Sarah Anyang Agbor reflects on the challenges posed by COVID-19 in Africa and asks how lifelong learning can help the continent respond
Lifelong learning has an essential part to play in shaping the future of our societies. This ambition is reflected in the African Union’s Agenda 2063 vision of ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa driven by competent citizens able to play in the global arena’. One of the aspirations of Agenda 2063 is to catalyze an education and skills revolution and actively promote science, technology, research and innovation, with the ultimate aim of building knowledge, human resources, capabilities and skills for Africa’s future. By making universal, lifelong access to quality education a reality, it aims to drive Africa’s economic and technological transformation.
The spread of COVID-19 across Africa has prompted countries to introduce mitigation measures such as border closures and social distancing. These interventions are having a negative impact on already-weak health and education systems, not to mention supply chains, markets and food systems. The lockdown has also affected day-to-day social life in African, particularly in rural areas where means of online communication is limited.
Before the emergence of COVID-19, education systems in Africa were facing critical challenges in terms of access, quality and relevance, especially for marginalized young people living in deprived communities, people living in refugee settlements and those in areas of armed conflict. COVID-19 is exacerbating the learning crisis on the continent, threatening unfathomable losses to learning and the development of human capital. The longer schools remain closed, the harder it will be for children and young people to catch up and enjoy a healthy transition to adulthood. Children who drop out of school not only face a higher risk of child marriage, child labour and teenage pregnancy, but will also experience a precipitous decline in potential lifetime earnings, while losing their chance to participate fully in the continent’s development.
School closures, however, need not mean that children cannot continue to learn. COVID-19 has created a sense of urgency in creating and expanding opportunities to learn at home and in transforming Africa’s education systems to respond to the ongoing crisis and move beyond it. The crisis has also had an impact on lifelong learning, including on attitudes to learning. Many individuals have used the lockdown to further their learning and enhance their capacity to adjust to this new environment. For example, in areas where a communication infrastructure is in place, people are much more likely to share their individual and collective experiences through social media than they were previously.
The African Union and its 55 member states have been at the heart of these developments and have been proactive in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The African Union Commission (AUC) called a virtual meeting of the Bureau of the Specialized Technical Committee on Education, Science and Technology on 9 April 2020 and a Virtual Extraordinary STC-EST Ministerial Meeting on 30 April. These meetings explored alternative ways of learning and possible short- and long-term responses to the threat posed by COVID-19 to the education system.
One important outcome was the adoption by ministers of the African Education Science Technology and Innovation Response to COVID-19. In the education sector, the response calls for coordinated action among African countries:
- to ensure continuous schooling and learning online and offline, particularly for vulnerable children, girls, people with disabilities and people in deprived communities without access to electricity and internet;
- to document the impact of school closures on girls and vulnerable children, and other vulnerable groups, to collect good practices, and to monitor learning engagement, with a view to facilitating inter-country learning and up-scaling of good practices.
COVID-19 has prompted communities to invest in internet infrastructure and to facilitate broadband connectivity coverage for all education institutions, schools, universities and colleges, particularly those in rural areas. Communities have also invested in remote learning and teaching platforms and tools using digital technologies and traditional media such as radio and television, and called for temporary access to free data and education content available through Telecom companies and other digital service providers such as search engines.
The AUC has supported this by mobilizing the commitment of development partners to support AU member states in providing online and distance learning. Concrete agreements have been reached with UNICEF, Hewlett Packard and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, with other initiatives in the pipeline. The Pan African Virtual and E-University (PAVEU) has launched online courses, including in media and information literacy, and the AUC is supporting the development of further courses, in collaboration with the African Virtual University.
Gender is a priority for development in Africa. The African Union International Centre for Girls’ and Women’s Education in Africa (AU/CIEFFA) has convened two multi-stakeholder webinars to discuss initiatives undertaken at grassroots, national and regional levels to address the impact of COVID-19 on girls’ and women’s education. AU member states, education practitioners, development partners and youth discussed the social and psychological impact of school closures on girls and young women and shared their experiences of implementing continuous learning initiatives. Key recommendations were formulated for gender-sensitive education responses to COVID-19 and catch-up strategies for when schools re-open.
As lifelong learning represents a strategy for accelerated and flexible education to meet the needs of the continent, AU member states have been urged to ensure the continuity of learning based on the DOTSS (Digital connectivity, Online and offline learning, Teachers as facilitators and motivators of learning, Safety online and in schools and Skills focused learning) approach through the following actions:
- Digital connectivity of schools: Support schools and other learning institutions in becoming hubs for providing internet access in deprived communities.
- Online learning: Provide distance learning content, deploying radio, TV, podcasts and online learning.
- Teachers as facilitators and motivators of learning: Teachers should deploy relevant technologies, such as webinars, to engage and motivate learners to learn. All ministries should provide guidelines and support to parents for home schooling.
- Safety online and offline: As more children use the internet for learning, they become increasingly vulnerable to online sexual exploitation and abuse. Ministries should provide guidelines and tools for online safety.
- Skills focused learning: The curriculum should embrace the 360° approach to skills development combining foundational, digital, twenty-first century, entrepreneurial and job-specific skills.
Member states are also encouraged to focus on increasing learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and technical and vocational education and training (TVET), which will add enhance employability and the capacity of people on the move to contribute to building economies when they eventually settle.
Young people, of course, are another important target group and the AUC has supported them through, for example, a health campaign to improve self-care and the promotion of learning initiatives to provide opportunities for online/continued learning. All these initiatives involve mobilizing, orienting conversations with and support for young people in taking action.
Only by joining our efforts can we hope to fight this pandemic on the African continent and ensure that learning does not stop for children, young people and adults alike. The African Union has taken a variety of measures to work towards this common goal, with the support of private companies and development partners. This is important and I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of all our partners. One hand cannot tie a bundle!
Ms Sarah Anyang Agbor is Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology, African Union , and a member of UIL’s Governing Board