THE PUBLIC SPHERE with Chido Nwakanma
While the onward march of civilisation strides to online learning, it is instructive to look backwards for perspective. Technology has come to the rescue of education in these covid19 days by taking most of it online. The new paradigm comes with many opportunities as well as threats and challenges.
Distance learning, such as online courses was for most of Africa, the first route to accessing education. Many of our pioneers acquired education on the back of correspondence courses. It was such a big industry. The older generation will remember firms such as the Exam Success Correspondence College in Palmgrove, Lagos and the Rapid Results College of Tuition House, Wimbledon, London SW19 4DS, registered as a training provider.
The University of South Africa (UNISA) is one of Africa’s oldest higher institutions. Its forte was distance learning on the back of strong infrastructure of rail and postal services. UNISA has continued to build on its speciality and is one of the foremost globally in distance learning.
Covid19 has provided a positive spur for digital or online learning. As in the analogue era, many training providers have registered their presence for this era. There are many Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) providers and new players tapping into the increased demand not only for courses but the infrastructure, know-how, and human resources to deliver online. They are train-the-trainer providers enabling schools to become part of the new tradition.
With the spread of the pandemic, digital learning has become the path for many schools in Nigeria, from secondary to higher education. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that private institutions have led this move to online. Private secondary and even primary schools have been in the game now for upwards of eight weeks at the least. So, too, private universities. Pan Atlantic University, Lagos strengthened its digital programme by helping with data to all students.
Information Technology specialists are in greater demand in higher education for setting up and maintenance of the infrastructure for digital education. Other providers of digital education are vending business models, tools, and training modules.
Observational data points to a growing gulf that is an addition to the digital divide of the recent past. Public schools are almost out of the digital learning movement. We must thank the proactive managers of public broadcast service providers, radio, and television, for stepping up their game to provide support to state governments and schools with programmes on radio and TV. Unfortunately, their support applies mainly to secondary education. What happens to undergraduates in our public schools? Is there an opportunity for CSR by companies and institutions such as CaCovid?
Provision of higher education via distance education may deepen the inequalities in society. Challenges include the cost of data for students primarily, setting up the infrastructure for delivery and organising for it in public schools with their large numbers of faculties, departments, and year groups. Purchasing data is a challenge. In many parent groups on WhatsApp or Telegram, requests include leaving out one of two or three children from the online classes because of the cost of data. Now the schools have issued invoices for the service for the new term for most secondary schools. Then there is the challenge of electricity in homes either lacking the I-better-pass-my-neighbour or the resource for constant purchase of fuel to run it.
The infrastructure of desktops, laptops or tablets and phones may be missing in most homes. Some schools report that some students cannot take part because of the lack of smartphones in their homes. Technology will create and deepen social inequality in the delivery of education.
Experts predict that online courses will be the new normal for at least two years. The closest to what existed pre-covid19 may be a mix of online and classroom engagement.
Yet, online is not eureka, despite all the tooting of its horns by aficionados. It lacks the critical element of gregariousness that characterised the learning process. You learn by engaging with others, seeing the approaches and mannerisms of your teachers, encouraging each other in class. Even the hard-hitting criticisms and fun-at-your-expense of classmates is contributory to learning. I remember our long walks in secondary school from Apapa to Mile 2 as the new TinCan Island Port created a new road. We did so for companionship and to save on bus fares and they were a fundamental part of the socialisation process. Technology lacks that human element.
It is not surprising to read that students are not overly enthusiastic about the online courses we now force them to take. At undergraduate levels and more so at lower levels, students prefer and need interaction and engagement. Mentoring includes modelling behaviours and practices.
Some courses are plain inappropriate for online learning. They are practical courses and require some tactile and other touchy-feely elements. Think of practical sessions in laboratories for science students or those in performing arts, music, and others.
Then there are security and national interest concerns in the enthroning of technology as the lodestar for delivering education. Governments everywhere have firewalls and determine access and point to desired areas in line with national policies and strategic direction.
Policy. Policy. Strategic direction. Where are our Ministries of Education and National Planning as online evolves as a critical mode of delivering educational access in Nigeria? Where are those who can spot the opportunities implicit in the gaps the rush to online is creating? Step up.
Dear reader, what should our public universities do to be part of this global movement to online?
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