Apping to learn: Interview with ARTUZ about their WhatsApp school

When President Mnangagwa announced that schools would close early in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, across the country, many parents, teachers and students were concerned about what such an interruption would mean for education. Some private schools have set up online classrooms which students can access from home, but for many students, the cost of internet data and the need for electronic devices to access the platforms on, has meant they are excluded from these interventions – a problem felt across the continent.

The Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Association of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) in their own words, “is more than just a Trade Union, [their] mission goes beyond fighting for labour justice, [they] also seek to enhance access to quality education.” Having called for the early closure of schools to minimise the threat of Coronavirus to pupils and teachers, ARTUZ very quickly made a bold decision to trial online lessons via WhatsApp – a platform that is accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a WhatsApp bundle. By 1 April, the organisation had published timetables of available lessons across the curriculum for Grade 7 and O level students, with A level classes starting after the Easter holiday. ARTUZ has now worked with more than 4,200 learners.

To find out more, Kubatana interviewed the ARTUZ online school team.

How has the last term been for your teachers? What have been your main struggles?

Teachers struggled to put food on the table. Teachers were heavily incapacitated and reported for duty on a fortnightly basis. Teachers demanded for early schools closure in the wake of novel Coronavirus. Teachers demanded interbank rated salaries.

When you first heard about COVID-19, what were your concerns for the education sector? What was your initial response?

The union was seized with the lack of preparedness of the health sector and government at large. The health and safety of learners and teachers boggled our mind that is why we advocated for school shutdown.

How was the idea of your online classes conceived? Were you inspired by other projects or was there some other inspiration behind the idea?

ARTUZ is more than just a Trade Union, our mission goes beyond fighting for labour justice, we also seek to enhance access to quality education. The COVID-19 inspired schools’ closure forced our membership to dialogue on ways of ensuring accessibility of education during this season of crisis. The response strategy was a product of collective discussions by members anchored on our value system and mission statement.

Why did you choose the medium of WhatsApp? What have been some of the pros and cons of using this platform?

We chose WhatsApp as it is more affordable and accessible to most people and user friendly in terms of sending audio files, videos and PDFs. It is easy for group interaction with the learners and it supports effective two-way interaction just like a classroom setup. Feedback is also prompt on WhatsApp.

How have you been coordinating the lessons? (timetable, number of teachers and other logistics)

We have appointed a team to run the school. The team comprises a school administrator, logistics officer, curriculum manager and Heads of departments among other management positions. The school leadership has crafted timetables for all the three exam classes. Teachers buy their own data and create content which they share with learners. We usually have three teachers attending to each Whatsapp group in every learning area.

How many students have been able access lessons through you so far?

At Grade 7, we have worked with 920 learners, Ordinary level, 2,460 and 900 learners for Advanced level.

What has been some of the feedback you’ve been receiving from parents and students?

Parents are throwing their weight behind the online classes. Students are very excited and gaining a lot as they interact with faceless teachers in a more relaxed atmosphere unlike in the physical four corner classroom. Parents are begging us to sustain the program post the COVID-19 crisis

What does the general structure of a WhatsApp ‘lesson’ look like?

The teacher will craft achievable lesson objectives within the 3hr time frame. Learners respond and the teacher will give exposition on grey areas. There is teacher to learner interaction and learner to learner interaction.

Learners are given ground rules. The teacher assigns questions and learners respond. Teacher concludes the lesson by summarizing. The platform provides both learner to learner peer interaction and teacher to teacher professional development.

Will you use this platform beyond lockdown?

We will consult the facilitators, our membership and the parents.

What do you need in order to enable your work to continue and grow?

We need data bundles, dongles and smartphones that have prolonged battery life span. We also require capacity building on the maximum utilization of technological devices and tools academically and in a scholarly manner.

Our teachers also need access to more online content for their learning areas.

How can interested people help and who should they contact?

We are desperately seeking support with internet data bundles for our teachers. Well wishers can engage our Vice President, who is doubling up as schools’ administrator on +263714850548. Those willing to support can send resources through Ecocash agent code 89222, Sabrina Kundai.

What is ARTUZ’s education dream?

To realise universal access to quality education for both rural and urban learners. We envisage highly motivated teachers delivering a curriculum that is responsive to the developmental needs of our nation. Education planning should be devolved to allow individual regions to input in the curriculum so that the education blueprint captures the diverse hopes and aspirations of our people. Our schools should be safe for our learners and our teachers. Teachers should have unlimited access to opportunities for continuous development.

Action: For the programme to continue and expand, ARTUZ needs the public’s help. They need data bundles, dongles and smartphones with prolonged battery life span. They also require capacity building in best practice using WhatsApp and other mobile platforms for education. Teachers also need access to more online content for their learning areas. The most urgent need at this stage is internet data bundles for their teachers. If you would like to help with this, you can send donations through Ecocash agent code 89222 to Sabrina Kundai. If you are able to help in any other way, or if you are looking for more information, you can contact the ARTUZ Vice President Mrs Gaudencia Mandiopera, who is doubling up as the school’s administrator on +263714850548.

Source: Kubatana

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