Connectivity headaches as students adjust to virtual learning

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Nigeria’s tertiary institutions go slow in a face-to-face classroom model. But the stranded students in this traditional arrangement are frustrated already by a learning model that freezes during emergencies, writes Gbenga Ogundare


AS Nigeria navigates through a devastating pandemic strike and striking lecturers adamant about returning to the classroom, Mojisola Alabi requires no rocket science to realise she will need an extra year to wrap up her Mass Communication programme at the University of Lagos.

“I am supposed to be on industrial training now,’ gripes the 300 Level student, ‘but that will have to wait till next year again because higher institutions are still on strike.”

The budding broadcast journalist isn’t the only one nursing her frustration. Several millions of youths scattered across the nation’s 174 universities, 134 polytechnics and monotechnics, and 220 colleges of education are watching helplessly as their lives continue in a tailspin until the coronavirus strikes ebb and the federal government reaches a compromise with striking lecturers.

Amid the lockdowns and restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 attack, 1.2 billion learners have been shut out of schools across 186 countries, the World Education Forum says. That’s more than 73 percent of the world’s enrolled student population, a figure significant enough to spawn a new world education order.

E-learning now becomes the only opportunity to save the students’ minds from addling. And in Nigeria, majority of tertiary institutions are still struggling to shift to this entirely remote learning plan.

Only Osun State University, a state-owned institution in the southwest, migrated online during the nationwide lockdown when it administered matriculation oaths to its new students on Wednesday, May 13 to kick off academic activities in a virtual space.

But the transition at the University of Osun has merely exposed a deep disparity in the system: a technology and internet access divide Olu Arowosegbe fears will limit the ability of both teachers and students to connect seamlessly with one another in a virtual classroom.

“One is the problem of internet access in terms of economic cost,’ argued the Law Lecturer.

“Two is the problem of internet connectivity and network issues,’ worried Arowosegbe.

Move over the normal

When it’s all over, certainly, things will not remain as they were. It never is since SARS hit the world in 2003; e-commerce changed life as it was before the epidemic. Even now, sustaining learning in bad times will become a hot potato in the education sector across the world. And e-learning, as the game changer, will get more attention – especially at the tertiary level.

Professor Olugbemiro Jegede, Nigeria’s foremost expert on open and distance learning, foresees two things resulting from this pandemic that hit Nigeria’s education.

“First, the formal face-to-face teaching and learning is changing and giving way to ODeL as the mainstream teaching and learning vehicle,” the pioneer vice chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) said recently.

“Second, the way is being paved for the eventual merger of the face-to-face instruction and ODeL instruction. Very soon, no one will know the difference.”

The change Jegede sees coming soon in Nigeria has begun elsewhere, though as some sort of innovation—not a fail-proof measure during disruption.

In the US, for instance, the rate of e-learning (or Open and Distance e-Learning, (ODeL) adoption, in peace time, has been increasing by 20 percent annually. It’s declining in the UK by 5 percent; Canada’s expanding by 10 percent to 15 percent. Other developed countries are moving at appreciable rates, too.

In Nigeria, there’s no figure yet. But NOUN, a federal university, is the only institution practising ODeL. And it has witnessed more than 50 percent annual adoption rate for years after its new take-off in 2004. Others—the University of Benin, the University of Ibadan, the Obafemi Awolowo University, the University of Lagos, and the University of Abuja—are also fiddling with distance learning, which they try to pass off as e-learning.

What these other institutions adopt is no ODeL; otherwise they will still be running now. Their model, whatever it is, has offered them no resilience in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. So the regulator had to step in.

“As part of the measures to contain and prevent the spread of the coronavirus throughout the country, approval was granted for the closure of all schools,” the Nigerian University Commission announced in a March 20 circular.

Later, Education Minister Adamu Adamu teleconferenced with VCs, rectors, and provosts, urging them to switch online. It was a tall order.

Watch it, glitches ahead

“I do not see any prospect in an immediate compliance with the directive of the minister,” said a former Caleb University VC, Prof. Ayodeji Olukoju. “It’s not going to be feasible in the short run.”

Olukoju isn’t exactly bluffing. Nigeria is the 31st nation with the worst internet speed, according to Cable Magazine.

And yet, these institutions, for one, will require a Learning Management System (LMS) that enables them deliver and track educational contents in virtual space.

It also comes with a huge pricing, in addition to tranches of implementation expenses such as professional consultancy, hardware installation, software customisation, data migration and integration with other hosts of software, all of which could grind academic activities to a collapse in the event of poor internet connection.

But this problem, inability to adapt, is, however, not peculiar to Nigeria.

In the wake of the pandemic in the US, Harvard University, Columbia University, Princeton University and others switched to online classes, as they shuttered the campuses. It was an attempt, really. And it was fraught with challenges—for both students and school authorities.

“The difficulty is faculty who don’t have experience in teaching online, they have to shift quickly, as well as translate class materials online,” Al Jazeera quoted a don in Georgetown University as saying in March. “Not all students will have access to sufficient technology,” he said.

“If, at home, they don’t have good broadband, the right hardware, this could be a problem that we have to scramble to fix.”

It was also a whole lot of scrambling in the UK. According to Study EU, many universities across the country have limited or completely suspended face-to-face teaching.

Clearly, not many nations, developed or developing, have any plan for e-learning as back-up for when things go bang in traditional education. For many, online education is only an alternative, a second chance, in the bi-modal system of learning, for those who can’t access education in brick-and-mortar institutions. But there is a difference. As vulnerable as its application seems now to the viral pandemic, online education, in the developed world, has got a strong foothold. Post-COVID, these countries will have a solid launchpad to adapt online learning for a smooth run during emergencies in the future.

That change, to hazard a guess, begins in a year’s time. Not in Nigeria, though. Whatever gives in Nigeria, it won’t start at the same point as the US, the UK, and others.

As an alternative, for one, online education has not caught on in Nigeria. It doesn’t matter that a few universities have satellite campuses in some states, where a lot of chalking and talking takes place, or that they host an online portal for registration.

It’s more than that actually. Other than NOUN, none of the other ivory towers is faithfully implementing what  ODeL experts and policy makers prescribe as models: the industrial model, where the process gets simplified and minimum supervision becomes the overriding goal; the mass-media model, where teaching and learning take place on radio and television; and the small-scale model which largely depends on the internet.

However, considering its economies of scale, reach, and access, the small-scale model appears the one to beat.

And that’s the model open universities across the world deploy, in peace time and otherwise.  NOUN’s uninterrupted run, for instance, since COVID-19 hit, speaks volumes about the model. “NOUN as it stands today is the only university in Nigeria which academic calendar do not suffer any form of dislocation occasioned by the closure of all schools in country,” said Ambrose Bernard Gowong, communications officer, ACETEL, Abuja. The Africa Centre of Excellence on Technology Enhanced Learning is the World Bank-sponsored Education Management System that runs NOUN.

Other open universities weathering the storm of the pandemic, like the UK Open University, too, have switched online, from face-to-face learning, for the remaining part of the session in 2020.

For this model of education management system to be effective, two things are important: connectivity and network. And the internet provides both of them. Where it works, again in most open and air universities, the plusses are staggering.

As of 2018, NOUN, with 11 faculties, was gunning for 500,000 enrolled students in its 78 study centres across the six geo-political zones. It’s projecting one million by 2024.

The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India, founded in 1987, boasts more than 4 million students. It has 21 schools of studies, 67 regional centres, 2,667 learner support centres, and 29 overseas partner institutions. Its programmes add up to 228 certificate, diploma, degree, postgraduate and doctoral programmes. All of these are managed by 810 faculty members, 33,212 academic counsellors from various institutions.

Are the cost of running all of these not too heavy for the students and management?

In both NOUN and IGNOU, and even in all open universities, the fees are affordable. When the student population rose from 10,000 to 100,000 in the world’s largest varsity, fees also fell from 6,251 rupees to 1,370 rupees, according to a UNESCO study on e-learning in developing countries.

NOUN’s freshmen paid N36,000 in 2018, and its returning students paid about 50 percent of that.

It then becomes curious why NOUN, with its ODeL schema, remains resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic when top-notchers like the UI, UNILAG, and other varsities lie prostrate in Nigeria.

Education technology experts like Janet Adeogun see a number of reasons. And the most prominent one, Adeogun explained, “is connectivity—the difference in its deployment.”

As at July 2019, Cable Magazine ranked the country’s internet download speed at 176th of 207 countries measured globally– 24 places down from its 152nd position in 2018, and 81 places from its 95th position in the 2017 rankings.

According to the report, Nigeria has an average download speed of 1.56Mbps–a dip from 1.86Mbps recorded in 2018. Situating the figures in context, it means then that it will take more than seven hours to download a five-gigabyte HD file on the average.

This is several hours behind the fastest broadband speed 85.2Mbps of Taiwan, where it takes just eight minutes to download the same file.

It is one fundamental problem. There are about 50 companies in Nigeria’s telecommunications sector. Apart from MainOne, the first undersea fibre optic cable provider in Africa, and a handful of others who are into broadband infrastructure provision, most of the industry players largely provide telephone services with their infrastructure, and, on the side, internet connection.

Yet, for now, all they can provide in terms of connectivity and its quality is not enough for the millions of users in Nigeria. Even with the groundwork of the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Satellite Cable that links Africa to Asia and Europe, the gap remains wide, which is an opportunity for the business-savvy.

“There is a shortage of transmission and fibre links in Africa and this is certainly a very big growth area,” Coleago Consulting’s chief executive Stefan Zehle told the BBC in February.

“Mobile infrastructure requires a lot of fixed connectivity. The base stations and networks need to be connected to data centres and globally to the internet.”

As millions of businesses and hundreds of institutions now innovate using the internet to give education, especially the ODeL, a priority it deserves will require a lot of thinking. The Nigerian government and policy makers in education and telecommunications will have to take that responsibility. And part of the policymaking must include investment in ODeL—not just for NOUN alone.

“Government must [also] pay additional and effective attention, at the national level, to the management, coordination, quality assurance and daily practical offerings of ODeL,” said Jegede.

By structure, experts mean the coordinating body, the pedagogical body (which designs material), the technical support body, and the administrative support—all dedicated to ODeL. Without these, the system wobbles and gets beat by disruptions.

And for Nigeria, there will be no stability—for as long as the nation resorts to the hit-or-miss approach in managing its tertiary education during emergencies.

The problem will only double—as it has now. Of the four million kids heading out of secondary schools in Nigeria annually, about two million of them will be jostling for admission into the nation’s 174 universities, 134 polytechnics and monotechnics, and 220 colleges of education, according to figures by the World Educations News and Reviews. Of these, only 25 percent will be admitted.

There’s not enough room

Carrying capacity has always been a problem in Nigeria’s tertiary education that thrives on face-to-face learning alone. Now COVID-19 and a worsening industrial action have compounded it with a dislocation of the academic calendar.

No sudden switch in the middle of the strikes will do the trick. Post-COVID is just about the best time to plan for the move to the virtual model.

Accidents and emergencies will still happen again.

*This story is done with the support of BudgIT and the Civic Hive Media Fellowship

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