The Promise And The Challenges of Virtual Education

Updated: Jul 29, 2021



The analysis addresses the urgent issue during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, namely, virtual schools and distance learning. Not surprisingly, many countries of the world were not ready to shift resources to sustain economic development and provide students with equipment to continue their education at home. Cameroon is the country that was seriously affected during this pandemic period, and the previous problems contributed to the disastrous situation that the Cameroonian government has to face right now. Not only is it the lack of computers, but also is the problem with electricity and lack of resources in distant areas. The paper tried to come with conclusions on how to tackle the challenges of virtual schools and make e-learning possible.


Introduction


During the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide lockdown, the problems of distance learning and virtual schools have become a burning issue. Many countries around the world lack both resources and capabilities to provide an adequate level of distance education. There is a sharp difference between home-schooling and virtual schools: in the former type, parents take the burden of tutors to their children, whereas in the latter school teachers manage the learning process from a distance. As a consequence, there is a constant dissatisfaction that children at home should be supervised by parents despite the fact that they have to go to work. What is more, some families do not have 2 or more gadgets to provide all their children with the learning equipment as far as the children study at the same time. But during the pandemic virtual schools have appeared not as an opportunity but a necessity, and millions of people had to overcome the challenges that virtual education brought. Cameroon is not an exception, and the global lockdown revealed the urgent necessity to develop facilities for virtual schools. Cameroon with more than 300 deaths and 15.000 confirmed cases of coronavirus was among the most affected countries in the Sub-Saharan region. One of the main problems that the government had to face is how to continue education without face-to-face communication. As a result, the issue of virtual schools and distance learning has become among the most important. The goal of this paper is to critically assess how to implement the concept of virtual schools in low-resources areas and how to organise the workflow in such a way that the quality of education does not deteriorate.

In this paper, the methodological part includes descriptive qualitative research (analysis of non-numerical data like texts or opinions) with an emphasis on the previous studies. One of the main sources of analysis will be the recent study made by Beche (2020) who extensively interpreted the solutions both pedagogical and governmental that were put in place. The author of this paper also had direct contact with people who were in charge of the Cameroonian teaching system and incorporated the interviews with them in his research. Population and sampling are limited to Cameroon students’ population. At the very end of the paper, there will be discussions and interpretations of the findings.


Challenges of Virtual Schools in general


Virtual schools are defined as “a form of schooling that uses online computers to provide some or all of a student's education” (Russell, 2004). In recent times this type of school is gaining popularity because of globalisation (countries’ interdependence among the number of domains due to free flow of goods, information and people across the borders), thus, technology made it possible for ill children, disabled people or just kids from remote areas to have a chance of getting a degree. But this pure idea is disrupted at the very first steps of its implementation: such a giant project requires massive investments, though for developed countries the cybersphere is a natural part of the society, the rest of the world does not even have internet in the vast majority of cities. But before analysing the whole range of challenges, it is crucial to highlight the positive sides of virtual schools. As it is planned, students take the virtual course and, therefore, they do not stick to a strict schedule. This freedom of manoeuvre allows students to have a part-time job or spend more time on leisure activities and professional sports. Moreover, this type of education does not pressure students to submit homework at a particular time and teachers are available during the day for help. Another most evident advantage is the ability of ill children to have an opportunity of equal access to education like other peers. However, there are also challenges that countries have to come up against like the issue of cybersecurity: personal data are vulnerable to hacker attacks, as a result, both teachers and students sometimes face intimidation and manipulation. To make this point clear, a malicious user may have access to a student’s computer or determine the place of their residence and use this information for illegal purposes. Another challenge is the fact that very young pupils would find it difficult to cope with virtual schools on their own without the help of parents, meaning that parents either have to stay at home without a job or hire a nanny - both options are highly impossible in an average family. What is more, the government should tackle the problem of the lack of computers to be provided to each student. Besides these purely financial reasons, many professors and teachers also believe that virtual schools mean poor performance of the learning process and no possibility to capture cheating, so, the overall progress is unclear.


An Example of Cameroon


Starting with a brief overview, Cameroon is a country located on the African continent and shares the borders with 5 other countries: Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, Chad and Nigeria. The capital of Cameroon is Yaounde which is located in the south of the country. The country’s religious population consists of both Christians and Muslims, in the rough proportion of 7:3. The population of Cameroon is rather young, the average age is about 18 y.o., with roughly only 55% of the population living in urban areas. It is also crucial to understand the political division of the country, Cameroon has urban communities, urban districts, towns with special status, 11 urban communes and 305 rural communes. Communities are viewed as an important social element; the government emphasises their role even in tackling extremism and numerous campaigns are launched to help the outsiders or offenders integrate back into communities.


A colonial background of Cameroon is crucial to understand the peculiarities of the modern educational system, as the territory was divided between French and British sides, the educational system followed the same pattern. There are also local dialects and languages, but it is impossible to incorporate them in the educational system as so many of them exist, and both teachers and students would have difficulties in understanding each other (besides other cross-national clashes). It is also important to point out that the proportion of girls at schools is less due to early marriages, home responsibilities, pregnancy and other social and cultural biases; Nevertheless, many boys also cannot attend school because they have to work hard in order to feed and bring up their siblings. Education has become compulsory since 2000 and the population of youth grew, which demanded new schools and infrastructure. Even though education was not free, the question of inappropriate conditions of school buildings is urgent. Problems with toilets, access to water tapes and lack of school furniture are not resolved successfully. What is more, those school fees (for books, anti-malaria preventive measures, uniforms) are still unaffordable for many families, not to mention secondary schools and tertiary education. A quick look at the picture (1) below is necessary to understand that in the South of the country, children tend to have better education and, as a consequence, higher levels of literacy. In the next section, we are going to analyse the topic of this paper, namely, digital equipment across the country, necessary for distance learning.




Distance learning

Because of the preventive measures in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Cameroon more than 31.000 schools with an overall number of 6 million students were closed (UNSDG, 2020). Scholars believe that such measures, though necessary, but damaging, as in the long run, the economic and educational situation may have catastrophic consequences for the world, and Cameroon, particularly. Human capital and economic development are two of the most essential features that determine the wellbeing of the country, so the world community got stuck with the problem of not letting the pandemic ruin the economy and social welfare. One of the solutions was to move both the workers and students to home and make them do their business from a distance. Distance learning means the continuation of a learning process from the place where a pupil lives without physical attendance of a school, including the usage of various media, a two-way communication, and a possibility of having the same level of teachers’ attention comparable to that during the traditional education. The questions that were discussed at the governmental level are: how to ensure continuity of education, how to eliminate or at least not worsen the existing inequalities and how to arrange the exam stage so students could proceed to the next level of their academic path. Due to the considerable lack of digital devices and equipment, most of the schools in Cameroon could not afford distance learning on the Internet, on such platforms as Skype or Zoom, so they had to implement Radio Education, meaning oral lectures and training for children. Those implementations of paper-based materials, Radio and TV revealed the problems in disorganization, expulsion and inequality that students had to come up against.


According to the map below (2), across the country there are international organisations and other partners that assist Cameroon in implementing distance learning, most of them are located in Fako, Boyo, Meme and Mezam. Further analysis on this issue showed that the capacity of partners mostly depends on the proportion of funding. An astonishing number of 50,000 children are reached by distance learning, which is a very low indicator, but the situation may improve even if more material resources will be financed in this domain. But another issue arises: according to the Corruption Perception Index of 2019, Cameroon was placed on the 153rd out of 180 places among the world countries, meaning corruption is a serious problem in the country, and most of the organisations may not be eager to send financial aid if they have doubts whether it will be really allocated for the initial purposes. Even though there are many problems, there are talented young Cameroonians that create platforms for their fellow students, so they could study from home using computers and tablets. Just to name a few of them: EduAir, Ohipopo online learning platform, and Sims - all of them are created to be additional assistants in a learning process with the high-level content and tools to link students, teachers and schools’ administration. The individual contribution was of high importance to continue education, and many initiatives were launched not by the authorities, but by ordinary people. For instance, the app called SchoolMobile was launched by a Cameroonian who lives in Canada, with the help of this digital application millions of kids around the African states could have access to additional materials. Nevertheless, this app still costs money, and hardly the majority could ever afford it. However, as this pandemic situation affected everyone, even politicians and professors contributed to the education and either provided private lessons to children or paid for printed materials to be distributed among the local students.


Speaking about the implemented initiatives, one of them is called “School on TV”, which means that according to the schedule for both the French and-English speaking population, students have to sit in front of the TV and listen to appointed teachers, making notes whenever necessary. The lessons have to be interactive, so students could ask their questions via SMS. Nevertheless, this initiative gained little success as the level of preparedness was different and answers to the questions were chaotic since they were not answered immediately. What is more, the problem with electricity supply made it impossible to predict whether the classes will be held as both teachers and students were in the same conditions of uncertainty and need (according to the data, 45% of Cameroonians do not have access to electricity on a regular basis, meaning that those students cannot continue education at all until the situation with COVID-19 improves). For those families who cannot afford TV, online classes were held via Radio, and pupils could phone the teachers and ask questions. But other facilities including Zoom sessions, online learning platforms and messengers were implemented only at the level of tertiary education which is more common to rich families as only they could afford to pay for this, later, their children tend to move to other countries for life and work.

Solutions


As it has been discussed above, Cameroon lacks both material and digital capabilities to implement distance learning on its territory, and the situation with the COVID-19 required a fast introduction of equipment that Cameroon does not possess. Low-resources areas pose a major problem as infrastructure projects are spread unevenly throughout the country. What is more, the shocking 37% of the population live below the poverty line, meaning a lack of money for essential goods not even for such luxury as education. The considerable mismatch between the South and the North, urban and rural areas, rich and poor families, girls and boys in the classes - all of that intensified deep cleavages. As it is evaluated by world scholars, the pandemic revealed weakness in the health domain, economy and education across all African states, so the problem is not unique only for Cameroon. According to the Cameroonian laws, children should be granted equal rights and opportunities in education, but during the COVID-19 times, the situation seems to be the opposite.


Concerning the solutions to the problems described above, this paper claims that it is crucial to have joint efforts in dealing with this question. From the perspective of the government, it is important to increase the fundraising in the education domain for equipment, teachers’ training and improving the local conditions making them appropriate for electricity and Internet connection. The main challenge of virtual schools is the fact that for the majority of the population even traditional education is not available, and Cameroon does not possess enough resources to make online platforms a part of the educational processes. What is more, there is an insufficient level of digitalization across the country and a lack of computers and tablets to be provided for all students, making someone more privileged in this sense. As one of the recommendations to be claimed is implementing step-by-step integration of digital software from urban to rural areas once the regions’ capacity will be enough to receive those innovations. Virtual schools may be necessary for students who want to study abroad as most of the top-world universities have online bachelor’s programmes and online courses for African students.


From the parents’ perspective, it is of crucial importance that parents could spend their time at home, supervising children. It is evident that young pupils should not be left alone at home because of security issues, but what is more, the government of Cameroon advised parents to serve as teachers and discuss the lessons together. What is more, parents are important for not allowing their kids to panic and stress due to isolation and lack of communication with fellow students. But as many parents are involved in manual labour, they cannot simply stay at home as otherwise, they will not be able to feed their families, which is even harder at times of global economic crisis. One of the solutions is the supervision of these kids by the communities. It is a scientifically proven statement that children without innate weaknesses are not vulnerable to the illness contrary to their parents and grandparents, so they may study together, but they should be separated from their families. Even though it may be hard for them to leave their homes and live at school, it is only a temporary measure that will help students to continue the educational process and be able to gain a qualification. It should be up to the parents to decide whether their kids really need this diploma, as the majority of the population after school will remain in their districts and be involved in manual labour sectors. But those who opt for studying at the university understand that even ½ of the year is harmful for the overall assimilation of the studying materials.


Conclusion

This paper aimed to analyse how to approach the issue of virtual schools in the context of Cameroon. The interplay of factors complicated the analysis, as Cameroon is a developing country and does not have enough resources and material capabilities to implement virtual schools on a regular basis. COVID-19 pandemic revealed the weaknesses in the system that should be improved to make virtual schools real. Parents and communities have also been vulnerable to challenges that virtual schools provide such as non-supervised children at home. The government should implement a number of measures to solve those issues as well as purchase new equipment for students to be provided. Changes are still yet to come, and the global economic crisis makes changes impossible in the nearest future. Before virtual schools become reality, progressive changes should be made in almost all spheres, for this purpose, the world community should be addressed as otherwise, the Cameroonian economy will not sustain such a burden alone.



Bibliography


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Data on Cameroon’s population https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/cameroon-population/


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http://www.crtv.cm/2020/04/e-learninglist-of-some-educational-digital-platforms-to-learn-while-at-home/


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The official website of the Commonwealth organisation https://thecommonwealth.org/our-member-countries/cameroon


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