Education, digital skills acquisition and learning during COVID-19 in Nigeria
Schools in Nigeria were closed between March 2020 and October 2020 to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This prompted various forms of alternative learning modes to be implemented by state governments, private education providers and parents across the country. The Education Partnership (TEP) Centre and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) conducted an online survey between April and May 2020 to document the responses of key education stakeholders in Nigeria, and reported on the adoption of remote learning alternatives by students and parents in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Respondents – government officials, teachers, private organisations, private school representatives, parents and students – completed the survey online and via telephonic interviews. There were 1901 respondents across 35 of the 36 states in Nigeria, including the Federal Capital Territory.
In this article, I synthesise findings from the survey, and other research papers that used this data, to examine the inequality in digital skills acquisition as a result of remote learning during the pandemic. I discuss the stakeholders’ responses to learning remotely, the opportunities and challenges encountered, and the unequal opportunities for digital skills acquisition among different socio-economic groups.
Stakeholders’ responses to learning
Government and non-state providers: In some states, technology-based learning modes were implemented by governments to ensure that learning continued remotely. Over 70% of the responses from state government officials reported that their states had implemented television and radio-based learning alternatives. On the other hand, non-state education providers implemented more high-tech alternatives like learning via social media, online courses, websites, and mobile phone applications. The scope for innovation was broadened for many local education-technology organisations and the adaptation to alternative learning was quick and targeted to mainly students in primary and secondary schools.
Teachers: Teachers' responses to teaching during school closures differed depending on who their employers were. While many reported that their students were not actively learning at the time of the survey, the majority of teachers teaching in public schools reported that their students were learning via radio and television programmes. However, not all teachers were required to take part in the recording and implementing of radio and television-based learning. In private schools on the other hand, teachers were mostly teaching online via virtual learning platforms and utilising tools like Google Classroom, Zoom and mobile phone applications. The differences between a teacher’s school type and how they were teaching remotely were found to be statistically significant. While government school teachers reported radio and television programmes as the method of teaching, private school teachers were either teaching using virtual learning platforms, supporting parents with home-schooling or teaching students in their homes.
Parents and students: Parents became the major facilitators of learning for their children during the lockdown and majority of the respondents in the survey reported that they were supporting their children’s learning through helping them access online programmes, reading to them, encouraging them to read books and educational content as well as downloading materials for their children online. Students were learning through various sources. Those attending private schools were mostly learning via online platforms, utilising laptops and other mobile devices which required internet access while those in public schools reported that they were mostly utilising radios, television and mobile applications.
Continuing education remotely posed some challenges. On the one hand, teachers had challenges getting access to student data and assessing children to understand whether they were learning during the pandemic. Parents faced challenges such as cost of internet data, electricity supply, limited internet access and poor internet quality, student concentration and the lack of a physical presence of a teacher to guide, give feedback and answer questions. Parents also had challenges providing devices (laptops and mobile phones) and understanding the platforms that their children were supposed to utilise for learning remotely. Overall, there were significant financial implications for parents to support their children’s learning remotely and also knowledge gaps, as parents’ abilities to take on the role of teachers during the pandemic was tied to their educational levels. As researchers have reported, the more educated a parent was, the more likely they were to be supporting their children’s learning.
Conversely, the pandemic also led to opportunities within the education sector in Nigeria. One identified by the study was innovative partnerships between the government and non-state providers of education. TEP Centre found that 42% of government officials in the study reported that the learning interventions implemented in their states were funded through private partners. Partnerships between state governments and technology companies such as Microsoft, financial institutions and telecommunication operators were deployed to support the continuation of learning in states such as Lagos. Private sector education providers in the education technology sector also took on opportunities to both roll out new learning platforms and scale previously implemented remote learning modules. For parents and their children, the major opportunity identified was accelerated digital skills acquisition. When asked to rate the effectiveness of the remote learning tools, one parent whose children were utilising online learning platforms (Zoom and Google Classroom) reported: "It's actually engaging for students and helps them to develop skills, internet savvy."
Some teachers reported that they received training by their employers to be able to learn how to use online tools and other applications for remote teaching. Some parents also reported that their children were becoming internet savvy and rapidly picking up digital skills. The question, however, remains: which groups of people (teachers and students) benefitted from the expansion and higher adoption of digital learning and digital skills acquisition? The research revealed that the accelerated digital skills acquisition for both teachers and students was not a “universal” experience, as there was a clear digital divide reported from the responses of both teachers and learners.
Unequal opportunities for digital skills acquisition
With regard to the teachers surveyed, two clear cases of the different ways they approached teaching remotely is identified in a forthcoming study by Adebayo et al. When asked what resources their employers provided for them to teach remotely, one private school teacher said:
"My employer provides me with data and laptop. This is what we have been using before the lockdown so we just continued. She constantly top[s] up the data to enable us to research on other creative ways to teach children from our homes."
In contrast, a public school teacher reported that their employer provided:
"Timing for the various learning programmes on local radio and television stations as well as making relevant free learning websites available for interested students, teachers and parents."
Due to the type of teaching and teaching tools adopted for remote learning, it is inevitable that different groups will acquire different skill sets from teaching via different platforms. Many more teachers in public schools reported that the state government provided TV and radio schedules in contrast to private school teachers, who reported more hands-on digital tools like laptops and internet bundles. This indicates the existence of unequal digital skills acquisition opportunities for both the teachers and their students. For context, students attending public schools in Nigeria are more likely to be from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and face already existing inequalities like poor teaching quality and lower learning outcomes. They are also more likely to face other socio-economic inequalities like having less educated parents, limited access to electricity and poor technological infrastructure.
With regard to the students surveyed, Azubuike et al also reported a digital divide along the lines of the type of school students attended, reflecting their socio-economic status. The probability that a student reported that they were engaging academically during the lockdown increased by up to 12 percentage points if they were private school students. The probability that a student reported that they faced challenges learning remotely reduced by 11 percentage points if they were private school students. In examining access to digital tools, students in government schools were more likely to report that access to digital tools was the main challenge they faced learning remotely. Even though most of the respondents had challenges accessing digital tools, there were more public students who reported this as their main challenge than their private school counterparts.
When asked about what they needed to learn the way they wanted to during the lockdown, students who attended public schools were more likely to say that they needed digital tools than their counterparts in private schools. On the other hand, private school students were more likely to report that they had all they needed to learn the way they wanted. This was corroborated in the findings of the teachers: 77% of teachers in public schools reported that their students did not have adequate access to the resources they needed to learn compared to 45% in private schools. One parent who had one child in a private school and another in a public school summarised the experience as follows:
"I do not have electricity to follow the radio program which plays in the afternoon for Jss1-3, it means my daughter will not learn for that day, and I hardly have light [electricity] in the afternoons. I was also hoping the …state government will do better than the public schools system, but my daughter in private school (Primary 4) seems to be learning more within this period."
These findings provide evidence that not all students or teachers were able to adequately learn, teach or use digital tools to adapt to the new learning environment. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been termed the ‘great accelerator’ of digital transformation, many teachers and students in Nigeria have not been carried on this digital skills acquisition train. The effect of the pandemic was a universal experience; the inherent opportunities were not. Teachers who benefited from the digital transformation were more likely those teaching in private schools, specifically private schools who were implementing learning alternatives using digital tools and the internet. Students who benefitted from this digital transformation were also more likely to be attending the private schools who were offering teaching via digital alternatives. Their counterparts who were learning via radio and TV programmes did not only not acquire the digital skills, but also faced other forms of inequalities like electricity shortages and the inability of their parents to fill in the gaps brought on by the pandemic and school closures.
The implications of the findings point clearly at inequality. The opportunity to develop critical digital skills is relevant for 21st century social mobility, education, and employment opportunities. These have not been accessible to a group that already face multifaceted inequalities and gaps. As young people transition from primary to secondary school and to university, the importance of acquiring digital skills becomes even more important. In recent years, Nigeria’s Higher Education (HE) application and entrance examination processes have been digitised, which have raised concerns regarding inequalities in access to HE. Policy implications are clear, and government and education stakeholders have work to do around closing existing education gaps in Nigeria and ensuring that emergencies such as global pandemics do not further exacerbate the learning gaps in the education system. One-size-fits-all policies will not address multidimensional issues. Differentiated policy measures that consider different groups and their socioeconomic realities are needed. Even though schools in Nigeria reopened in January this year and traditional learning has resumed, the digital skills acquired during school closures hold potential for keeping those students who acquired it ahead of those who did not.
Adebayo, S., Quadri, G., Igah, S., & Azubuike, O. B. (forthcoming). Teaching in a Lockdown: To What Extent Did School Types Affect Teachers' Capacity To Teach Remotely During The COVID-19 School Closures In Nigeria? African Education Review
Azubuike, O. B., Adegboye, O., & Quadri, H. (2021). Who gets to learn in a pandemic? Exploring the digital divide in remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria. International Journal of Educational Research Open, 2-2, 100022.
Azubuike, O., & Aina, B. (2020). How parents are supporting their children’s learning during the Covid-19 pandemic in Nigeria.
Nlebem, A. (2020, March 19). FG orders closure of all schools in Nigeria as coronavirus spreads. Business Day.
ReliefWeb (2021). National Survey on School Resumption during COVID-19 Pandemic.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.
(Main image: A teacher measures the temperatures of pupils at the gate to Obele-Odan Nursery and primary schools in Surulere in Lagos, Nigeria, on 18 January 2021. Primary and secondary schools, including private schools across the country have resumed for the second term of the 2020/2021 academic year. Meanwhile state-owned schools in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, are to maintain shift systems introduced last year to avoid large gathering of students for the enforcement of social and physical distancing as measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. - Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)