COVID19’s “bright side” for young Senegalese students

Maimouna Leye Diakhate taught at ELC and now works at the Senegalese Ministry of Vocational Training.

Mary Mariama Fall is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa and CEO/Founder of Etablissements Le Calame (ELC).

COVID19’s toll worldwide will probably last decades and affect generations. Different countries and continents have had different reactions to the pandemic but all sectors were hit hard, including education. The latter had to change and transition overnight, a change that many countries were not necessarily ready for.

We share in this piece the experience of high-school students, and their parents and teachers, in Senegal: they tried to face COVID19 positively and kept learning through an online platform that became free to allow greater access to students across the country. 

The epidemic of COVID-19 and the lock-down imposed on Senegal in the first quarter of 2020 has led Etablissements Le Calame (ELC) to make available their Moodle platform to organize an online training from March 2020. This training hosted for four months 64 students and 10 teachers all volunteers. 21 parents were involved in the project. The platform also allowed students to “meet the world” online through collaborations with peers in Sweden, Hawaii and West African countries while on lock-down.

That platform was a private school property, ELC (Etablissements Le Calame), a Senegalese private boarding school based in Lac Rose that was running its first year.

One of us, Maimouna Diakhate, who worked as an ELC teacher, used this online experience for her Master’s degree thesis in Education. We will share below her key conclusions on the experience for learners, their parents and the teachers, all Senegalese citizens. The main themes that came out of her research were therefore heavily/exclusively based on the Senegalese culture and context but could very well apply to other – francophone? – African countries. 

THE RESEARCH

Maimouna’s study examines the acceptability of online training in secondary education in the context of Senegalese culture. It tried to understand how, on the one hand, the technological state of the art and, on the other hand, the different dimensions of the Senegalese culture according to the Hofstede grid could influence the acceptability of online training by the different actors involved. A previous study on the dimensions of culture in Senegal highlights the specific importance of three dimensions: the distance of power or authority, the dimension of social ties (individualism versus collectivism), and the dimension of relationship to time (life in the present versus projection into the future).

Many researchers agree that Open Distance Learning is a real opportunity for Africa. Karsenti, for example, considers that its educational potential is of particular interest in Africa, where universities are confronted with the “triple constraint of a strong growth in higher education enrolments, reduced budget margins and a sluggish job market”. This certainly explains why the Plan of Action for the Second Decade of Education for Africa (2006-2015) in relation to higher education strongly recommends the creation of virtual universities (as is the case in Senegal, Code d’Ivoire and Mali) to meet the growing demand for access to higher education.

But e-learning in Africa faces a number of challenges that Karsenti and Collin classify as six “distances”:

  • Spatial distance: in Africa, distance learning sometimes requires students to travel to technologically equipped places because they do not have adequate equipment or internet connection at home.
  • Temporal distance: delayed communication between teachers and learners (not seeing or hearing the teacher when in an oral culture) can be a hindrance for the latter: temporal distance thus becomes a problem.
  • Technical distance: many students do not often have the technological skills necessary for online training and their equipment is sometimes outdated. This lack of techno-pedagogical skills can also be noted among teachers who are often not trained to use technology in their classrooms.
  • Socio-economic distance, or the digital divide, is one of the main barriers to online training. Indeed, in terms of infrastructure, Africa is far behind the better equipped Western countries. Moreover, connectivity is often problematic: sometimes totally non-existent in some areas that do not even have electricity, or very unstable when it is present.
  • Socio-cultural distance: the socio-cultural distance, already noted by several authors, relates to the fact that distance learning courses were originally designed for “Westerners” who often have a very different culture from African ones.
  • The pedagogical distance: this cultural difference (connected to the socio-cultural distance) can also be a brake on the pedagogical level insofar as African education systems are still marked by lectured, and therefore oral, teaching, which is opposed to the socio-constructivist pedagogy.

The results of the study highlighted the major points below. The study combined quantitative and qualitative data using closed-ended and open-ended questions online questionnaires for students, teachers and for parents. Observation of video-conference recordings of class recordings, forum and chat room discussions were also used. A sample of ten students was called as they had not sent their feedback online. The telephone calls, when successful (some of which were not answered), led to a qualitative analysis.

THE TEACHERS

Although affected by the questioning of their status of authority and jostled in their habits, teachers have quickly adapted and unanimously project themselves in a fully online training for the future.

The teachers’ comments show, on the one hand, the need to train students in the use of the platform, and on the other hand, the students’ need for “social bonding”, orality, and visual exchanges. But most often, teachers say they use videoconferencing to explain a previously posted lesson. We therefore understand that eight out of ten teachers say they prefer videoconferencing to online discussion forums.

In general, it seems that students and teachers are still very attached to the traditional classroom situation in a face-to-face setting and even when learning online, they still need that visual / social connection with their teacher. Nine out of ten teachers recognize that online training is different from face-to-face training and that their role as a teacher is not the same: “With online courses, the teacher is more of a “passer”, a mediator than an actual teacher. He is more of a guide, a companion, a source of motivation for learners to avoid dropping out.”

While half of the teachers have received initial computer training, we can see that it is the younger teachers who have benefited from it. Perhaps because these trainings have been set up recently. Only three out of ten have benefited from in-service training (and among them two of the youngest). On the other hand, eight out of ten have learned (or continued to learn) by themselves in self-training, including the two oldest teachers. In total, all have received training and/or self-training. This underscores the need for training to be organized by the supervising administration (technical distance).

As far as training practices are concerned, we note that the chat is used by all and videoconferencing by nine out of ten teachers. The only one not using videoconferencing is in fact prevented by connection problems – part of the socio-economic distance. Indeed, teachers all notice that students are more responsive in videoconferences than in forums / discussion boards.

THE PARENTS

Parents’ comments are encouraging. They all felt that the courses they received on the platform were useful and show that online courses can be envisaged in secondary schools in Senegal. However, this will still require greater parental involvement supervising their children but also accepting the new normal:

I believe that online courses can be a supplement to but not yet a substitute for regular classes with the physical presence of a teacher in a classroom.”

Although attached to the traditional forms of teaching that they themselves have experienced, faced with the need and the effectiveness observed with their children, parents adhere by a very large majority to online training. They overcame the cultural distance rather quickly but we honestly think that if schools had not closed due to the pandemic, parents would not have been ready to accept an exclusively online learning experience for their children. School was and still is a very “mythic” learning place and space in everybody’s mind.  

If the child is well supervised at home, it can work, but learning at home also faces complex socio-cultural realities in Senegal due to homes’ overcrowding and the lack of respect for the learning environment specific to distance learning.”

THE STUDENTS

Finally, half of the students interviewed were totally delighted with online education, while the other half were more reticent. A closer analysis revealed that the students in the reticent half had difficulties connecting (technological or socio-economic distance), needed social bonding and oral and visual contact. This raises the question of the types of media to be used. The students in the positive half of the sample were also distinguished by their maturity and autonomy, which raises the question of the age and level most conducive to online training.

Eight of the ten teachers in our sample allow their students to use their cell phones in class to work. Of the two teachers who do not allow this, one reports that his school does not allow cell phones, while the other reports difficulties connecting. The barriers to the educational use of cell phones by students are therefore administrative or technical.

Throughout the experience, they did like the videoconference sessions more than interacting offline on the platform : “It’s much more user-friendly and replicates the physical classroom. I liked the interactivity and found it was easier to express oneself orally than in writing.” The link that feeling to the African oral tradition we mentioned.

“Learning in class is better because there are no connection issues (risk of missing classes)”.

“It would be nice to combine online and classroom courses, but in reality online courses cannot replace the classroom. A student who would like to continue online is nevertheless tempering his choice: “But I would like to point out that contact with other students is quite important.”

In the end, one of the major objectives of the ELC platform was to take advantage of the confinement and create opportunities for collaboration for our learners, ELC students or students from other schools. In addition to serving as the basis for the research described above, the platform has been used for online “summer schools” in the form of seminars, virtual conferences and online courses with:

  • The Punahou High School of Hawaii (on Sustainable Development Goals)
  • African Leadership Academy: A virtual summit/ youth leadership camp for Francophone Africa for students ages 14-18.
  • Exchange forum with the students in Stockholm on the consequences of COVID in their daily lives.
  • African Youth Action Forum Online Conference with Seoul (July 2020)
  • A Summer School in Design Thinking (August 2020) with Montreal: Developing Creativity.

Thanks to the creative and diligent work of the students, two large-scale projects have taken shape through these collaborations:

  1. A project aimed at making the student community aware of and responsible for the sanitary and safe use of washrooms and the implementation of compostable toilets, reducing the need to use running water.
  2. A project to solicit loans and donations of scientific equipment from organizations such as laboratories, hospitals, private firms, etc., allowing science classes to benefit from manipulatives relevant to learning.

MOVING BEYOND COVID-19

In sum, the pandemic was an opportunity for us, as a private secondary school, to show the benefits of e-learning and help students and teachers bridge some of the ‘distances’ to e-learning, even though many challenges remain. After the COVID experience and all the learning done online, we, as ELC, decided to stay online, but as a complementary training to that received in school and university. With our 2-in-1 formula, students stay in their current school while being “ELCian” online. The main objective is the acquisition of practical skills for the transition to higher education and working life.

In that respect, we want ELC to be Senegal’s first online school that allows students to continue attending their current school/university while registering with ELC for a skills-based training online that merges theoretical and practicum knowledge. With personalized follow-up and a flexible work schedule, in addition to their individual work aimed at strengthening their written and oral expression, students will follow academic courses in English and French, and develop life skills highly valued in global societies including geopolitics, leadership, time management, and research methodology. 

Last year’s experience has shown us that it is possible to bridge many of the distances to e-learning rather quickly. Some challenges will unfortunately remain as they are a consequence of families’ economic status. ELC is committed to show and “take advantage” of the COVID lessons by staying online and training students to learn how to learn and work online. We know it will help them ease their transition to higher education and the world of work afterwards.