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‘Universities should develop local materials to fight COVID-19’

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Michael Abiola Omolewa


Michael Abiola Omolewa, emeritus professor of Adult Education at the University of Ibadan (UI), the 32nd President of the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) spoke to IYABO LAWAL on the need for collaboration between researchers and research users, as well as the need to develop our local materials to fight diseases and viruses, especially the COVID-19 pandemic.

A month after federal government’s directive to higher institutions to switch to virtual learning, most of the conventional institutions have not been able to do so. Why do you think this is so?
Let me take it from the historical point of view because the lockdown and lack of access to learning at the conventional level is not new in Nigeria. Before any university was established in the country, and the first was done in 1948, the University of London was already producing graduates of the institution through distance learning.

In other words, there were no universities in Nigeria, yet we were producing degree holders. As far back as June 1927, when a gentleman from Ijebu Ode, called Emmanuel Odukoya Ajayi, took his examinations at the university level. In 1922, he took the London matriculation examination. In 1925, he took the intermediate B.A. (Hons) degree examination and 1927, he took the final degree examination of the University of London and passed, university education was already taking place through virtual learning.

In other words, although Ajayi had no lecturers, because there was no university and had only the inadequate library at Saint Andrew’s College, Oyo, where he was a teacher, he still succeeded in getting university education and thus demonstrated the potential of virtual learning usually done at distance. It is, therefore, possible for people to have university education without the conventional universities.

However, the history of university education shows that conventional universities offer the best form of higher education and the preparation of learners through the collegiate system of sustained and close interaction between the teachers and the learners and among the learners themselves.

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The role of government in supporting the learning during the colonial period is commendable. Government made its resources and facilities, notably the efficient postal services, dependable electricity supply and conducive learning environment, available to the students of virtual learning. People, therefore, comfortably stayed at home and took the university examinations. The degrees awarded were products of examinations administered with integrity and credibility.

The supervision of the examination involving invigilation was taken seriously and the colonial government, following the traditions of the university, ensured that learning was accompanied with character development. Thus, the student was not allowed to have access to materials that could assist him or her in answering questions and the colonial office arranged for senior inspectors of education to take care of the examination requirements of the learners.

The problem is that now, that is going to be more difficult, because the students in Nigeria are scattered all over the country; the universities that would be examining them are different and also scattered all over the country. Furthermore, the courses for which they would be examined are also different.

Are you going to have all the students of the various universities come over to a particular centre? Who is going to be the invigilator there? Who is going to coordinate the examination process? Who is going to have access to the examination instruments? Who will turn all the examination scripts to the various universities for assessment and accreditation? This is not a simple thing that we can do casually as we do many things in our lives.

We must remember that the degree of the university is like the currency; it has to have a standard, a value on it. Once that value is not there, it becomes a fake currency and fake currencies can only produce fake materials that are a complete loss and colossal failure.

The country should not be allowed to get set for another failure, as we have failed in many other areas already. When you view the state of the nation many years after independence, you will see the effect of many missed opportunities for development, failures and frustrations. We cannot explain the failures by the quality of products that universities have successfully churned out. Instead, we should acknowledge the fact that the university system has helped us; it has produced human resources, human capital that are credible and who have manned all the sectors in the country effectively.

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Now, we do not have the luxury to go back and fault all those things we have produced by having a wave of fake, half-baked graduates that would be turned into the market without going through the real effective grooming. While there are in many of the universities, like UI, external studies institutes with considerable experience and expertise, the lesson taught is that the students study at home, then come for the face-to-face revision courses, followed by the examinations at different times, ranging from three to four weeks.

What are the online facilities that are available now? Where is the electricity? Where is the computer? What is the computer skill of the students? What is the computer skill of the teacher? What are the facilities for safeguarding the credibility and integrity of learning and evaluation system? I don’t see much of it around the country that is saddled with many problems.

I would, therefore, advise caution and suggest that we do not go into the wilderness when we are not really ready for the bold experiment. Where universities are however satisfied that the integrity of the degrees can be guaranteed, they should be encouraged to proceed with the experiment.

What can we do as a country to get our conventional institutions ready for virtual learning?
Every country in the world is now moving into the online learning system, the new name being given to virtual learning, and the earlier we went along that direction, the better for the country.

Happily, we have people who have successfully introduced the innovation in learning in the county. You have right from the very beginning, Prof. Afolabi Ojo, the first vice chancellor of Open University in Nigeria, which was established by Alhaji Shehu Shagari in 1983. He had the vision for the establishment of 39 learning centres, with which he was hoping to prepare people for the degree programmes of that university.

Ojo was supported by Hamidu Erubu, a pioneer in the field drawn from the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, as well as Prof. Olugbemiro Jegede, former vice chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), an accomplished and global authority on open and distance learning, who laid the foundation for the work of NOUN.

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In addition to the pioneers, we now have people such as Prof. Rasheed Aderinoye, who, before he was appointed the executive secretary of nomadic education, had studied the work of the National Teachers Institute (NTI) in Kaduna that was already producing graduate teachers through open and distance learning. We also have Prof. Stella Nwizu, who made the study of distance learning an attractive venture.

We, therefore, have people who have demonstrated the point that the country can move in the direction of open and distance learning, and that it is by no means impossibility for us in the country to succeed. Open and distance learning is thus what has been done in the past. What is being done now is a demonstration of the fact that it is possible to be done in the future.

Basically, there are three things that are required; the first one is maintaining the integrity of examinations. We already know that in conventional universities where the teacher is physically present, students still try to cheat by smuggling materials that would assist in answering questions and many universities now install CCTV in most of the examination halls. We should now ask how do you want to handle online learning process and evaluation of learning to ensure that the integrity of learning and examination is maintained.

The teacher who is to prepare the questions must also be trained in preparing the online directed, online-focused and online-induced type of questions, which are different from the usual essays type questions. There has to be uniformity across universities and disciplines, so that we do not end up having different measurement styles that would create gaps among institutions and disciplines. This would be to ensure that in a democratic society, a common level-ground standard is provided for everybody.

Finally, you have to train those lecturers to be able to prepare online course materials, because those who are not able to do so will mess the whole system up. So, there should be a training programme for teachers, discipline and condusive environment for the learner and uninterrupted supply of electricity, so that the student doesn’t get halfway and there is either a network failure or electricity interruption and the poor student is confused and frustrated, just as the university would be.

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There also has to be training of the minds of every Nigerian to appreciate the point that learning does not take place exclusively in the classroom, as there is the non-formal type of learning often employed often by the working or self-directed learners.

The mind of Nigerians must also be trained to appreciate the investment and sacrifice being made by the adult learner whose determination leads to the production of the work force that constitutes part of the development process of this country.

Talking about research, other countries are tasking their universities to come up with solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. Why are African universities at the lowest ring when it comes to research and innovation?
There is a lot of research going on in African universities, in spite of the limited encouragement and facilities. On most occasions, policies are decided without empirical or research input and the result has often been predictable failure of such policies and a waste of time and resources. Many of research findings are stocked up in libraries and shelves, with nobody prepared to use them. On most occasions in Africa, there is little collaboration between research producers and research users.

In many of the advanced countries, institutes and corporations commission research, which are therefore purpose-oriented, need-driven research that can be effectively used for development purpose. I know, for example, that in many of African universities, there is a lot of research that has already been done with respect to learning and measurement. We know that some of the top universities in Africa have received global commendation for trail-blazing research.

The question is how much of the research that is being used or applied. If there are areas that research has not met the expectations of society, perhaps one should ask if there have been enough research funds allocated and adequate incentives given to universities.

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One should observe that there is generally a disconnect between research producers and users. Sometimes, the researcher is frustrated when all the findings that should help in the development of the nation have been ignored in policy decisions and pronouncements. Some of the universities just continue with research because that is part of the requirements of every university teacher.

On other occasions, the universities take the initiative to attract research funds and support. For instance, the University of Legon in Ghana at some stage moved to cultivate a deliberate partnership with some of the entrepreneurial centres and they were able to work together. I also know that in Nigeria, many of the universities are already involved with entrepreneurship building for teachers and students. Some also work with industries.

What is perhaps desirable is that the little that universities are doing should be recognised and appreciated and more encouragement given to partnership-building among research, researchers and research findings users. There has to be greater partnership and trust among all the stakeholders, covering every field of endeavour- economics, science, social science, humanities, medicals and agricultural, among others.

This should be done in all universities, research institutes and every level in policymaking must deliberately pick the direction, encouragement and guidance of researchers. I believe that if this step is taken, our mistakes in Africa would be fewer and we can make progress with development that is currently slower in the region.

With the continuous spread of COVID-19, our universities by now ought be coming out with innovations that could help in curbing the scourge, but this is unfortunately not so. What is your take on this and if it is true, why is it so?
There is already a lot of work being done in this field in Africa. Last week, UI drew attention to the work of two of our researchers who had already indicated some of the materials-herbs and medications from local materials; that can help build the immune system that can fight COVID-19, so that once you have that immunity built into you, it is able to repel whatever virus is coming to the body.

But instead of developing these findings, we are waiting for one vaccine from somewhere. There is a lot of research that can be done on how diseases, such as COVID-19, can be tackled, using local materials that the country is very rich in.

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