By Kenneth Matimaire
Veteran Zimbabwe history teacher Amy Nyawera established one of the country’s pioneer online educational start-ups – Grassiaz Online – to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on schools.
Grassiaz Online was established in early 2020, following receipt of a grant from the Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative.
It became operational seven months after Zimbabwe effected its first lockdown, which came into force in April 2020 and affected the school calendar, leading to loss of learning time for over 4,6 million children.
Since its establishment, the start-up has enabled learners to stay on track while filling the gaps from missed classes in 2020.
“The metric that we track is the number of classroom hours, and since launching in October, we have had over 3,000 classroom hours for our enrolled students,” said Grassiaz chief operating officer, Karen Nyawera, based in the United States and daughter to Amy.
Karen said that they have a staff complement of 27 Zimbabwean teachers, mostly based in South Africa.
Grassiaz becomes the second online school after Akello Digital Classroom – launched immediately after lockdown last year by Cassava Smartech – a subsidiary of telecoms giant Econet Wireless Zimbabwe.
While Akello offers online lessons for ZIMSEC examinations only, Grassiaz further offers Cambridge, Higher Education Examinations Council (HEXCO) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes for learners between Grade 5 and Form 6.
“In addition, we also offer a custom programme for learners transitioning from Zimbabwe to the diaspora or vice versa,” said Karen.
She said despite restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the online school enables students to benefit from accessing the best teachers regardless of geography.
“Some learners are also using our platform to supplement their current school programme given that some schools are under pressure to push learners through the curriculum, and most students will be left behind.
“Finally, we have also seen that some learners are using our platform to improve their O-Level results, while simultaneously starting A-Level,” Karen said.
This comes after millions of children lost a great amount of learning time after the forced closure of schools on March 24, 2020 instead of the scheduled term ending date of April 2.
Classes were expected to resume on May 5, but were later reopened in a phased approach in September following a failed attempt in July owing to a spike of Covid-19 cases then.
They were further affected after government issued another total lockdown on January 3, 2021, following a second wave of infections before they were reopened on March 15.
During the school closure period to date, government banned extra lessons as they could trigger transmission through interaction of learners and teachers.
Karen said Grassiaz provides a safer alternative that allows learners to proceed with their studies in the comfort of their homes.
A laptop, tablet, or smartphone and internet connection is all that is required, she added.
Infection cases continue to be recorded in various schools across the country as most educational facilities struggle to adhere to the recommended Covid-19 guidelines.
A recent situational report by the Ministry of Health and Child Care says that schools in Matabeleland South recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases (106) in a single day.
Sacred Heart Girls High School in Esigodini had 51 pupils while Umzingwane High School had 55.
In Harare, seven pupils at Prince Edward High School in Harare also tested positive for Covid-19 in a case, which along with the ones recorded in Matabeleland, highlighted the dangers of the pandemic hitting schools.
Teachers unions have on numerous occasions indicated that online schooling was the best alternative to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on the education sector.
This has been buttressed by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education.
“We should look at the opportunities brought by e-learning with or without Covid-19. If we invest in information technology, it will help children even those who have been walking long distances to school,” said portfolio committee chairperson Priscilla Misihairambwi-Mushonga.
However, there is a huge technological gap between learners in rural and peri-urban areas as compared to those in urban centres with the former group greatly disadvantaged. Some learners are being left out as the educational system slowly embraces online learning.
Grassiaz intends to bring accessible, affordable and high quality education to learners in rural and peri-urban communities, given that its co-founder and chief executive officer, Amy, grew up in the rural village of Nyatate in Nyanga and identifies with the challenges of rural life.
The start-up plans to construct its first digitally-connected school in the rural community of Nyatate, which will leverage platforms such as online learning. Further ahead, Grassiaz will evolve into an integrated education platform providing solutions for offline and online education.
Grassiaz has, however, not been spared from the array of challenges surrounding online learning. These range from power outages to internet connectivity and steep data charges, but Karen sees opportunities even here.
“There is an opportunity for mobile data providers like TelOne, ZOL, and Econet in conjunction with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education to provide an affordable data package for learners in order to accelerate the digital transformation in the country,” she said.
The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education indicated that they have since installed internet facilities at 50 percent of the country’s schools as part of its efforts to enhance e-learning.
“We have managed to provide 50 percent of our schools with internet. These are electrified schools. So, technically, this means of the 9,500 schools that are there, we have done above 4,500 schools,” the ministry highlighted.
Government signed memoranda of understandings (MoUs) with three contractors, namely ZARNet, E-Learning Solutions and the country’s third largest mobile operator, TelOne Zimbabwe, to install internet facilities.
Zimbabwe Internet Governance Forum chairperson Cade Zvavanjanja said e-learning is hinged on accessible, affordable internet, gadgets and readily available ICT infrastructure.
This, he said, must be complemented by readily available content for e-learning.