COVID-19 and exigency of online learning
Computation by UNESCO as of April 21, 2020, revealed that about 1.723 billion learners have been affected by coronavirus-induced closures that saw about 191 countries implementing nationwide closures and local closures, impacting thereby on 98.4 per cent of the world’s student population. In this regard, UNESCO recommended the use of distance learning programmes and open educational applications and platforms to reach learners without much disruption of education. Correspondingly, many schools have moved to online platforms.
In what is increasingly becoming a copycat affair, institutions in the developing world including Africa with deficient ICT tools are keying into the online learning binge without adequate preparation. Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa have all come out with proposals for online learning.
The other day Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Education directed tertiary institutions in the country to resume online teaching. This became imperative because of the uncertainty over the resumption of normal academic activities amid the coronavirus pandemic. The directive emanated from a teleconference the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, had with vice-chancellors, rectors and provosts of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education on the continuation of learning through virtual platforms. Heads of key educational agencies, namely, the Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Abubakar Rasheed; the Executive Secretary of the National Board for Technical Education, Dr. Masa’udu Adamu Kazaure; the Executive Secretary of the Universal Basic Education Commission, Dr. Hamid Bobboyi; and the Registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) and Prof. Ishaq Oloyede among others partook in the teleconference.
In the same vein, both primary and secondary school students are also factored into this initiative, as the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) is to work out modalities on how they could learn by using radio and television stations.
However, it is not known how much thinking went into the directive because of the obvious constraints that afflict such decision from the beginning. First, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is on strike. And second, the higher institutions in the countries are sadly deficient in ICT infrastructure. On the first constraint, the minister expressed optimism that the government would do its best to resolve the labour crisis. He was perhaps equally buoyed by the readiness of some vice-chancellors of private universities who claimed that they have top-grade virtual learning system, and hope of seeking the World Bank and UNICEF assistance on creating platforms for virtual learning classrooms.
The intention of the ministry of education is good so also is that of the state governments that have directed the use of the virtual platform to keep to the academic calendar. However, the directives are also hypocritical because they know for sure that the minimum ICT infrastructure and basic tools are not available in our educational institutions. It is noteworthy to state that virtual learning requires a panoply of ICT tools. These include interactive digital whiteboards, use of smartphones, laptop computers and notebooks. There is also the functionality aspect that borders on stable and affordable Internet connectivity, security measures such as filters and site blockers and constant electricity. More important, there is the skill component that includes basic ICT literacy skills, ICT use in pedagogical settings, and discipline-specific uses. In addition, there is a content component namely curriculum design per levels that include courses and loads.
We wonder if the minders of our educational system thought about these accoutrements of e-learning. To further ask some questions: How many of the teaching staff have handy personal computers? How many students have smartphones as well as laptops and tablets to hook up to online platforms? Even if a paltry few have, how do we ensure all students including those in remote villages have equitable access to ICT devices for learning? These issues cannot be addressed by a brainwave or seen-to-be-do-something attitude. It requires an honest policy thrust of strategic plans and execution discipline.
According to some assessment, few universities have video teleconferencing facility, interactive boards, and public address system while Internet services are non-existent. Where there are Wifi services, they are unreliable. Many don’t have constant electricity supply and the electric generator back-up is not ramifying and often suffers from lack of spare parts and shortage of diesel to run. The minders of education including attention-seeking vice-chancellors think that teaching online is synonymous with WhatsApp conversation, Facebook interaction, Instagram views and other social platforms.
E-learning as ASUU has rightly noted is “a type of learning that depends entirely on Internet-based resources and support system. E-learning requires certain behavioural changes and regulatory adjustments to make it work for the learner. It cannot be established by a mere ministerial directive and bureaucratic fiat but through careful and detailed planning, funding and training by those involved. None of these has been done in Nigeria”. It is interesting to note that students’ bodies from the aforementioned African countries have dismissed the process as “elitist and unaffordable”.
While the potential of ICT use in education is obvious, e-learning is impossible without adequate funding of research and education. We hope that the authorities in Nigeria will be provoked into rethinking the educational sector and fund it properly in ways that it will be possible to adapt to a new normal such that has been engendered by COVID-19. It is time to listen to the ASUU, which has done much in underscoring the rot in the educational system as well as proffering reasonable solutions. In other words, emergency e-learning in the middle of a pandemic is a good idea whose time has not really come.
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