If there is one thing coronavirus has highlighted, it is the fact that our educational institutions across Nigeria were not ready to handle the digital shift needed to decentralise education and take teaching and learning online. With no end of coronavirus within sight, businesses and schools have had to explore digital options to keep the doors open and learning ongoing.

While businesses have found it relatively easier to move core operations online by enabling remote workers, the situation has been different for universities on the African continent.

Infrastructure gaps

Unlike Western universities where this COVID-19 pandemic met ready infrastructure and digital educational resources, in most Nigerian universities instructions has been fully face-to-face and the transition from in-person classes to an online model could not have been more disruptive.

Most departments across universities in Nigeria do not even have networked computers within the departments. There were no course videos, no digital learning modules and downloadable resources for students – everything was paper-based and analogue.

On the students’ side, while most university-level students already owned smartphones that were capable of delivering rich and interactive media content, access to the internet was prohibitive. For most who depended on free-mode to access social media sites, streaming of course content was just out of the question – if the resource to stream were available in the first place.

It was for reasons like this that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) initially resisted the option of universities opening for online learning in Nigeria. The ASUU chairman couldn’t reasonably see how lecturers, some of whom were still struggling with face to face engagements, were going to transition overnight to digitally savvy instructors who could handle the demands of online learning.

In his view, expressing concepts and passing ideas across were challenging enough in person. The impersonal nature of online learning would even make it tougher. This, to him, was an even more pressing challenge than the more evident infrastructural challenges like power, devices and internet access. “Garbage in, garbage out,” he added.

On March 19, the Federal Ministry of Education announced the closure of Primary, secondary, tertiary institutions across the country in a bid to stem the tide of the pandemic.

Notably, the impact of school closure has not been as drastic on private schools. Most private schools in Nigeria have already taken some form of transition online, even if at an Adhoc level for now.

Their relative flexibility can be attributed to less bureaucracy, lower student and staff populations, more tech-savvy academic and support staff and a higher socioeconomic parent class who can afford power and internet access for their wards. On the other hand, students at public school students have suffered academic deprivation for some months. They are likely going to lose an academic year as a result of this unequal access to opportunities.

The question is, where did we get it wrong?

In Nigeria, most of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the Nigeria University Commission (NUC), that deliberately preferred a brick and mortar model of education to the democratisation of university education that eLearning would have brought about. Instead of setting standards for universities that wanted to start eLearning programs, the Nigeria University Commission summarily proscribed a lot of distance learning programs of Nigerian universities.

To their credit, they have since corrected the situation and have licensed over 12 universities to run distance learning programs in Nigeria. However, while eLearning is a method of distance learning delivery, it is curious that at a time like this, NUC’s policy document on distance learning literally makes no mention of eLearning.

The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) shares some of the blame here. With claims that those who undertake online degree programs are not eligible for mobilisation for NYSC, online learning has been unattractive to most Nigerians, apart from those who learn online. This policy persists even though they are aware that without an NYSC discharge certificate, finding a decent job in Nigeria is tough.

Obi, who recently returned to Nigeria after his studies at Middlesex University, had to prove to NYSC that he did not study online before he was mobilised for NYSC. Apart from scanning his passport visa page to NYSC through their portal, he also had to present the passport for examination at NYSC headquarters physically. This kind of criminalisation of online learning within the Nigerian educationally system surely is not without consequences.

Nigerian universities did not see the need to make such investments that were against the policy direction of regulators.

Sustaining the Digital Transformation in education

As more and more schools scramble to set up the infrastructure for online learning, steps should be put in place to give a legal basis to that new medium of learning that is now gaining ascendancy. The eLearning infrastructure that is being set up should not go the way of temporary clinics that are being set up as isolation centres after the wave of this pandemic goes past.

NUC should work actively with universities to have a template, a baseline, if you may, for how these things are done.

This is to ensure that after we have tackled COVID-19, our school systems should not go back to the dated analogue mode that we have been burdened with these many decades.