Online Learning: Challenges Faced Through the Pandemic in Malawi

Electronic studies brought a lot of challenges to some of us as accessing handouts and other information from the internet was not easy due to malfunction gadgets and high prices of internet bundles since the college was giving only 100mbs/day. And in my area you can only access fast internet midnight but sometimes you have a work load which need much of your time yet you cannot work during the day”

Patricia, physio student

Universities across the globe moved course delivery to online platforms last year due to the pandemic. In Malawi, universities implemented Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) and other measures to switch to home learning using Zoom and other tech-based systems. Many Medic to Medic students returned to their home villages to continue to undertake their studies online. However, in many of these remote and rural locations, access to electricity and network connectivity is limited. Our students revealed the myriad of problems they faced continuing their studies remotely online. From slow internet connectivity and the cost of broadband to family and community demands, our students had a lot to say about what the shift to online learning has been like for them. 

A digital divide

Our students aren’t alone. As of 8 April 2020, 175 countries closed their tertiary education institutions. The World Bank estimates that over 220 million university students have had their studies significantly impacted.

The impact has been most severe in low and middle income countries like Malawi. The Association of Commonwealth Universities found that while universities across the globe have been impacted, a massive “digital divide” exists in terms of internet connectivity and infrastructure. Further disparities exist within universities themselves, between students, academics and professional staff.

In a survey, they found that 83 percent of respondants from high income member countries had access to broadband, while only 19 percent from low income member countries had access. While time zone issues were the most common challenges noted by respondents from high income countries, it was essentials like internet speed and data costs that most plagued respondents in low income countries. Read more about the survey here.

During this period we started online classes. Since the house that I stay is relatively small and with the environment not conducive for studies, i.e., we stay in a two bedroom house a family of about 6 people, in the house there is no proper furniture, not even a single chair and the problem of electricity and poor network connections since I stay in a very remote area”

Yohane, MBBS student

Moses, pharmacy student

“Firstly, the College of Medicine adopted electronic learning following the pandemic of Covid 19. It has been too difficult to learn through this means because I am still staying at my home village, in Thyolo District, where there is no electricity. Therefore, it has been challenging to attend classes and take quizzes as required. For example, if a class has been scheduled for 8pm, I would miss it due to low or no voltage in phone battery. In addition, my home is in a typical village where even network is an issue. For example, sometimes I could be penalized for late submission of assignments especially short quizzes; not that I had finished late but because of poor network. The other challenge is that I still do not have my own smart phone. This bring implication when I borrow a phone which is busy such that the owner gives me time limit for use. […] As a result, I am now very busy to catch up with my class studying intensively and writing assignments which my friends have already written.”

Hannah, pharmacy student

“In the month of July the college communicated that they will introduce the emergency remote teaching (ERT) and well I liked the idea that at least I will be doing studies at home because we were slowly forgetting that we students as I was busy with household chores and at the same time it was harvesting season so we would go to the farm to help out mother.

When the ERT started it wasn’t easy to cope with as we were supposed to buy our own data bundles and for me to access internet a had to work from home to our community internet cafe. […] Studying at home is really not easy as people are seeing you around they always assume one is available for errands but I had to explain to them that I will be needing some to time to study which they understood. The other problem is on understanding the material as we are used to attending classes and hearing the lecture explain the content and now we are just given handouts and recorded audios […].”

Hannah, pharmacy student

Frank, physio student

“In June 2020 the college announced to launch an online learning. […] This became a challenge as well when I had noticed that the college was not going to provide internet bundles for us to access the learning platform and be able to visit even other sites to access some materials to compliment my learning at home. Complaints from myself and fellow students were being lodged to various college departments and the dean of students stating our inabilities to access the platform due to internet issues. Following this development, the college closed the online learning to pave ways to its thorough scrutiny on it. In July the college announced that it had discussions with the network companies that they should provide the internet bundles to every student on a daily basis. […] It was only two week later when the complaints started all over again and until now some of us are still not receiving internet bundles.”

Patricia, physio student

“Electronic studies brought a lot of challenges to some of us as accessing handouts and other information from the internet was not easy due to malfunction gadgets and high prices of internet bundles since the college was giving only 100mbs/day. And in my area you can only access fast internet midnight but sometimes you have a work load which need much of your time yet you cannot work during the day.”

I don’t think the community understands the whole idea of online learning because when I was doing my assignments, my parents could send me on errands that made me to procrastinate or to work under pressure so that I can finish the assignments”

Rose, physio student

Rose, physio student

“[…] I would say for a student who is supposed to do clinical and then you learn online I don’t think it was that effective though we did not have choice either way. I am sure the administration tried on their part for starters they provided gadgets to students who couldn’t manage to have one and they had an agreement with the network providers […]. So most of our classes were usually assignments whereby we were given a case study and questions, we were mostly given a week to answer the questions. It was fun and all but school and home do not work together especially if you are the first born and the only person in the house who look like has time on their hands. I don’t think the community understands the whole idea of online learning because when I was doing my assignments, my parents could send me on errands that made me to procrastinate or to work under pressure so that I can finish the assignment.”

Elita, MLS student

“We are doing online learning but to be frank its just self-study as lecturers just upload handouts at compass and we have to download them and study on our own unlike other classes that are being sent handouts together with an audio explaining the handout. […] It is very much challenging studying things that are new as some things needs demonstration through practicals. […] I am afraid that things will be hard for us in third year as we are just doing theory through online learning and we are only going to do the practicals for two weeks when we shall go back on campus for face to face learning. 

Patience, physio student

“Online learning has generally not been so conducive. School environment is different from home environment. In the home environment, so many disturbances are encountered as such concentration is not maximal. At school, face to face discussions are conducted hence understanding of learning materials is enhanced further. At school there is so much interaction with fellow students and lecturers and help is given accordingly when sought. When at school, practical sessions are conducted after learning theoretically to boost the understanding of the material much better. Practical sessions cannot be done in the home environment hence there is really some gap. I can generally say that I have not maximally enjoyed my studies during this break.”

Tiwonge, optometry student

“We did not start online lessons at our University but we were just given questionnaires to fill in, in preparation for online lessons of which many of the students stated that the online lessons would not work for the majority of us and the reasons being that many of us do not have computers, smart phones to use at home, the other reason was that majority of us reside in remote areas where network is a big problem and electricity being a big problem too that most of the hours are spent without electricity.”

Ben, MBBS student

“We were facing many challenges with e-lessons because lecturers send in audios and sometimes upload them on school campus to be downloaded by students. Furthermore, lecturers were uploading assignments and not giving feedback. The last course was, Obstetric and Gynaecology. We were experiencing the same challenges as well though it was a very interesting course. E-lessons was implemented by the government but was not helping because most of students experienced a lot of internet challenges especially the ones staying in rural areas.”

Charity, MBBS student

“Right now we are learning online but I must admit that there are a lot of hiccups. Internet problems, lights, just to mention a few. All in all, am trying my best personally to catch up with my friends. We are hoping that next month we might commence face to face learning and then write end of year examinations.”

Daniel, physiotherapy student

“The problems that I was facing during this online learning were, being in the village with no electricity I had to be going to the trading centre at Mabulabo to charge laptop and phone, that I should attend the classes and have time to study on laptop. Second problem was that in the early days of online learning for about a month, College of Medicine was not giving us data bundles so I was using the money that I received that time.”

Pauline, MBBS student

“Honestly this development hasn’t been easy on my side, school at home is really not easy. […] I sometimes missed classes, group discussions because I couldn’t manage to even multi-task, it was just too much. I was babysitting, cooking and cleaning alone as my aunt is usually out, this took a toll on me. I then planned to start staying up late and study but this too was hard because I was mostly very tired by night time and could fall asleep unknowingly.”

Yohane, MBBS student

“During this period we started online classes, since the house that I stay is relatively small and with the environment not conducive for studies, i.e., we stay in a two bedrooms house a family of about 6 people, in the house there is no proper furniture, not even a single chair and the problem of electricity and poor network connections since I stay in a very remote area. I had to find a place away from home where I was undertaking my classes with no disturbances […].”

SOURCES and FURTHER READING

The Association of Commonwealth Universities: Policy Brief

Xinhuanet Feature: Malawian Universities Switch to Online Learning

To find out more about how you can support students in Malawi, visit our website at www.medictomed.uk.org.uk

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