The success of the various initiatives offering online lessons for pupils and students will be determined by two factors — access and affordability.
What has been quite evident over the past month is that the introduction of online lessons/lectures by various institutions in the country represents one creative way out of the predicament precipitated by the advent of the coronavirus infectious disease-19 (Covid-19).
However, as with most things, celebration of this capacity to think around obstacles, is dented by the realisation that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all panacea.
Responses from students and their representatives speak of the emergence of a divide — there are students who can access online lessons/lectures, but there are others facing difficulties with this development in the manner lessons are being delivered to them.
The first point is that this development is taking place against a background of real economic challenges the majority of households face as a result of not being at work and therefore being able to draw a regular income with which to fend for families.
The country has been in lockdown since the end of March.
And at the weekend, President Mnangagwa announced that the lockdown would continue indefinitely, albeit with fortnightly reviews of the situation. Certain sectors of the economy can re-open. The rest will wait until the country is certain that the risk of the virus spreading has effectively been contained or eliminated.
Sources of income have been disrupted, impacting the ability of families to support their children at schools or institutions of higher learning.
What appears to be emerging is, on the one hand, a divide between a section of society that can afford, while on the other, there is a majority that is finding it increasingly difficult to cope under these challenging circumstances.
The first hurdle therefore is affordability in the sense of resources to fund data for students to access and research their homework/assignments.
Admittedly, one mobile network operator has devised a proposal for institutions and students to access lessons and lectures. But students believe even that is not providing an egalitarian way of accessing lessons/lectures.
The suggestion to the mobile network operators, appears to be that there is need to go back to the drawing board, and where possible involve stakeholders, the regulator — the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) — the Government and consumer representatives.
Never has the absence of a proactive consumer body been felt than in the current circumstances. The last, it will be recalled, was in the early 1990s when Professor Norman Nyazema, then at the University of Zimbabwe, headed such an organisation best known for its activism on behalf of consumers.
The fear among students is the creation of a gap between the technology empowered and communities excluded from access to such technology in continuing with their education.
Apart from the cost of data and affordability of devices which enable students to access online lessons/lectures, there are challenges with connectivity in certain areas of the country.
This digital divide — the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet and those who do not — is amplified by failure to access educational institutions as a result of closure or Covid-19 restrictions on movement, which means students are unable to travel from their homes to their schools, colleges or universities to access libraries.
While the immediate fear is that this emerging digital divide can give rise to one class of people with access to the Internet, on the one hand and another unable to use or benefit from the technology, telecommunications companies ought to see this as an opportunity for growth of their businesses.
Here’s how: they could reduce the cost of accessing service for students now so that they take everyone on board, but develop devices that are specific to the requirements of the education sector as a future investment. The cost of devices could be inbuilt into tuition fees, or alternatively payment could be offered spread over a period and thus lesson the burden on students.
Imagine the amount of business they will have once the economy picks up if every pupil, student and others could afford the devices. For example, there could be devices for pupils, students and the post-student demographic with upgrades to the devices.
It is precisely this thinking that was responsible for computer companies cheering the possible uptake of computers on the continent. It was the knowledge of the unlimited business opportunities that awaited their companies as the continent became computer literate.
There is, therefore, need for appreciation by all stakeholders that bridging the digital divide is also a fundamental human right central to the exercise of free expression and access to information that empowers citizens to make informed choices and decisions in their daily lives.
Consequently, Internet access and affordability are pressing issues that service providers and other critical stakeholders and the Government need to address to give effect to the constitutional provision that provides for the right to access to information.
Internet access and affordability are key to the success of online lessons/lectures. They are a fundamental human right. They should therefore not be seen as a luxury.