School on the radio: Using tech to teach kids during Ebola crisis

17 Oct 2014

A boy and a girl play together while sitting on the edge of a street in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the nation's capital. Image via UNICEF

Schoolchildren in Sierra Leone are turning to remote schooling through mobile, radio and soon TV, as schools in the west African nation remain closed to combat the spread of the Ebola epidemic.

The disease that has spread at an alarming rate, primarily in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, has affected many families, and killed more than 4,000 people in Sierra Leone.

In a bid to contain the disease, the Sierra Leonean government has closed schools in the country to keep the spread of the virus as low as possible among children.

However, the government and parents alike are concerned that school closures will deprive children of their education, which is why the government is now turning to technology to help fill the void.

Launched this week, students now have the chance to keep up with their studies from their homes with the help of mobile phones, as well as radio, with help coming from UNICEF to maintain the programme.

Edmond Bankiu (right), a UNICEF specialist on HIV/AIDS also serving as a focal point for social mobilisation efforts, broadcasts information about the campaign to fight Ebola via radio, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image via UNICEF

The power of mobile in Sierra Leone

Showing how the programme is working in its first week, UNICEF has highlighted a number of cases, particularly that of 18-year-old Gomoi Sandy, a student who sits in his room listening to a science lesson that is being broadcast on Sierra Leone’s cellular signals.

According to figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), just over 44pc of the population use mobile phones, compared with just 0.26pc who have access to fixed-line connections.

Also, while radio is still the leading source of media for Sierra Leonese, mobile phones are now just behind in terms of their importance.

The government’s service now means Gomoi and students like him are able to listen to seven lessons a day across 41 radio networks, something which he said is made possible by listening to his mobile. “Electricity has gone and through the mobile telephone it’s the only way to listen to the radio education emission.”

Moalem Siseh (17) is copying on a blackboard the content of the education science programme to help teach her younger relative (13). Image via UNICEF

Keeping normality important during Ebola crisis

Another student, 14-year-old Mohamed Barrie has also welcomed the radio service, as he is very interested in science (robotics, in particular) and wants to continue his education. “Education is important to gain success in life,” he said. “I’d like to improve on technology.”

Meanwhile, chairman of an association of Sierra Leonean teachers, Sylvester Mehew, said it was vital to keep normality going in some shape or form. “Well it will not be like the classroom, but that’s the best option we have for now. You make do with what you have at your disposal and it will also strengthen our educational system.

“And also it will help the teachers when they listen to experienced people presenting programmes or lessons over the radio. They will learn from it and when everyone starts to teach they will do it efficiently.”

Next on the agenda is getting a regular TV broadcast available for students to overcome some of the limitations of radio, which Nice Mest from the Ministry of Education said will be brought in soon.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic