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Interview with Charles Thembo: Lead-developer of e-Learning Platform, The Lesson

Innovators create 'The Lesson' a cloud-based academic portal incorporating all the Ugandan national curriculum for primary and secondary level education to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education in Uganda.

Since March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll in Uganda, a lot of activities were disrupted including the education sector which we saw come to a standstill for months after President Museveni’s directives to close all schools.

Later that year (2020), schools were re-opened mostly for candidate classes who were prioritized and allowed to go sit for their final year examinations. However, they had to follow strict orders and follow SOP guidelines to avert the continuous spread of the disease. Other classes followed suit in shifts and classes were resumed gradually, however, this did not last long when Uganda went into the second wave of the deadly global pandemic which saw schools re-closed in June this year.

Following the closure, students were re-directed to home school (online studies) once again. With students studying from home, resources matter a lot, this includes internet connections, devices to access classes, platforms to access classes, to mention a few. Since then, a number of e-learning sites/platforms have emerged —developed by government entities, private institutions, and innovators —established to help learners acquire education online during the lockdown while schools remain closed. In addition, ISPs and telecommunication firms have made access to online studies through their network free of charge — in support to fight the spread and combat Covid-19.

We came across an e-Learning startup, ‘The Lesson’ which was developed by a group of innovators; Charles Thembo, Ivan Mwanza, and Martin Mugarura.

We caught up with Mr. Charles Thembo, the lead developer of ‘The Lesson’, an e-learning portal targeting learners both in primary and secondary levels. In an interview with him, Thembo told us all there’s to know about the e-Learning platform.

1. Before we ask about The Lesson, what is your take on how the pandemic has affected the education system?
As far as the pandemic is concerned, the education system has frozen, there has been no reliable learning be it on TV, radios, or in newspapers as the government claims. Generally, learning has been disrupted at large. Students have no access to teachers, and the parents on the other hand have become teachers now.

Because of the pandemic, schools were closed, and students are asked to study from home, this is a measure by the government to combat Covid-19. But there are very few learning materials to support home learning, and for a growing mind, the longer it takes without revising books, the little knowledge students had acquired starts to perish gradually, and this, in the long run, will negatively affect the quality of labor in the country.

2. The government is pushing learners to study from home, however, resources are limited as you mentioned. What’s your say on this?
I will be honest with you about education and learning from home. The government has run out of options, the people in control of the education sector in the country have got access to the money, they can fund the development of any reliable idea, so as they can make the necessary resources needed available. But when ideas are presented to them, they are sabotaged.

Some of us innovators and developers present ideas to the government to help but they are sabotaged. I am not sure if the National ICT Initiatives Support Program (NIISP) reads our proposals in detail, because if they did, then the resources we need would be available. But we decide to use the resources that are within our means to deliver what we can to the general public. Because inside me, it’s passion, I just want to save the education sector with its rapidly accelerating costs, I want the young people to have access to knowledge anytime.

3. So you and your team have developed ‘The Lesson’. How did this come about and what’s there to know?
We started working on “The Lesson” in October of 2019, that was before Covid-19 was in Uganda. Our main intention was to create home learning and revision materials for students while on holiday. We were also looking at preserving the legacy of those knowledgeable teachers so that their knowledge can always be used by future generations to come. But Covid-19 came through and it was an opportunity for us to help students.

So The Lesson is a cloud-based academic portal incorporating the Ugandan national curriculum for primary and secondary levels of education targeting children between the ages of 6 to 19 years. So we provide recorded lessons presented in a video format to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education —promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all Ugandan students.

We have partnered with qualified teachers from different Ugandan schools to disseminate their knowledge through recorded video lessons. The teachers make lesson plans with guidance from the national curriculum. With the plans in place, we then record them [the teachers] as they teach in chronological order, and later upload and organize the videos on our cloud portal where learners can access these lessons any time at their convenience. Students subscribe to get access to these lessons and can simultaneously ask questions, that the teacher receives via email and then responds to them swiftly.

Other than all that, we continue to engage parents of children using our platform so we can improve our content to meet the national standards of education that would easily make the children understand. We update the learning guides in that the students can only learn what is relevant according to the curriculum then.

4. Is the platform accessible freely or you do have a charge you offer?
Our platform is not free entirely. We charge a modest fee to keep the program running and to facilitate our teachers. Our charge plan is UGX1,000 per day, UGX5,000 per week, UGX20,000 per month, and UGX300,000 per year. Entirely dependent on the user’s choice of access.

5. Why is this platform not for all learners?
Children in Nursery up to P.2 really need the attention of the teacher, they will hardly concentrate on the computer screen. For universities and other higher-level institutes, they do not have a defined curriculum that is similar for all. So that is why we decided to work with P.3 to S.6.

6. How many learners do you expect to reach and do you plan on rolling out to all learners?
We would like to reach a target of 12 million students who subscribe to this portal.

7. You might have come across similar platforms from the government and other private institutions to help learners study from home. What differs your platform from them?
Yes, I have seen Live lessons on TV and radios,  distribution of notes on bicycles and cars to students, questions & answers in newspapers, and I have also seen some online platforms that give live lessons and animated tutorials. This is all good because what differs us from these is;

  • Our portal is the threshold of the next chapter of the education sector in Uganda —where we don’t just look at education going wrong, we change it.
  • With The Lessons, there are no adverts as we see on TVs, network interruptions during live lessons, power interruptions during live lessons —this is because our lessons are pre-recorded. So no adverts and even if network or power goes off, you can still access your lessons from where you left from.
  • And lastly, a student can ask questions that are responded to swiftly by the teacher something that is not done on any other platform right now.

8. You have partnered with teachers, what criteria do they have to meet and how do you source them in the first place?
Well, we meet these teachers after having made private research about them —ensuring that they qualify and are certified to teach in Uganda. They must have a certificate showing that they passed Grade 3 exams (Primary Teachers College). With all this in place, we discuss the terms and conditions, and then we come to an agreement with them and they start teaching. Therefore the content that we are feeding this nation with is from certified teachers only.

9. Are teachers facilitated for their services?
The teachers are facilitated as they teach and they are happy with our agreement because somehow it will benefit them even in the future.

10. Do you hope to ever partner with the government?
Our hands are open to any type of support from the government because we still need a lot of finances and better equipment to use towards this cause. So yes, we would be glad to receive support from the government.

11. Do you intend to run the platform even after the pandemic?
Yes, as I said prior, we started this as an idea to create revision content for students to use while at home, Covid-19 just found us along the way. It in fact interfered with our recording processes because we could no longer access our teachers for they are not allowed to move for a good cause to protect them from the transmission of the virus.

12. Any final sentiments to share with us, and future projections?
I would be glad if Ugandans liked this new way of learning as an addition to what the students get from school. However, there are things that would hinder our operations, for example, the distribution of the internet to the target market. In the near future, we shall put these videos on devices so that people buy the device and watch them offline other than entirely relying on the internet all the time.

Our future projections;

  • Need to see that we get over 12 million students using The Lessons.
  • We intend to create remote interaction rooms where these students have discussions with each other to improve on understanding.
  • We intend to record PLE, UCE, and UACE corrections so that the learner gets enough revision resources with proper explanations, to mention a few.

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Joan Banura

A journalist at heart 💜 with a passion for Tech.
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