a situation where computer equipment is costly and electricity and connectivity coverage is limited, and it would be prudent to explore all available ICT options to determine the most feasible options to meeting the educational objectives set. The way forward would be to start by utilising the technology that we have, know how to use and can afford. For example, with the prevalence of mobile phones and radios in Zimbabwe, ways could be explored to determine how these could be used as an educational tool.

The development and integration of ICT in Education needs to be spear-headed by staff equipped with the specific skills for the role. It is clear that the skills and experiences in the areas of educational technology, ICT policy formulation and planning, e-learning, and digital content creation are a pre-requisite if education is going to benefit from this technology. Without these specific skills, critical areas in ICT integration are not attended to or insufficiently attended to, causing skewed development. Without education experts (with ICT and ICT integration knowledge and experience) in charge, ICT in Education initiatives are likely to be technology driven rather than being leveraged as tools to address specific education challenges. A dedicated ICT in Education Policy can focus on acquisition and development of these skills. Guidance and support to educational institutions can be clearly set up to enable them to make efficient use of ICT through implementation of plans to meet set targets. Even simple guidelines like standards are critical. In the absence of uniform standards and specifications institutions may acquire sub-standard equipment.

There is also a danger of lack of a clear policy and specific body for ICT in Education resulting in the issue becoming politicised or personalised at the expense of genuine development in the education sector, as was evidenced during the life of the GNU. The quest for political scores at the expense of progress emerged as one of the Achilles heels of the GNU. Zimbabwe’s case was exacerbated by the fact the two ‘responsible’ ministries (ICT and Education) were from across the two different MDCs whose relationship is as acrimonious as it is almost non-existent. The press was thus littered with announcements and promises from these ministries such as the promise for “solar-powered iPads to rural schools” from David Coltart which never materialised, “donation of 50 Computers to Kuwadzana” and “donation of 41 PCs to a Harare school” by Nelson Chamisa, to name but a few.  These political stunts which involved dumping hardware in schools and hoping that 'magic' will happen, without thinking about educational content,  using unproven technology  and single vendors without planning can only be a recipe for failure. Additionally, even if it is acknowledged that donations of equipment can be vital in helping to initiate an educational technology project, they can rarely be counted on to sustain one, due to dependence on outside expertise.

These donation stunts were in themselves quite ironic because these were some of the dissenting voices who were quick to criticise the Presidential initiatives; labelling them political, but were here found to be personalising the issue of ICT in education. These uncoordinated efforts, parallel structures and individualisation of government efforts all appeared to be cases of individuals trying to gain cheap political and personal mileage out of the issue of ICT in Education with nothing of substance being achieved in the end. A typical example of misplaced priorities, and glory seeking escapades was thet trip to South Korea by David Coltart to recruit 6 Maths and Science teachers; instead of using the scarce resources to create better working conditions for local teachers. Zimbabwe has very good maths and science teachers locally and in the Diaspora and efforts should be directed at attracting these teachers back to the profession.

This political grandstanding and mileage seeking behaviour could be further evidenced by the fact that the ‘Education Medium Term Policy’ was not on the Ministry of Education’s website but could be found on David Coltart’s personal page. The latter was well maintained in comparison with the former website. The Ministry of Education website lacked useful digital content and hardly inspired confidence in the nation that this Ministry was capable of spearheading the ICT revolution in Education; this should be addressed. For example, the scandal of temporary teachers’ application forms being sold (they should be free) could have been avoided by simply having downloadable forms available on the website. Similar shortcomings in the Ministry of ICT were highlighted by this author, in an article published in the Sunday Mail on 13 January 2013. However to its credit, the Ministry revamped its website and revised its poorly crafted and plagiarised ICT Policy.

Going forward and having observed the multi-faceted challenges we are facing in Education, it appeared the outgoing ministry tasked with multiple responsibilities (Education plus Sports and Culture) was incapable or lacked the required dedicated focus to achieve the ICT in Education goals. In all fairness, the minister who was responsible, David Coltart was probably much better at giving a ball by ball commentary on his personal Twitter/Facebook  page of a Zimbabwe cricket match, as opposed to say tackling the much more important issues of a clear cut ICT in Education policy and developing relevant curricula, for example. Given the emerging challenges in education brought by the ICT revolution, consideration should be made for taking away some of the ministerial functions in the next government and have a ministry dedicated only to Education return.

With the state of the education system in Zimbabwe, it is acknowledged that some of the efforts from NGOs, individuals and other well-wishers are providing much needed help in this sector. However their efforts could reap better results if these were co-ordinated by a central body with enough expertise in the area. Without the guidance of a specific national policy and the resources of corollary programs, it is less likely that individual school and classroom innovations will be sustained. Nor is it likely individual effects will accrue across the country to have an overall impact on the educational system.  The country might end up, again, with a loose fragmented policy which is techno-centric, promoting the purchase of equipment or the training of teachers without providing a strong educational purpose or goal for the use of technology. The mere establishment of a written national ICT in Education policy has value in itself. At a minimum, it conveys the message that the government is forward-looking and intends to pursue the utilization of ICT in Education.

The government should try to create circles of innovation through co-ordinated strategies on broadband deployment, PC purchase programmes, digital literacy programmes and on-line e-service provisioning. While each of these components has value in isolation, a network effect in education can only be achieved through co-management and evolution strategies. The government should, of course, aspire to more by putting the policy content into actual practice and becoming a role model in applying ICT in their own administration and services.

It should be noted that the full realization of the potential educational benefits of ICTs is not automatic. The effective integration of ICTs into the educational system is a complex, multifaceted process that involves not just technology. Given enough initial capital, acquiring computers for example, is the easiest part. In order to make successful use of ICT in enhancing the quality of teaching and learning, policy makers need to be aware of how ICT can be of best value in the country's education system, and need to develop a supportive policy environment and framework at the national level for its integration. It is urged that the incoming government prioritises ICT in Education in order to reap the benefits of technology. This will require appropriate investment, and it has to be systematic and well planned.

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