For almost three weeks now, Nigeria’s tertiary institutions have failed to move their classes online as directed by the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu. We know that members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, who are supposed to upload their lecture notes online, are still on strike, but polytechnic and colleges of education lecturers are working. Yet, there are no online activities in these institutions. Could it be that the education minister has equally moved on since it appears he is also no longer talking about the matter again?
Recall that the minister had through teleconferencing with all vice-chancellors, provosts and rectors of tertiary institutions in the country ordered that learning in tertiary institutions be shifted online with immediate effect. He had argued that since Nigeria did not know when it would get out of the disruptions to its school system occasioned by the threat of COVID-19 pandemic, schools should keep running online as being done in other parts of the world. He further promised that the Federal Government would work on resolving the issues between it and ASUU to speed up the migration.
Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday gave an order that the striking lecturers should be paid their February and March salaries, but the labour crisis is far from being over as the lecturers have kicked against government’s condition for effecting the payment. Except the lecturers call off their strike, there isn’t going to be any semblance of online teaching at the university level. And considering the general lull in e-learning activities across other public tertiary institutions in the country, it seems the minister’s order is dead on arrival. By now, both the Federal Government and ASUU ought to have reached an agreement if there was going to be any online teaching. So far, there is nothing like that. Annoyingly, the government is still giving conditions for paying lecturers. That is like threatening to do away with your soldiers amid a battle. Who does that? What stops government, for example, from just acceding to the lecturers’ demand now and reviewing its stand later after COVID-19. You may say doing this is postponing the evil day, but who says lecturers must always go on strike before labour issues are resolved.
We need to get all hands on deck for any form of online teaching to take place in our universities. Already, the education sector in this country is confronted with myriads of challenges. Shifting education completely online in a country like Nigeria is like trying to squeeze water from the rock. You can imagine what it means to go online in a country where 47.1 per cent of the population do not have access to the internet. You are also dealing with the twin problems of poor connectivity and epileptic power supplies. Even, the advanced countries, with all their technologies and internet penetration, are still working on incorporating new educational technology to cope with the millions of students that they have to deal with in this pandemic season. Meanwhile, these countries have been deploying one form of an online programme or the other in their schools well before COVID-19. But, despite their experience, they are still thinking of ways to solve the problem of the limitation of internet access in some homes.
Honestly, when one looks at the way the Nigerian government is handling this online migration, it’s very obvious that it is not serious about it at all. Even in Africa, serious countries are getting ICT providers to offer their tools and platforms at little or no cost to enable them to reach millions of their ‘marginalised’ students. Universities in Rwanda, South Africa and Tunisia are partnering with internet providers to overcome the challenge of high data costs; they are negotiating zero-rated access to specific educational information websites. A university in South Africa, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and private universities like the Ashesi University in Ghana, are reportedly offering data bundles to their students and staff. These countries are just trying to make the best use of the difficult situation that this pandemic has imposed on mankind all over the world. If Nigeria is serious at all, the government should have been more proactive than it is right now.
The education minister himself has rightly acknowledged that only three private universities or so had commenced some form of online teaching since he issued his directive. Ordinarily, that should be a source of worry if the government truly means business. If out of hundreds of tertiary institutions in the country, only three had begun some form of online learning weeks after a government’s directive, the minister should be the one telling Nigerians, without being prompted, the reasons why others are not yet online and what is being done to get them there as soon as possible.
Of course, the bitter truth is that Nigerian public tertiary institutions cannot go online for now. Let’s start from the minimum requirement for both teachers and students to migrate online -they need personal computers. How many students and indeed lecturers in Nigerian public tertiary institutions have personal computers? Assuming they have this tool, how many of them can afford the cost of data? The power supply in Nigeria is probably one of the worst in the world, so how would they keep the systems running? Nigerian universities spend billions of naira on diesel every year. What about the high bandwidth costs? Most of the smart boards in many schools are not connected to the internet. As of 2018, only 92.3 million Nigerians had access to the internet. Majority of the people in the remote areas are still unreached. These are just a tip of the iceberg as there are far more complex factors militating against online education in Nigeria. But, we can’t just fold our hands and assume that the situation will change without taking appropriate steps to move forward. Nigeria can’t afford to remain on the same spot.
Nobody is asking the education minister to wave a magic wand and right every wrong thing militating against online teaching. That would be unrealistic. But, he should at least, show some commitment to providing solutions to some of the problems. Migrating teaching online requires much more than mere ministerial order. He should be seen to be taking some appropriate actions towards righting some obvious anomalies that can hinder migration. Take, for instance, the way the Registrar of the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board, Prof Ishaq Oloyede, is handling the problems of the exam body. He is leveraging on technology to reposition the board. Cases of exam malpractices are gradually reducing. Is the board perfect now? No, but there are obvious improvements. The education minister could seize this opportunity to do something new in Nigeria’s educational landscape. Some lecturers are saying this government lacks the moral right to tell higher institutions to go online. These lecturers can rarely be faulted. Sincerely, a government that has not provided IT-backed infrastructure that could support e-learning shouldn’t be issuing an order for online education. The minister can champion the cause of providing ICT-backed infrastructure in all Nigerian universities and other tertiary institutions.
This brings me to the issue of the virtual library. I don’t know how many Nigerian higher institutions that can today boast of having online libraries. I know that the National Universities Commission came up with the idea of a National Virtual Library Project in 2001. The project was aimed among others at improving the quality of teaching and research in institutions of higher learning. Eleven universities were selected as pilot centres for the first phase of the project, with the hub at NUC. Sadly, almost 20 years after, Nigeria is still struggling with this project. How do you run a virtual library without speedy internet connections?
In the same vein, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NTDA) was established in 2001 with a mandate to use information technology to enhance education. What is the benefit of having an agency that cannot make Nigeria’s education globally competitive? The truth is if all these relevant bodies on education have been doing their jobs well, moving classes online at a time like this shouldn’t have been this cumbersome. The least that the minister and other heads of education-based agencies can do for the country now is to use this crisis as an opportunity for effecting long-term changes in our educational systems and delivery.
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the Editor-in-Chief of franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org