Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of educational institutions across the country, pioneer vice-chancellor, National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN, Prof Olugbemiro Jegede in this interview with IYABO LAWAL said there must be a massive commitment and robust policy direction from government on open and distance learning for the sector to meet global challenges.
With the global Corona Virus (COVID-19) epidemic, schools have been forced to shut down to prevent a further spread of the virus. What is your take on this?
As we say, Education provides knowledge and knowledge rules the world. But for a start, since we are talking about education and knowledge, it is expedient and indeed imperative that we start by understanding what COVID-19 is. The disease called, Coronavirus disease 2019, christened by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as COVID-19 is caused by a virus called severe acute respiratory syndrome corona virus 2 (2019-nCOV or SARS-CoV-2). Although its origin has not been definitively ascertained, COVID-19 may possibly have originated from the wet animal market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. A strain of the same virus known as SARS-CoV-1 affected more than 8,000 people in 2002/2003. The COVID-19 enters the body through nose, mouth, or eyes and attaches itself to cells in the respiratory tract (airways from nose to vocal chords), and can spread to lungs and if not cured leads to death.
The world has experienced a number of epidemics and pandemics, although none had defied full understanding and quick solution like COVID-19. During the 14th century, bubonic plague affected 25 million in Europe with a total population of 100 million. In 1432, a devastating epidemic hit Lisbon, spreading to the entire country of Portugal. Tens of thousands were killed.
From 1918 to 1920 there was an influenza pandemic which killed over 50 million people. In1981, AIDS has killed over 25 million people with 33 million living with HIV. The fear globally right now is that COVID-19 will sweep many millions away than any other pandemic the world has had to date. This is because COVID-19 appears both more deadly and contagious than other well known influenzas: a main cause though is the lack of a vaccine.
The characteristics of the young people, the fact that they, by regulation, congregate in schools and other institutions to study and therefore very vulnerable as victims and carriers, are some of the main reasons while schools have been closed. All school and universities have been formally closed from March 20, 2020 although many private institutions had already sent their students away up to a couple of weeks earlier.
According to the United Nations assessment, as of March 15, 2020, more than 770 million learners are now being affected by school and university closures all over the world as a result of COVID-19. With this unexpected turn of events, we now have a monumental issue in our hands regarding what to do with these normally restless students stuck at home with their parents for hours and days on end. From indications, many students will have to remain at home for the remainder of this academic year. It is conceivable that schools many not resume till September 2020. The only alternative left for learners in this COVID-19 period is ‘home-schooling’ or online learning.
With schools closure, the issue of online learning has been at the front burner, is Nigeria truly prepared for online learning?
Yes, online learning or e-learning or open distance and electronic learning (ODeL) as others would call it has of necessity come to the front burner. For years, we in distance learning have been working assiduously for ODeL to become mainstream like the formal face-to-face, brick and mortar type of classroom learning. ODeL, as the mainstream educational instructional tool is now here, willy-nilly. It is no more on the way as a dominant force in teaching and learning in the 21st century; it is now, or already, here.
Many countries have already implemented the use of online learning to cope with the closure of schools and universities. Some states in the United States have made it mandatory and many countries have deployed their facilities for online learning. A number of states in Nigeria including Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Borno, and Kaduna have or are looking into the use of online learning to solve the issues of schooling created by COVID-19. Once ODeL becomes the new normal, a whole new dispensation which will change, forever, the world’s landscape of teaching and learning (with specific focus on online learning for everybody) as we knew it.
Two things are now happening within the educational space because of COVID-19. First, the formal face-to-face teaching and learning is changing and giving way to ODeL as the mainstream teaching and learning vehicle. 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 and the emphasis will no more be on what mode a learner used to study and graduate but what are the major academic contents learned, what skills and transpersonal learning, which is a major ingredient for the development of the skills needed for the 21st-century world of learning, meaningful living and work, has the learner acquired? My vision is to see digital transformation, in Nigeria and the world at large, that will lead to transpersonal learning.
What is your take on open and distance learning in the nation’s education system?
Since the emergence of distance learning in the world (then called Correspondence Education) when Caleb Phillips and Anna Tickner used it to teach short hand to their students in 1728 and Sir Isaac Pitman also used Distance learning to teach short hand and extended it by making feedback on assignments in 1840, the world began to realise and appreciate the advantages of distance education.
As a result of this global development and the need to use distance education to solve the issue of shortage of institutions and placement in higher education in Nigeria. Distance learning began in 1947 through Oxford University extra mural studies at the University College Ibadan, the GCE of London and Cambridge correspondence education and the Rapid Results College and Wosley Hall as first set of organised distance learning programmes in Africa.
Things progressed with distance learning surfacing in Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria as ABU University of the air in 1972 and the University of Lagos starting distance learning in 1974 while National Teachers Institute, Kaduna began the training of teachers for the Universal Primary Education scheme in 1978. Since then the National Open University (NOU) was formally signed into Law on July 22, 1983 and promptly closed on April 25, 1984. A brand new National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) started in 2002.
Currently, with the encouragement of the Federal Government and the abundant interest of the current minister of education to implement the outcomes of the 2017 presidential summit on education, at least 30 universities in Nigeria now operate or have sought for NUC’s licence to operate distance learning making them dual mode universities.
However, to answer your question, my take on distance learning in Nigeria is that we are not where we should be. Things are still in their fledgling state, quite fragile, insufficient and require massive commitment and robust policy direction.
I say this because the statistics we have indicate that the formal system we have from primary to the tertiary levels can no more cope with the demands of learners in Nigeria. Currently, there are about 20 million children in over 41,000 primary schools. The national average teacher: pupil ratio is1:45 with the highest (1:94) in Yobe state and the lowest (1:20) in Anambra state.
By the next academic year beginning September 2020, about 37.5 million will be in the primary school system. This will have a knock-on effect on the secondary school level.
With 172 Universities in Nigeria currently taking care of less than 4 million students at the university level, we will require 70 more universities to cater for our higher education needs at the rate of about 25 percent of admission from the yearly 1.9 million students seeking admissions through JAMB. Nigeria therefore requires and must invest on open and distance learning.
A cost-effective system of instruction independent of time, location, pace and space must be sought to be used for a variety of learning situations: primary, secondary, tertiary, vocational and non-formal education with an emphasis on enhancing education for all and life-long learning initiatives and using modern instructional and communication technologies.
What are the problems of distance education in Nigeria?
The problems confronting distance education in Nigeria are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. But the main ones relate to lack of serious advocacy, unacceptable public perception of distance learning as a poor cousin of face-to-face formal learning system, excessively and unnecessarily expensive broadband internet connection, unstable communication networks, unreliable power situation, lack of appreciation even by academics and other academic institutions of the rigour that establishing and managing distance learning requires and ineffectual personal discipline by students in coping with the demands of studying on their own.
With poor infrastructure and epileptic power, can e-learning thrive in Nigeria?
Having listed some of the problems with distance education in Nigeria in the previous question, I am sure you would expect me to say that e-learning cannot thrive in Nigeria. I would like to shock and disappoint you by saying that e-learning can and should thrive in Nigeria. If in spite of comparatively more difficult environment and paucity of infrastructure, distance learning survived and was successful in the 50s, 60s and 70s, there is no reason why e-learning cannot thrive in the 21st century when situation has markedly increased. Indeed, we can find more innovative and creative ways of making e-learning thrive. Almost all learners have mobile phones, which can be deployed for e-learning. We can customize solar energy and other types of energy freely and cheaply available in Nigeria to power the distance learning system. I designed, in 2002, a comprehensive communications network architecture for Nigeria. With a bit of modification, it can serve the country beyond expectations.
Are our teachers well equipped for this task?
Any educational system is only as good as its least equipped teacher. Aside from the fact that we do not have enough teachers (the latest UN projection is that the African tertiary education system requires about half a million academics), most of them are not very prepared for normal face-to-face teaching let alone distance teaching. As the first and, to date, the only professor of ODL in Nigeria, I can categorically tell you that Nigeria requires massive training of teachers to teach at a distance and in the use of e-learning. Teaching online is much more difficult than teaching face-to-face. We must take this seriously.
What should be the role of government in all these?
Government should review all policies on, and related to, open and distance learning and follow through with all aspects that will raise our game in ODL to the highest level.
Government must pay additional and effective attention, at the national level, to the management, coordination, quality assurance and daily practical offerings of ODL, especially as ODL is expanding rapidly in Nigeria and will soon overtake the face-to-face mode of instruction.
But government cannot go it all alone. We must involve other stakeholders including the organised private sector, professional bodies, civil society, the International Development Partners, parents, Micro and Small Medium Enterprises (MSME), and all those interested in life-long learning.
As a former Vice Chancellor of National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN), is distance learning a viable alternative to the conventional learning?
Unequivocally yes, distance learning is a viable alternative to the conventional learning system. My experience in many countries informs so. My experience as the foundation Vice Chancellor in setting up the National Open University of Nigeria tells me so. We started with just about 50,000 students in 2003 and now in 2020, we have close to 600,000 students. In a couple of years hence, NOUN registration will hit one million students reaching over 30 per cent of all University registrations in the country.
How do you think the distance learning system can be strengthened to attract more students and reduce the pressure on the conventional schools?
We can strengthen the distance learning system in a number of ways. Increase and diversify the programme offerings. Explore ways of meeting the learning need in areas the conventional universities and higher institutions do not take care of or not really interested in. Develop more creative and innovative ways of developing quality course materials, using the e-learning platform, quality assurance, de-emphasise testing and examination in favour of skills acquisition and portfolio methods of assessing learning.
The future of learning worldwide is open and distance learning, and especially online or e-learning. Most countries are planning on their education using ODL and online learning as the fulcrum. Nigeria must not and should not be left behind.