Leaving no one behind: technology and the education sector response to COVID-19 in Rwanda
By Ernest Ngabonzima, Roberte Isimbi, Marie Merci Mwali, Arnaldo Pellini
A swift policy response
When COVID-19 reached Rwanda, the Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) was quick to shut schools and make use of technology to support and enable distance learning. This includes e-learning platforms and the use of private and public media channels. The first teaching radio programmes were introduced just two weeks after the schools closed, followed quickly by TV programmes. The content of these TV and radio programmes includes learning materials presented as written text, audio, images, animation and streamed video content for pre-primary, primary and secondary level children. Data suggests that these programmes reach 70% of primary school students and 11% of secondary school students. One of the reasons for this low number among secondary school students is that most of the secondary subjects are broadcast via TV, rather than radio, as television ownership is low (10%) in the country.
The Government also used technology to inform parents and learners about distance learning arrangements. This included news items on radio channels, television and in newspapers, tweets and announcements on the MINEDUC website, and SMS messages to people’s personal phones.
Despite efforts to have all subjects remotely taught, the satisfaction of learners is still questionable. The government has decided that the school year will be repeated when schools resume. This decision raises concerns as to whether learners are motivated to take part in distance learning, especially the older ones, and educationalists suspected this to also be one of the reasons why only a low number of secondary students are following the distance learning.
Technology for distance learning reaches only some households
The Government is committed to providing universal access to compulsory and free basic education, enshrined in its Education for All policy and the Nine and Twelve Years of Basic Education policy. But in a country where 36.7% of its population is living in poverty, it is important to reflect on whether distance learning and the technology on which it relies reach all students.
In Rwanda, while 74% of the households own a radio, only 10% of households own a TV set and just 3% own a computer. Overall, just 27% of all households have continuous electricity – most of which (85%) are located in urban areas. Only 17% of households (also usually in urban areas) have internet access.
The COVID-19 crisis has spurred on innovations to expand electricity and radio and TV programmes to households across the country. For example, in Rulindo District, Save the Children has provided 950 households with solar-energy-enabled radio devices. This shows progress in increasing access to radio. However, the concern is still about TV access which is still low and lower secondary level students are expected to be learning via TV channels.
The challenge of reaching learners with disabilities
Rwanda is committed to ensuring that learners with disabilities enjoy their right to education (SNE policy). Recent statistics indicate that 1% of learners enrolled in primary and secondary school have some type or level of disability. Pre-COVID-19, learners with disabilities are supported through classroom arrangement, assistive devices and timetable setting to cater for their different needs (SNE SP).
During the COVID-19 crisis, the MINEDUC has tested different ways to continue supporting learners with disabilities. For instance, lessons broadcast on TV and via e-learning platforms have sign language interpretation, while learners with visual impairments are expected to access lessons delivered via radio programmes. However, these approaches reach only a small number of learners with disabilities. For example, learners with visual disabilities complain about the lack of braille-translated materials. The government is struggling to reach more learners with disabilities, in part because of the quick transition to distance learning.
How sustainable is remote learning for Rwanda’s students?
The education sector’s response to COVID-19 has been impressive. Not only was the response fast but efforts were also taken to make the response inclusive. Different stakeholders have worked together to deliver a holistic approach, and the government is experimenting and adapting its programme and support in real-time.
This experimentation and adaptation will be critical to understanding whether Rwanda’s swift policy response ultimately resulted in positive experiences for learners. It will be important for policymakers to collect data on learners’ ability to access learning experiences, their uptake of available resources over time, and how much they are learning. By understanding these outcomes and adjusting approaches accordingly, Rwanda can better understand the role that technology might play in education in the long-term with a focus on sustainability and ‘building back better’ in the post-COVID era.