BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — It’s almost noon, and Bekezela Ndlovu has just a few minutes to get to class. Wearing a gray sweater and red face mask, the 11-year-old rummages around his house for his notebook and headphones, races outside and plops onto a plastic chair under a tree — inside, the TV might distract him. A female voice drifts out of his phone: “Good afternoon, boys and girls. Welcome to our heritage and social studies lesson.”
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, schools worldwide have grappled with how to teach locked-down students. Zimbabwe is among the 70-plus countries that, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, dialed in to radio.
Radio is the dominant medium in Africa; it’s less expensive and more widely available than internet service. More than 3 in 4 Zimbabwean households have radios, while fewer than 1 in 4 have computers, according to the research network Afrobarometer. Educators hope radio learning can keep cooped-up children engaged; they’ve also realized that it’s no substitute for the classroom.
In 2020, the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education launched radio lessons for students roughly ages 6 to 12. As the pandemic wore on, the government paused lessons when schools reopened and revived them when schools closed. “As a ministry, we will make sure that they will continue as long as COVID-19 is still among us,” says spokesman Taungana Ndoro. As of Jan. 10, schools are closed, and radio classes are scheduled to restart.
Each radio-school day, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation stations run prerecorded classes during regular school hours, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Math, indigenous languages, science and other subjects are taught in half-hour blocks, with teachers alternating among three languages, English, Shona and Ndebele. For example, on a Wednesday in June 2020, a seventh grade pupil could tune in to the station Classic 263 for math at 11 a.m. and environmental science at 3 p.m.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
According to UNICEF, which helped fund the project, the lessons have reached about one-quarter of Zimbabwe’s 4.6 million learners. “I commend the radio lessons as they keep the children occupied during the closure of schools,” says Mirriam Sibanda, a nurse in Bulawayo whose 9-year-old daughter tuned in to the classes. “My challenge is that the children cannot ask questions in the event they do not understand the concepts.”
Research suggests that radio learning is more of a stopgap than a replacement for in-person schooling. “Expanding remote learning opportunities is not the same as learning,” says a 2020 UNICEF report. The case of Sierra Leone’s Emergency Radio Education Programme is instructive.
During the Ebola outbreak that began in 2014, fewer than one-fifth of Sierra Leonean households with school-aged children tuned in every day, the UNICEF report says. Participation was lowest among young learners. Of the students who tuned in to radio school, only a fraction did corresponding assignments — in part because they lacked activity books or other supplemental materials. When Sierra Leoneans returned to the classroom, officials crammed six terms of lessons into four to catch students up.
Early signs in Zimbabwe indicate similar challenges. In August 2020, UNICEF surveyed nearly 19,000 parents. About half said they had access to a radio and were aware of the lessons, but less than a third said their children “always” listened to them.
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After Zimbabwe’s 2020 lockdown ended, some educators noticed that students who partook of radio lessons were slightly ahead of their classmates — they were aware of certain concepts, even if they didn’t completely understand them. “However,” says a primary school teacher in Bulawayo, who requested anonymity because teachers are not permitted to speak to the media, “I realized there was need for further education because over radio the child could not ask questions.”
Even so, radio education offers a way for students to keep studying. That’s important: Learning disruptions can have lasting effects. According to the UNICEF report, in 2005, an earthquake in Pakistan closed some schools for more than three months. Years later, test scores indicated that students suffered “learning losses” — it was as if they were 1.5 years behind their peers.
But in Zimbabwe’s rural mountains and farmland, at least one-quarter of children don’t have the option of radio learning, according to government estimates. Among the obstacles: poor reception; erratic power service; and the fact that parts of the country carry only stations from neighboring Mozambique and South Africa.
“We are aware that some rural communities are facing challenges such as reception, and some households do not have radios,” says education ministry spokesman Ndoro. The government has donated 20,000 radio receivers to these communities, he says, and is working to improve the broadcasts’ reach.
During Bekezela’s social studies lesson, he scribbles notes, his face pinched in concentration, although he knows he won’t be tested on the material. He’s a good student, and his older brother says the radio classes help him stay engaged with school instead of playing all day. Even so, Bekezela says he misses the classroom — it’s more fun to learn alongside his friends.