Zimbabwe’s Learning Passport, a push to leave no learner behind

Image Source: UNICEF Zimbabwe

False start? As Zimbabwe eventually opened schools in September 2021, the impact of the Covid19 pandemic on learners will be felt in the long term. Since March 2020, when the first lock down was announced in Zimbabwe, it has been difficult to tie down learners to a continuous and uninterrupted school calendar.

Approximately 4.6 million learners have been affected by the intermittent opening and closing of schools in Zimbabwe. From the onset of the lock down in 2020, schools were fully closed from March to September, briefly opened in September to October, closed again, and then reopening from November to December.

In 2021 children will only have 139 days in class according to Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education. In a normal academic calendar, the Zimbabwean school year runs for 40 weeks and averaging 190 school days per year. As we head towards the festive season, a spike in corona cases (4th wave) cannot be ruled out which could see classroom time being reduced further. For the first time in many years, the country’s celebrated high literacy (88.7%) rates risk tumbling.

But those with the means have find a way to keep their children in class. Home schooling has seen remarkable uptake in the northern suburbs of Harare. Wolsey Hall Oxford International is a UK based home schooling college which acknowledges (on their website) the growth in popularity and acceptance of home schooling in Zimbabwe. Private schools have also rolled out online classes charging nearly as much as for face to face classroom fees. “The cost of running a school whether online or face or face does not differ”, writes one private school to the parents.

In a country where only 2864 of the 8731 registered primary and secondary schools in Zimbabwe have access to internet, the majority of the learners from disadvantaged backgrounds (especially in rural areas) will have to play catch up.  According to Afro barometer 2018 report, only 14% of the people in the country have daily access to internet whilst 62% claim to never go online. The cost of internet access is punitive. Education has become a class struggle in Zimbabwe.

But the government supported by private sector initiatives has been pushing back. On 11 March 2021, UNICEF Zimbabwe in partnership with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education (MOPSE) launched a platform which allow learners to have access to free learning content. The platform named,” Learning Passport” houses learning material covering early childhood development up to secondary school.

Whilst Zimbabwe is not new to e-learning platforms, the Learning Passport is the only digital platform and library managed by MOPSE. The platform runs on Microsoft software and is available for free. Internet cost and hardware acquisition remain the only impediment to access.

For the Learning Passport to address the challenges of poor or no connectivity in remote areas, the platform has to be accessible offline through use of decentralised servers or Local Area Netwok (LAN). This is possible, Kundai Mutamba, a Nust student developed ‘Edge box’ a learning platform which can be accessed offline.

Kundai Mutamba at the 2021 ZITF

UNICEF Zimbabwe has plans to install offline versions of the Learning Passport, using a local server in a selected pool of 50 schools. Moreover, the Android version of the platform allows schools and parents to download material which can be accessed when users are offline.

Just like any e-learning platform or library, the richness in content will determine its reach in audience. All learning platform are as good as the content they host. At launch, the Ministry pledged to have all syllabuses loaded onto the platform but for now it appears the platform mainly covers exam writing classes (grade 6-7 and form 3-4). By end of 2021, UNICEF Zimbabwe targets to have 300 000 learners making use of the platform. 

In 2019, MOPSE reported that a total of 85 560 children in primary and secondary schools had disabilities ranging from visual impairment to learning disabilities.  The majority of them have disabilities which render digital learning platforms unfriendly and incompatible with their delicate needs. This group of learners risk being left further behind.

Zimbabwe has one of the highest COVID19 vaccination rates in the region targeting to attain herd immunity by early 2022. Perhaps there is some hope that life can return to normalcy and learners can go back behind the chalk board again come 2022. But as for now, the Learning Passport is the only classroom that is fighting to leave no learner behind.