The world is facing its most trying and unprecedented times as the last few weeks have been most challenging for almost everybody. What started in Wuhan, China, as an epidemic, has put the entire world in disarray. Major streets across the globes have become empty. Both the rich and the poor are being ravaged by the plague of COVID-19, which the World Health Organisation has rightly described as a pandemic. Workplaces have been shut; religious and social gatherings banned and many countries are on total lockdown, in a bid to curb the spread of this viral disease. Expectedly, schools are also affected across the board. Every day people are being told to embrace social distancing and suddenly things like human contacts, hitherto considered as free gifts of life, are becoming very expensive.
No one knows when this whole chaos will end, so people are making different kinds of adjustments to cope with the situation while it lasts. Many companies have shifted their operations online. Likewise, many schools have opted for e-learning, making use of available technology for teaching and learning.
Universities around the world are making use of communication technology to ease the effects of the global pandemic on their academic calendars. In China, universities are going for online teaching instead of in-class teaching; the ones in Australia have moved their classes online just as UK universities have suspended face-to-face teaching. Turkey started its remote university classes on March 23. In Kenya, universities have activated communication between lecturers and students via social media platforms and emails while classes have gone totally online in the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. Teachers in France have been working with their students on Zoom.
Just a few days ago, Ghana’s President Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, directed the ministry of education to collaborate with the ministry of communications in rolling out open learning programmes in response to the closure of all educational institutions in the country. In the same vein, Mount Kenya University’s Vice-Chancellor Peter Wanderi has announced the extension of online teaching platforms for regular students to facilitate the learning process. And to take care of the over six million students that have experienced disruption to their studies, ten North African and 12 Arab countries have begun work on an e-learning initiative to facilitate open and online education.
These are some of the steps being taken across the globe to bridge the gap created by school closure in the wake of COVID-19. Unfortunately, while all these activities are going on in other parts of the world, the Nigerian government has not said anything about steps being taken to take care of its students’ community. Rather, the only message from the Federal Government was a total closure of all tertiary institutions and FG-owned unity schools until further notice. A statement issued by the National Universities Commission simply said universities would remain shut for one month while the Education Minister, Adamu Adamu, said tertiary institutions would remain shut indefinitely.
Assuming government has been overwhelmed by the burden of controlling the spread of COVID- 19, hence its silence on options for learning for its teeming student population, one would have expected the higher institutions themselves to at least say something, but as it is, they too are not helping matters. The silence in our universities has been deafening. To worsen the situation, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, decided to choose this time, of all times, to embark on an indefinite strike. One wonders how the academic body manages to feel comfortable being on a strike at a time when researchers across the globe are busy looking for a solution to a pandemic that is ravaging the entire world. This kind of action makes one query the essence of having Research and Development as a core component of tertiary education in Nigeria when researchers can be nowhere to be found at a critical time of societal needs.
By now, our researchers should be adding their voices to the various efforts being made towards developing a vaccine or cure for COVID-19. After all, universities are expected to proffer solutions to societal problems. This is a wrong time for ASUU to embark on an indefinite strike. This should be a time of strategising and proffering solutions. This is the time for everyone to get involved. Besides, I think Nigerian universities should also be more forthcoming on their responses to the challenges posed to their students by COVID-19.
As it is, religious organisations are doing far better in terms of their responses to the effects of this pandemic on their primary constituencies. Many of them have devised other means of getting the attention of their members following several government directives prohibiting either gathering or limiting the number of people allowed to congregate at a time. Almost all the churches have switched to online platforms for their services. How come religious organisations are working hard to keep their flocks and both government and higher institutions in Nigeria are just moving on as if all is well? No word on how to keep the students busy or keep them engaged using available online technology! Should teaching and learning be restricted to the classrooms alone in this 21st century?
Nigeria has always been described as a religious society. Corona Virus has further exposed the smartness of our religious bodies and the dullness of those in charge of our public educational institutions. This is not an attempt to blame any religious organisation for having the foresight to deploy technology in reaching their audiences. Instead, it is a wakeup call to managers of our educational institutions to adopt and use available technology to help their students at a time like this.
Apart from the National Open University of Nigeria, which runs online, I doubt if there is any other public university in the country that has capacity for online teaching. This is despite the launch of the Nigerian Communication Satellite known as NIGCOMSAT by the Nigerian Government first in 2007 and then NIGCOMSAT-IR in December 2011, to provide critical ICT backbone infrastructure to support e-learning, among others in the country.
What is the essence of investing so much money in a communication satellite if it cannot be deployed at a time of need? Those in charge of NIGCOMSAT, the commercial arm of Nigeria’s space centre, have consistently claimed that the technology has the capacity to cover entire Africa. If that is the case, why is the country still struggling to deploy internet connectivity facilities to its schools to aide e-learning? If we are truly a serious country, by now, all the schools in urban and rural areas should have been connected to the e-learning services.
No doubt, COVID-19 has exposed Nigeria’s unpreparedness for e-learning. But, we can’t afford to remain where we are. That is why every institution needs to start thinking of how to deploy available technology in the world for the good of their students at this critical period. Universities should as a matter of urgency migrate online. This shouldn’t be another season of waiting and probably wasting for the Nigerian student. There is no reason why any higher institution worth its name should suspend all academic activities until the end of Corona Virus with all the available resources and technology in the world today. The minimum expected of them is to upload teaching resources online for students to have access to them. At least this will give the students the opportunity to learn on their own.
This is also an opportunity for telecommunications companies like Glo, MTN and the rest of them to make a difference in Nigeria’s educational institutions. They can as part of their corporate social responsibility decide to boost internet facilities in universities and other educational institutions or provide data at cheaper rates to help poor students have access to the internet for online learning.
I know there are obvious stumbling blocks to digital learning in Nigeria. Many students don’t even have access to devices while the cost of buying data is still high. These challenges and others have provided telecommunications companies with a huge opportunity of making a difference in Nigerian higher institutions by providing e-learning solutions and broadband connectivity to universities and other higher institutions.
They can as part of their corporate social responsibility decide to boost internet facilities in universities and other higher institutions or help poor students who have limited or poor internet access to enhance online learning.