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How e-learning flops in public universities

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PHOTO: NESA

• Inadequate infrastructure, lack of expertise hamper progress
• Stakeholders list epileptic power supply, erratic Internet network as challenges

E-learning flops in Nigeria’s public universities because successive governments failed to invest in technologies and to support infrastructure, effective power supply and quality network connectivity. ICT experts and university teachers said underfunding of government-owned institutions hindered online learning in Nigeria’s public universities as a veritable response to the COVID-19.

One other major factor is inadequate training for lecturers and non-academic staff.

While many private universities have carried on with academic activities and conducted examinations in some cases, government-owned universities have crumbled under the weight of COVID-19. The difference is that: private universities have the infrastructure for virtual (online) education while the public ones do not.

As far back as 2014, Local Area Network (LAN) is commonplace in the nation’s tertiary institutions and can be a good platform for distributing and disseminating instructional materials.

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A study had proposed to improve quality of academics through online provision of learning resources based on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS); wired and wireless access to contents and availability of the system 24 hours daily.

The system led to development of virtual campus in one of the private universities and helped to improve the quality of teaching by making lecture notes available on the intranet, lecturer-student interaction, accessibility to teaching materials and reduced student’s idle time.

Experts say the creation of virtual campus will enhance e-participation and e-readiness of graduates for the labour market. In particular, it bridges the divide between developed and developing nations.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its technological readiness ranking for 82 of the world’s largest economies, including Nigeria, on access to internet, (internet usage and mobile phone subscriptions), digital economy infrastructure, (e-commerce, e-government, and cyber-security) and openness to innovation, placed Nigeria on number 79 (between 2013 and 2017) and 80 (between 2018 and 2022) in terms of institutional e-readiness and ability of institutions to use ICT to achieve its mission and vision.

Nigeria only ranked above Angola (81; 81) and Libya (81; 82), which highlighted the need for innovative solutions in the country’s ICT usage.

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In the United States, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and China, among others, online university education has continued seamlessly.

On April 2, Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, met with 237 vice chancellors, rectors, and provosts of tertiary institutions and directed that lectures should continue online. But three months down the line, that “virtual learning environment” remained a pipe dream.

Stakeholders and technology experts who described online learning in public universities as “a tall dream” said stumbling blocks were epileptic power supply, erratic internet networks, limited access and penetration of the Internet; universities being ill-equipped for online education, and poverty level of many students.

They added that most students in public universities could not afford laptop, smartphone, or tablet, while public universities lacked the infrastructure, funding, flexibility and personnel to make a switch to online teaching at short notice.

They noted that private universities, compared to their public counterparts, were more modern in terms of laboratories, ICT and other teaching equipment, and were more flexible in governance and administrative structures.

Vice Chancellors, University of Ibadan (UI), Prof. Idowu Olayinka; Technical University, Ibadan, Prof Ayobami Salami; former vice chancellor, Caleb University, Imota, Prof. Ayodeji Olukoju; erstwhile vice chancellor, Bells University of Technology, Ota, Prof. Adebayo Adeyemi; and Professor of Economics at Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago Iwoye, Sheriffdeen Tella, identified underfunding, lack of infrastructure and poor expertise as some of the challenges hindering online learning in the country’s public universities.

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According to Olayinka, government needs to invest in infrastructure, while training and retraining lecturers on new technology applications are imperative to making the switch possible.

In the same vein, Prof. Salami said the government should invest in technologies to meet up with the challenges.

“We cannot be talking about industrial revolution if we don’t invest. By now, we should be able to deploy our learning management systems in such a way that students can learn from home. Let’s not forget that the clock does not stop ticking. Why then should learning stop because of the pandemic?

“It is not magic. We must put a lot of machinery in place. We need to create an enabling environment within our tertiary institutions, the same phone used by students and lecturers will simply serve this function. Because the environment has not been created, students don’t see the need to use their phones beyond social media activities,” he added.

Prof. Olukoju said while e-learning was not impossible in public universities, it was not feasible in the short run because the system had been configured to deliver in-person lectures.

“The point is that public universities lack the infrastructure, funding, flexibility and personnel to make a switch to online teaching at short notice. Institutions in Europe and the United States were able to adapt because they had the funding and the basic ICT infrastructure to do so,” he said.

On why private universities were able to switch successfully, the professor of History said apart from their population, private institutions were more modern in terms of laboratories, ICT and other teaching equipment, and were more flexible in their governance and administrative structures.

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With inadequate funding (compounded by delay in release, and misappropriation or misapplication of disbursed funds); grossly inadequate or obsolete ICT infrastructure; capacity building deficit (training teaching and technical staff to deliver online lectures); and management of online examinations, Olukoju said online learning was not feasible.

On his part, Prof. Adeyemi said no public university in the country was prepared for online learning.

The former vice chancellor noted that the Nigerian university system was a product of a country at the bottom of the ladder of knowledge economy index in 2019 with a value of 2.04, while corresponding values for the United Kingdom and the United States were 9.09 and 9.08, respectively.

He said: “The major challenge of e-learning in Nigeria is lack of adequate and accessible infrastructure like constant power supply and fast network connectivity, which are results of underfunding of government-owned universities and other tertiary institutions.”

To address the problems, Prof. Adeyemi canvassed provision of adequate funding for procurement of hardware and software facilities, saying: “It is also crucial for universities to domesticate these facilities by ensuring that they are homegrown through development and industrial production of the hardware with corresponding development of the related software.”

On British and American Universities leveraging technologies for online learning, the scholar stated that there was wide gap between Nigeria and the developed world in application of technologies, especially in adoption and implementation of ICT.

On the possibility of making facilities in distance learning centres available for regular students, Adeyemi said there would be competing demands, which would result in poor service delivery, not only to regular students but also to those on distance learning programme.

He, however, advised that institutions could leverage the facilities in distance learning centres for online teaching of regular students.

In his contribution, Prof Tella said the recurring problem of underfunding would not make e-learning work in the nation’s public universities.

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