We spent N$26m on e-learning preparation

In this week’s edition of TBC, Ministry of Education executive director, Sanet Steenkamp (SS) tells Tracy Tafirenyika and Jeremiah Ndjoze (TBC) that while technology is good, the positive impact that the teachers’ human touch has on learners will take forever to replace.

In The Big Conversation (TBC) this week, Ministry of Education executive director, Sanet Steenkamp (SS) unpacks government’s plans with regard to the education sector amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and how her ministry is striving to cut down on the numbers of infected learners and teachers across the country.

TBC: You have risen to be one of Namibia’s most decorated and outspoken executive directors in the education sector. How long have you served in this position and how are you finding the going thus far?

SS: I have been in the education sector for a long time, having started as an unqualified teacher before I went on to complete my studies. I also served the ministry in both the roles of Regional and Senior School Councillor. I spent three years as deputy director and another five years as a regional director – both in the Ohangwena region.
I have been in this position [of ED] since June 2015. I love my job as my heart has always been in education. Had that been not the case, I would not have been able to keep up the fight against the various challenges that are currently facing our ministry.
l personally thinks it is important for us as leaders, especially in the public service, to serve with empathetic hearts and ears as well as integrity. As such, l uphold integrity and empathy as part of my leadership [style]. I have a very good understanding of our team and we continue to strive as a collective, despite the challenges.

TBC: Covid-19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented crisis in all areas, especially in the field of education. This pandemic has also led to the massive cessation of face-to-face activities at educational institutions. What is your take on this?
SS: All of our lives have changed in ways that we could never begin to imagine. The teacher plays a pivotal role in the social context of a learning child, through eye contact, playing, or singing, but now we do not have face-to-face teaching. For this year we only had the first term which was 66 days.
It is a fact that most of the kids miss the teachers, but we all have to get used to the new rules and regulations. We have seen the emotional and psychological neglect on children, when they do not attend face-to-face classes. They do not learn as they are supposed to and many children fall through the cracks and end up not returning to school.
Also, we have children being sexually exploited and violated, especially girl children and it leaves us with such distress that our children are being abused. As a result, we have a high teenage pregnancy rate.
Also, what hurts the most about children not attending face-to-face classes is that they lose out on at least one proper meal a day. We know for example that in the Kunene region we have more than 22 000 learners that have benefited from the school feeding programmes which enabled them to at least have two meals a day because of the drought and Covid-19 conditions.
In short, nothing will replace a teacher’s voice, love and care. Educators are role models to our children.
During the past year, we have seen how innovative and creative our teachers have become, in their quest to reach the children, whether it is online or via a produced booklet.

TBC: How is the education sector responding to the pandemic, and how are you going to address the issues of e-learning especially for kids in the rural areas – some of whom are being taught under trees?

SS: Since last year, the Ministry of Education Arts and Culture has pulled out all stops. We met with different stakeholders and role players [and] our response was almost immediate. [But] if you reflect now you would see that we were not supposed to have closed that early, last year.
First and foremost, we immediately signed an agreement with Namcol. More than 940 tutors were identified; whom Namcol gave specific training on how to digitise lessons. The focus for us was on grade 8, 9, 10 and 11. We paid N$26 million to Namcol to ensure that we have video lessons, video clips, radio lessons and television clips and that the lessons can be accessed with worksheets and work assignments on the Notesmaster platform of Namcol. As such, when that e-learning material is launched any learner or teacher can access the Notesmaster.
The launch was supposed to take place on the 23rd of June but it is now postponed to the 29th of this month.
We are excited because any teacher or learner will have access to this material. We have worked with Namibia Media Holdings (NMH) as a partner to prepare lessons, which also includes learners with hearing impairments.
We have further made provision for online schooling on My Zone up to grade 7. As you can see, the ministerial response was from pre-grade up to grade 7 and it was delivered to all the sectors. We are very happy to record that one of our development partners UNICEF will soon come on board again to support us with the production of more workbooks.
Clearly, we do not only make provision for online learning but also make provisions for children who are unable to access the online platforms by reaching out to them with physical booklets.
However, the MOE cannot make these provisions [for rural learners] alone. We need connectivity and that is a national thing. We have to liaise with telecommunication companies in order to understand, what it is they have in plan for rural connectivity. Secondly, we need devices. For now, we have only supplied to 81 (AS) Advance Subsidiary schools. They were provided with Clevertouch screens. The licenses are pending. A lot of money was spent on this exercise.

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In short, we need data, devices and connectivity. We will still have meetings with Telecom to see what help we can get, in terms of data for our learners and teachers.

TBC: There is a concern that these touch screens were purchased at inflated prices, being N$98 000 per tablet, what is your view on this?
SS: The value that the screens were bought for was N$78 650 per screen and that price is market related and there was no inflation of prices. One 86 inch screen currently sells for about £4 600 in Europe and if you convert it to Namibia Dollars it will give you a clearer picture as to what the market value of these screens is.
We need to keep in mind of the indirect costs involved like transport, VAT, distribution, installations as well as collaboration software licensing to enable teachers and ministry officials to annotate and work on shared documents seamlessly within a live video conferencing environment (Live Stage).
Also, extra accessories of webcams and visualises were procured with the touch screens to enable video conferencing, recording of lessons and display of documents and smaller items in a magnified way.

TBC: What is the function and intended purpose of the screens?
SS: Given that we operate in a coronavirus era which is characterised by remote teaching and learning, the interactive touch screens offer us versatility in the following ways: (a) Video conferencing through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.
(b) Remote CPD trainings – Our education officers are able to connect to the schools which have received the touch screens and offer assistance from the comfort of their offices.
(c) Remote Teaching – Teachers are able to connect their learners through their smart gadgets and teach remotely in real time.
(d) Remote interaction between teachers – Teachers from different schools/regions are able to interact with one another and share resources and expertise. Also, one teacher is able to teach another’s lesson in real time using the smart screens.

(e) Given that the screens have Android and Windows operating systems, one is able to search information from the internet, download educational videos from YouTube, etc.
(f) The screens also come with built-in educational programmes which are subject specific and the teacher is able to integrate that into their lessons.
(g) A teacher is able to record lessons and share it with their learners and other teachers.
(h) Also, the screen allows a teacher to plan lessons even while at home and access them when at school.

TBC: When were these touch screens bought and distributed to schools?
SS: The screens were procured in March 2021 and distributed to regional offices and schools in April 2021. Officeconomix also conducted training from 17 -21 May 2021 to 250 officials, including teachers from AS Level schools, regional and head office officials on the installation, usage and functionality of the touch screens.
TBC: Why did we lag behind in terms of e-learning after 30 years of independence?
SS: During the past 30 years, the focus was on infrastructure development, such as the improvement of sanitation facilities and classrooms at schools. We must understand that the learner population increases by 3.6 percent annually with the grade 1 intake each year.
That means we constantly needed to construct classes.
Our emphasis in the past 30 years was on access and quality. Now we are moving much more towards quality, with little emphasis on the traditional textbooks.
We have managed to bring back the ratio to 1 to 2. There are certain textbooks still, where we have three children sharing a textbook and those are our priority areas. Now we have started to make provision in terms of IT and we are in the process of finalising our latest IT policy in education.

TBC: Let us look at the numbers. How many cases of learners and teachers, who have been infected by Covid-19, have been recorded so far?
SS: As from 8thof May 2020 until 21st of June 2021, we recorded 3 192 learners that were positive and 754 were teachers. These numbers could have been much more but for seven days the Ministry of Health and Social Services did not give a breakdown on learners and teachers.

TBC: Which regions are the most affected, in terms of learners’ and teachers’ numbers?

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SS: Khomas is the epicentre and that is why you see the new regulations in Khomas. Zambezi and Oshikoto also recorded high numbers of learners with Covid-19.

TBC: It is clear that this pandemic has utterly disrupted the education system; do you think that e-learning will be here forever and how will the Coronavirus pandemic reshape education?

SS: In terms of e-learning, it will be there forever. However, nothing will replace a teacher. The personality, vibrancy, energy, loves and care of a human being touches the heart of a child and that can never be replaced. Nevertheless, there is room for IT in our schools.