Given the COVID-19 pandemic’s new norm of “social distancing” and the universal wearing of face masks, it was only to be expected that the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, would ask the tertiary institutions to begin to explore new technology to educate the students. He took time last week to organise a virtual conference of vice chancellors of universities, rectors and provosts of polytechnics, colleges of education and other institutions.
He had declared: “We need to take advantage of technology like the case in other parts of the world. We can’t shut down our schools when we have other means to teach our students. We can’t be held down by COVID-19. We have to deploy all e-platforms to keep our universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and other schools open. We have to create a virtual learning environment.”
Mallam Adamu’s anxiety is shared worldwide. The United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO) had lamented how COVID-19 prevented one billion students from attending schools, colleges and universities. For many, therefore, online lessons and home schooling have become an everyday reality. One of the first school systems to announce its recourse to e-learning was the California State University which announced last month that its fall semester would be wholly online. Its decision to keep nearly all classes online for the fall semester was quite remarkable for the sheer size of approximately 481,000 students scattered across 23 campuses.
The logic of the online classes brooks little dispute. As long as public safety demands social distancing it is impossible to have class studies as we know it before the coronavirus pandemic. Classrooms would require three times more space even if the crowding can be tolerated as safe. As the minister stated, it is impossible to surrender the decision on the education of the students to the pandemic, when e-learning is a viable alternative. E-learning simply means the use of electronic technologies to access educational curriculum outside of the traditional classroom. It is no longer considered a new technology, having been available for nearly 20 years, although most traditional classroom institutions often did not have overriding need to offer online instructions.
Nigerian institutions seem to be lagging in e-learning, although several hopeful shoots are sprouting. The Coal City University in Enugu seems to be at home with online instructions and have promised to run its programmes fully online. Almost all the private universities seem to have perfected their systems and are ready to deliver. The laggards are chiefly the older institutions
It was therefore not a surprise that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), University of Ibadan’s Publicity Committee promptly issued a pamphlet stating the conditions that must exist before the minister’s suggestions would be implemented. Several of its observations are valid and must be addressed. Among its complaints is the lack of electricity. The lecturers may have generating sets but what about the students?
“Online learning depends critically on an effective library system with online resources and seamless access from across the globe,” the union said. No such library exists in Nigeria, it concluded. The union is doutful about a “seamless access to the internet.” It is unsure how the online learning will be funded and laments the fact that lecturers spend between N20, 000 and N40,000 per month on data and another N20,000 to fuel their generators, in addition to having to procure a laptop computers.
In spite of what would appear like a negative attitude to e-learning by the ASUU, we urge the minister to negotiate e-learning with the union. Until a vaccine is found to prevent coronavirus infections, it is impossible to operate classrooms in the traditional sense. The actual option is indefinite suspension of the education calendar. The issues of internet access, cost of bandwidth, training and irregular power supply should be discussed and assurances must be given by the government.
We think this is an opportunity for our universities to move forward, modernise, and make a bid to catch up with their counterparts abroad. We appreciate ASUU’s long struggle for the advancement of our universities. This is time to strive for an upgrade for the institutions. The absence of e-learning in our universities is one reason they appear antiquated and backward. The universities must be properly equipped to meet technology demands. Broadband must be procured and the price of data lowered so that students can afford them. We cannot be tired of repeating that until this country has adequate electricity supply, it is not going anywhere.