Online learning

• How feasible?

The Federal Government has directed tertiary institutions to resume classes online though schools will remain closed as it battles the COVID-19 pandemic. But are the institutions, teachers and students ready?

Just about two weeks after the Federal Government closed schools to check the spread of the COVID-19, the Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu, has opened talks with administrators of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education on how they can transit to e-learning.

According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the COVID-19 pandemic has affected over 1.5 billion students in 165 countries – about 87 per cent of the school population.  The agency added that gaps in technology and access would further exacerbate the inequitable access to quality education – with the poor and vulnerable at a disadvantage.

During his virtual meeting with over 237 vice-chancellors, rectors and provosts, Adamu said Nigeria could not afford to be left behind the rest of the world in deploying e-learning despite forced school closrures.

He said: “COVID-19 has changed everybody. I am pleading with you to device alternative ways to make sure the education of our children will not stop. We have to create virtual learning environment.

“All I want is that we should fully engage our students. We are already speaking with the World Bank and UNICEF on how to create platforms for virtual learning classrooms.

“We need to take advantage of technology like the case in other parts of the world. We cannot shut down all schools when we have other means to teach our students.”

While the ministries of education in some states have activated classes on radio and television for primary and secondary school levels – with options for video streaming on You-tube and other Apps, it seems the same blanket solutions cannot apply at tertiary level and each institution has to find what works for it.

Are institutions ready for e-learning?

During Adamu’s meeting with school managers, those from the private universities expressed greater enthusiasm about activating e-learning in their institutions.  Already, Bowen University, Iwo has asked its lecturers to resume classes online.

A statement by the Head of Public Relations Unit, Toba Adaramola, noted that the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Joshua Ogunwole, had directed lecturers to upload teaching materials online and engage students in real-time interaction using the Bowen Smart School Hub (SSHUB).

He assured the students that the Directorate of Digital Services will be available to guide students who are yet to register on the SSHUB.

Crawford University, Igbesa spokesman Mr. Layi Olajumoke said learning had moved online even before the minister called for it.

“When they told our students to leave campus, the session was only about two weeks old.  We began using our e-portal which students used to register for courses, check results and pay fees for e-learning.  Lecturers have been having classes; each department has a timetable and the students are expected to log in at the time. It is not exactly like face-to-face but it is working,” he said.

Anchor University, Lagos (AUL) was on its first semester break when schools were ordered to close.  Though the institution uses Google classroom platform for e-learning, Assistant Registrar, Strategy & Communications, Sanusi Okesola, said the platform would only be activated if schools have to be closed for an extended period.

“We were on first semester break when the lockdown happened.  Organised lectuers will resume at resumption.  We have online platforms that lecturers can use to interact with the students – Google classrooms; AUL customised classrooms and their official emails.  But we need to resume before formal activities can start.”

Public institutions may not have it so smooth as not many have the platform in place for e-learning.  Nevertheless, with the Minister’s directive, they are beginning to find e-learning solutions.

Vice-Chancellor of the Federal University Oye Ekiti (FUOYE) Prof. Kayode Soremekun said the institution had started making efforts to roll out e-learning.

“We are working on it.  I have sent a directive to the Director of ICT so he is busy putting the protocols in place for practical implementation of this ministerial directive,” he said.

The Lagos State Polytechnic (LASPOTECH) is using its website to launch e-learning.  Its Deputy Registrar, Information, Mr. Olanrewaju Kuye, said the institution would begin with a few courses common to all programmes but would develop its e-learning platform when schools resume.

“We have started something this week – not on a large scale.  We are trying to get involved.  Not all the courses but general courses – like Mathematics, English, General Studies, library users.  We are using the polytechnic platform – students will go on our website and be able to access it.  Not on the large scale.  But when we resume, we will be able to do it fully,” he said.

A lecturer at the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), Dr. Mahfouz Adedimeji, was not surprised private universities are more prepared than their public counterparts.

Adedimeji, the former director, Centre for Peace and Strategic Studies, noted that private universities were better equipped for virtual learning because of their proprietors’ commitment and parents’ willingness to pay.

He called on the government to enhance Open and Distance Learning (ODL) infrastructure and delivery systems.

“Without equivocation, our public tertiary institutions are challenged infrastructurally and otherwise. I read the interview of the pioneer Vice Chancellor of National Open University (NOUN), Prof. Olugbemiro Jegede, some days ago and he mentioned some of the challenges. Being a Professor of ODL (Open and Distance Learning) or virtual learning, the issues he raised are pertinent and the challenges he mentioned include excessive and unnecessarily expensive broadband internet connection, unstable communication networks, and unreliable power situation. These are real problems apart from access by the students themselves.

“But that does not suggest that all public universities are not prepared for ODL. The University of Ilorin for instance has a Centre for Open and Distance Learning, established when Prof. Is-haq Oloyede, current JAMB Registrar, was the Vice Chancellor. I am one lecturer who for some years now has consistently created WhatsApp platforms for more virtual engagements with my students. There, questions are addressed, materials are shared and the physical class or face-to-face teaching is complemented. I am not the only person who does that.

“So, I think the Federal Government should walk the talk by empowering universities to compete favourably with others at home and abroad in boosting ODL infrastructure and delivery systems in our universities.”

A lecturer at the Olabisi Onabanjo University Ago-Iwoye, Dr. Olurinola Oluwakemi, said her institution had directed teachers to upload e-notes in line with the directive.

She, however, questioned who would bear the cost that lecturers would incur in taking online classes.

She said: “I can vouch that quite a number of lecturers don’t have working laptops; or don’t have light.  Where I am there has been no light for two days.  What is the lecturer to do? They should buy generator? Should everything be at the cost of the lecturers? What is the government planning to do to subsidise that? Are they talking with internet providers to create educational bundles and make it cheaper for teachers or schools to purchase? Or am I supposed to be running the same data at what cost to engage how many students? When they make policies, they really need to think through and do the needful before they begin to insist that universities, colleges and polytechnics should resume classes online.”

Are students ready for online classes?

A computer, or phone and Internet access are needed for students to participate in online classes.  However, these seem to be a luxury for many students.  Not all students have personal desktop computers or laptops; however, how many more have mobile phones. According to Statistica.com, Nigeria had over 92.3 million internet users in 2018.  That number is expected to rise to 187.8 million by 2023.

However, the website notes that three-quarter of the internet traffic comes from mobile phone which requires subscribers to buy data bundles.  To access these online classes, especially where they feature video and radio, students would have to invest in data, which many have complained is too expensive.

Nwanji Innocent, a student of Tai Solarin University of Education (TASUED), said not all students can afford the cost.

“E-learning, of course, is a nice initiative, but not every Nigerian student has a browsing phone that can run virtual learning effectively without delay. There are challenges like expensive data prices and poor supply of electricity. Those aforementioned two will pose serious threat to the feasibility of virtual learning,” he noted.

Another student, Favour Osuare, of The Polytechnic, Ibadan, also decried poor network connectivity in addition to high data cost.

“Virtual learning is not feasible at all because most students don’t have access to free Wi-Fi, thus, they spend huge money on data. Another problem is effectiveness and reliability, as network connections are very poor here in the country.

“I am not working; I depend on my parents for stipends. I can’t use the little I am collecting from them on data,” she declared.

On her part, Gift Adah, an undergraduate of University of Calabar (UNICAL), said indigent students would be at a disadvantage.

“As students, coping with data costs will tough because even now, recharging our phones have become very difficult not to talk of subscribing for data. It will be good for students who have the zeal to learn, but it will come at a high cost,” Adah said.

To make it possible, Alice Aderemi, a student of Ekiti State University (EKSU), said the government could provide free tertiary education while students  pay for data at any price.

She said: “It will make a lot of sense if government can provide free education for us, while we pay for data at any price. Many of us, students, cannot even feed ourselves, talk more of subscribing to stream lessons online. It won’t be possible as far as I know because students are living in terrible conditions just to graduate.”

However, Temi Lucas is among the fortunate students participating in online learning.  She said she was attending classes online in her university, Covenant University, Ota.  Also, she does not worry about data as she has access to wi-fi at home, a luxury for most other students.

“The day before the class, we are informed of what class we have on the Telegram group for our level; then we sign in for our own module.  Every day we have like two classes.  Attendance is always taken.  The lecturer can make video or audio; when he is done, he tells us class ended and then the chat opens for questions.  We type in our questions and he responds,” she said.

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