Virtual classrooms . . . Namibia could be the first in Africa

An American art director, designer and author, George Lois once said; creativity can solve almost any problem; the creative act and the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.

Maurice Nkusi, the head of Instructional Technology for the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the Polytechnic of Namibia has managed to make this adage a reality through his innovative, affordable and sustainable solutions on virtual learning, targeted at addressing youths’-out-of-school dilemma concerning provision of skills development.

Nkusi conducted a research last year on the topic: How can mobile phones be adapted and adopted to provide access to teaching, learning and assessment resources to enhance learning processes of the students? The project was conducted within a period of five weeks and proved that mobile phones can be used to enable skills development among the youths in the category of NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training).

In his research, he selected 20 youths from Usakos, Erongo Region and enrolled them to do a mushroom cultivation course. Here, students learnt, studied, researched through the Net and wrote assignments through mobile phones with the intention to see how effective the use of mobile phones in educating the youths can be, especially for the school drop-outs and look at the sustainability of such a move.

All 20 students completed their course and were awarded certificates during their graduation ceremony held in Usakos last month. Some of them have since applied for loans through the loan scheme intervention of the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture in order to engage in the mushroom cultivation business at a larger scale.

But according to Nkusi, one course is not enough to come up with a credible conclusion on his research project, thus he has decided to offer the students two other courses on environmental education and entrepreneurship.

“We have decided to offer the students two other courses on environmental education since climate change is a serious challenge globally and the other course on entrepreneurship will teach them how to start a business and be able to sustain it,” says Nkusi.

The sky is the limit for him as he is also looking into engaging into a more innovative projects on virtual classroom systems. This should address the issue of about 150 schools, especially in the northern part of the country, which are usually closed during floods. This implies that the education curriculum for the affected schools is always affected and the future of the learners residing in these areas is often jeopardised.

Nkusi believes that people need to be innovative and make use of the available technologies and resources in order to address any crisis within our communities. Innovation for him means using what we have to come up with solutions that would solve a particular problem and his motto is, “Do what you can with what you have and where you are”.

In a bid to come up with a workable solution to address the crisis in the North, Nkusi has come up with a model through which kids can learn whilst in a camp; an initiative which he refers to as Virtual Classroom Learning, using technological facilities.

In this instance, there will be a teacher facilitating the learning session that only needs a computer with an Internet connection whereas other students can sit in a camp as a group and all they would need in order to learn would be one computer with an Internet connection and a projector or a TV set.

Through this initiative, kids will be able to ask questions and interact with their teachers through the Internet, which is referred to as ‘mediated interaction’ as it is an interaction conducted through the use of media technology.

The idea behind the project, according to Nkusi, is the question of how we can reduce the negative impact in education caused by natural disasters using technology.

“I have a problem with kids not being in school for a week or a month and my understanding, coming from a teaching background is that; they will not be able to finish the syllabus. So what we can do to help these learners is to prioritise some common challenging subjects for the learners and then make use of this initiative to keep the little minds in their schoolwork,” says Nkusi, adding that the system is already in place; it has been tested and works perfectly but there’s a need for an adequate technological infrastructure to support the streaming processes required for a virtual classroom system.

The Namibian school calendar is divided into three terms per year; each term with its own work and topics to be covered and this is normally planned for in teachers’ schemes of work where they do planning for various teaching, learning and assessment activities that take place each day of the term.

Now if the schools are closed, this implies that if what the learners were expected to be taught within a certain period of time is not done, the teachers would have to combine all the material within a short space of time, which also becomes too much for the learners. This might be an explanation to justify the results for most schools in the northern region that have faced floods during the past few years.

With this new project, one teacher could be able to teach students in different areas at the same time, which could be cost-effective in terms of resources. This project, if fully implemented, would be the first initiative of its kind in Africa where technology is used in education to support regions facing natural disasters and a great stride for Namibia in terms of its standing, in as far as information and communication technology (ICT) is concerned. In essence, this would also meet the needs of Vision 2030, which stipulates integrating ICTs in education and training sectors.

Technology is not there to make life difficult but vice versa for the society, Nkusi says.

However, should we do the implementation of the new technologies without proper research to find out whether they would solve our problems or not, we will never experience the benefits brought about by technology, he warns. “We need to develop a culture of research in Namibia and at all levels. At the Polytechnic of Namibia, we really value research and the institution is being transformed into a research institution of excellence. We do not have to be in USA, for example, to solve problems in Africa and more importantly, we need to take every challenge as an opportunity that needs solving.

“When we see challenges as barriers and not as opportunities, we seize to grow. Start with what you have and do not wait for other people to come and solve it for you because it’s not sustainable. I foresee sustainability in development as addressing our challenges with what we have by using the local capacity. If the capacity is lacking, just build it,” concludes Nkusi. PF