Before COVID-19 spread its destructive tentacles to Nigeria, four major issues had dominated most discussions on our tertiary education. These were access, content, quality and infrastructure. If we consider the controversy that often marks the relationship between the Nigerian government and workers’ unions such as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), it will be noted that the issue of manpower is also key. As crucial as they are, however, the thwacking of schools and the consequential unprecedented disruptions that the coronavirus pandemic has caused have made e-learning the most dominant theme of public discourse in recent times because of the urgent need to functionally keep learning going while students are locked up at home.
It is not that e-learning had altogether been new to us. We had often spoken about the need to incorporate it into the conventional system, while some institutions had been adopting it – though it remained a mere gimmick in some quarters. But now that the behemoth of a disease has suddenly and completely separated us from our campuses, classes and long-term companion called black or white boards, and the smartboard in a few cases, the reality of the need to embrace real digitized learning has dawned on everyone.
What is making e-learning to gain world-wide recognition and acceptance includes the facts that there is a global increase in the number of applicants for higher education, which is as a result of global massification of higher education. E-learning thus becomes a means of extending the walls. Another reason is the need to make learning more acceptable to a wider population. The growing need for continued skills upgrading and re-skilling as well as the concept of andragogy, whereby learning becomes a life-long endeavour, concatenates into making e-learning more than a contemporary issue. With digital education, learning becomes flexible as it can happen anywhere, anytime anyhow.
Just imagine the hitherto unimaginable thing that COVID-19 is doing to hundreds of thousands of Nigerian undergraduates (the Nigerian University Commission said some 1.9 million students were studying in Nigerian universities as of 2017/2018), their parents, lecturers and other stakeholders. Without being on a semester break, with no strike going on, at least in private institutions, all the students remain falsely imprisoned at home, alongside their siblings in elementary and secondary schools. What other option can then be on the front burner, if not the one that can help to arrest time wastage and melt distances in the form of virtual education that e-learning is?
That is why it was reassuring when, in March this year, the Honourable Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, held a virtual meeting with heads of tertiary institutions and discussed the imperative of deploying e-learning, as it is being done globally, to save time, arrest the boredom, confusion, fear and, indeed, the disruption that the pandemic unleashed on the system,. It was a remarkable and timely initiative on the part of the honourable minister and everyone saw the need for the development. The fact is that, to start with the simple and natural course of aging, none of our students is growing younger, meaning that every second they spend idly at home counts. It should be borne in mind that there are several age-dependent adventures (e.g. employment, family life) that the students will need to undertake later in life. Unfortunately, while education and learning can be suspended, no one can suspend aging. What about lecturers too? Only a lazy brain will not be able to realize that the break is a huge minus for scholarship. Anyway, even if one does not consider any other factor, one must realize that there is a retirement age and each day wasted at home is a minus for that too.
What about the academic calendars that now lie under the jackboot of coronavirus? Here is a country where school calendar had already suffered disruptions in many places before, largely due to industrial actions. Or if organizers of a football league can cancel a season and await the next – as the Dutch and French leagues have now done due to the COVID-19 restrictions – how possible is it for a university or even government to declare a semester cancelled? This is apart from the fact that in many other developed countries, e-learning has since been filling the gorge created by the strange disease. Why then should we deny our own students the consolation of e-learning? Will the world wait for our children? No!
Perhaps in the Federal Government’s understandable eagerness, it, days after the meeting, directed the institutions to commence implementing e-learning immediately! But that is the point where another fundamental question arises. Are we really prepared for e-learning in the real sense of it? Definitely not. And that is why we should quickly ponder why some stakeholders have not only criticized the approach, but also why it is only too few institutions that have been able to start one way or the other. What are the obstacles? What processes should we urgently observe so that we can deploy e-learning in an effective and enduring way? There is the need for us to frankly answer these and other related questions.
Various state governments are also fast embracing the necessity for such technological diversification. From Oyo State to Lagos, Edo etc., initiatives are coming up to ensure that even if coronavirus has forced the suspension of the classroom activity, learning must not stop. For instance, the Oyo State Government recently constituted a sub-committee on its education emergency plan, to ensure seamless e-learning in its eight higher institutions, including the Ladoke Akintola University it co-owns with the Osun State Government and the newest, the First Technical University, Ibadan. While Edo has launched a package it calls EdoBest at Home E-learning (for basic schools), Lagos has approved e-portals for online education in its tertiary institutions, including the Lagos State University, Ojo. Good moves, but we must, at all levels and tiers, get the interventions right. What must be acknowledged are the significant and serious challenges that have to be overcome, relating to financial resources, intellectual capital and sustainability as well as the standard cum quality of delivery.
Researchers have identified four critical variables in the successful integration of ICT into any educational system and these include hardware, software, curriculum and teacher education. The needed hardware facilities include though not limited to learning studios and associated tools, hosting infrastructure, teleconferencing technology, a digital centre, course content conversion, and high-speed internet connectivity. To achieve our goal, certain steps must first be taken and the process involves our major phases.
First, there has to be proper conceptualization by which a clear contextual ideology and model is defined. This would involve the delineation of content and methods, including taking a critical look at the curriculum or syllabus itself, deciding whether or not the latter is to be pursued exactly the way it unfolds in the conventional class. This will help in unifying programme goals even without hindering creatively enriching and localizing the curriculum on the part of each institution, faculty, department and lecturer.
The second stage is to establish a framework for e-learning. This will help the delivery of the contents. As of now, some stakeholders believe that once you have a class on TV station, e-learning is done and dusted. Others are even banking on WhatsApp exchanges. Both media are truly digital but the kind of e-learning we are talking about, the one that is an alternative to, or a continuation – not just complementary or fill-gap – of classroom learning, has to be put in proper perspective or framework.
This takes us to the third key stage: mobilization. This is where we decide on and identify the hard and software needed for the project. As of now, most higher institutions in Nigeria are analogue-built. Indeed, they lack the main facilities needed to deliver the conventional system, not to talk of the modernist, digital wherewithal that e-learning demands. Consider the issue of the smartboard.
How many universities have and use this? Too few. This means a big minus as it narrows the choices towards laptop-oriented arrangements that will hardly give the tutor the suitable ambience. Now, the operationalization stage. It is after we have satisfied the initial requirements that we can go into full e-learning in a functional way. For now, it is like wanting to start from the top if we just declare that e-learning has started. If anything, the various governments at all levels are just trying to keep the students at home busy. This is commendable, but what we need is far more than that. Our education system has to be restructured and reformed.
To be concluded tomorrow.
Professor Salami is the Vice Chancellor, First Technical University (Tech-U), Ibadan