Of e-learning, internet mischief and child safety online


WHEN all local schools were ordered to close on March 24 following a government directive aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the abrupt yet appropriate move proved to be in the interest of all stakeholders in the education sector.


Protection of minors particularly in the face of the novel global pandemic would have been a nightmare that even social distancing and improved hygiene could not have contained.

To date the number of deaths and those infected locally, albeit minimal in comparison to elsewhere in the world, continues to rise, indicating that strict measures like the current lockdown, which started on March 30, are still necessary but the education system is now in a dilemma as these developments have interrupted the school calendar.

“If my daughter were to lose the whole school term it would affect her because school is an important part of her life and she can at least keep sane with school work,” Rachel Chidaka told NewsDay.

With schools not likely to reopen for the second term anytime soon, her daughter, a Form 1 pupil at a private school in Harare, has already begun online schooling where she has been receiving assignments and submitting them via the internet.

“We may have to invest more into buying our children new gadgets and pay high data costs because I certainly cannot risk taking my child to any crowded place at the moment,” said Chidaka.

“I cannot imagine what is going to happen to all those that are not on online learning platforms.

What are they going to do?”

In his speech announcing the extension of the lockdown by a further 14 days last week, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said there were ongoing stakeholder consultations concerning the way forward on reopening of learning institutions.

“It is clear (from the discussions) that our country is not yet in a position to reopen schools, colleges and universities. A number of health conditions must be met first to guarantee the safety of pupils, teachers, other workers in the education system and the entire nation,” said Mnangagwa.

In the meantime, he said, government, along with partners was mooting the idea of capacitating the education sector for e-learning as a quick fix to prevent the current academic year from going to waste.

“(Education) ministries are working with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development and corporate partners to put in place online and distance learning facilities to ensure that the students continue having access to learning materials,” he said.

Whether or not government fulfils this promise to give all learners access to distance education remains to be seen but with the window closing on making up for lost time, use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for learning now appears the most viable alternative.

Parents, guardians as well as teachers with access to smartphones, tablets and computers are for the first time caught in an unprecedented dilemma on whether to wait for conventional classrooms to resume or go the virtual route.

But, with further delay threatening the readiness of national examination classes especially, those with school-going children may soon be compelled to give them more screen time.

This, however, does not sit well with Bridgette Makonese, mother to a five-year-old toddler, who is unsettled by many risks her child could be exposed to by surfing the internet.

“I would not be comfortable with my children going on the internet because they will bump into so many things because they will be alone in front of the screen. How will I be able to tell what they are seeing?” Makonese said.

Although parental control settings may help avert such fears, most parents like Makonese are unaware of how to effectively filter or restrict content and such knowledge gaps mean that e-learning could bring with it vices unsuitable for consumption by minors.

In a statement on Child Safety Online last month, Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore emphasised that with children’s lives restricted to just their homes and screens, adults need to chip in to “help them navigate this new reality”.

“We call on governments and industry to join forces to keep children and young people safe online through enhanced features and new tools to help parents and educators teach their children how to use the internet safely,” she said.

According to Unicef, children face various cyber-specific risks online including cyberbullying, exposure to inappropriate content (like violence and pornography), sexual grooming by adults, production and sharing of child pornography as well as sharing highly personal information.

Far-fetched as it may seem in the local context, world statistics on child abuse online over the years show that it influences high numbers of children with suicidal thoughts, self-harming tendencies and anxiety.

With more underage Zimbabwean children set to access ICTs for learning, research and socialising, this is a cue for local adults to take extra precaution and put child safety online at the forefront.

According to Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) president Obert Masaraure, although online school is “exclusive to those with resources and can never replace the conventional classroom”, it could help bridge the gap created by the unprecedented closure of schools.

Artuz is already undertaking classes via the WhatsApp application with thousands of learners accessing their services to date although they are concerned about it, Masaraure said the safety of children was dependent on parents.

“It (child safety) is an issue of serious concern (so) in most of our classes we are encouraging co-sharing of gadgets between parent and learner so that the parent can monitor the content accessed by the learner,” he said.

Whether it is naked women “twerking” on Ginimbi’s live TV, Vimbai Zimuto’s nude pictures floating on the internet or Mai Titi’s vulgar rants, among many more lewd local examples on social media platforms, the internet is increasingly becoming unsafe territory particularly for underage users.

While it is not easy and calls for children to also be aware of the dangers they are susceptible to on the internet, parents need to put more effort in monitoring their children’s online activities.