Recommendations for achieving a virtual future – together

Given our current technological age, the ‘University of the Future’ was always likely to transcend borders, and more precisely, be a virtual one without classrooms. Fortunately or unfortunately, the time we have to prepare for the ‘future’ we have been envisaging and avidly preparing for has been truncated by the advent of COVID-19.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has exposed the world’s unpreparedness for virtual or online learning. In Africa, most institutions of higher learning are hurriedly responding to an extraordinary event that will compound their existing challenges such as budgetary inadequacies, systemic inefficiencies, low adoption of technology and low capacity to generate funds internally.

It is generously estimated that Africa has only about 3,000 accredited universities. A 2017 survey by Quartz Africa of the top 10 most populous countries in Africa showed a little over 740 universities serving some 660 million people. To put that into perspective, the United States, with a 2020 population of 331 million, had some 5,300 universities in 2016.

At about 12%, Africa dramatically trails the current global tertiary gross enrolment ratio (GER) of 32%. That said, enrolment in Africa’s universities is growing, but without a correspondent increase in physical and human resources, which is partly to blame for falling standards. The instructor-learner ratio widens and the overdependence on examinations as the main assessment form has weakened internal quality assurance processes in many universities.

At the same time, the fiscal environment hinders the aspirations of these institutions to develop into entrepreneurial institutions of higher learning in order to remain competitive in terms of relevance, financial sustainability and student enrolment.

Moving online

Against this backdrop, unprepared universities are now being urged, even though not under compulsion, to deliver online teaching so that academic work is not disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Arguably, African universities are the least prepared for virtual classrooms. This means that Africa will continue to lag behind, and the chasm will widen if we fail to leapfrog onto the technology bandwagon now.

However, the process of shifting to virtual learning is easier said than done. Already, there are protests by students against the imposition of online learning for a number of reasons. In short: the infrastructure for electronic learning (e-learning) is unavailable.

Building a virtual classroom for every student requires the availability of a laptop (not smartphone) for each, as well as constant power supply and the availability of high-speed internet services at cheaper rates at the disposal of every learner.

Africa’s internet penetration is only 39.3% of its current population of 1.3 billion inhabitants and student protesters are arguing that imposing online teaching during this time will worsen the plight of underprivileged colleagues. Relying on public places for internet access is impossible due to movement restrictions as a result of lockdowns.

On the supply side, lecturers, some of whom are moonlighting and already overburdened with academic work, are not well-versed in the technology required for face-to-face facilitation, let alone online delivery.

Success stories

However, the situation is not hopeless and there are some success stories that can be showcased from which others can learn.

Some universities still offer open and distance learning and some countries have already established open universities which are doing marvelously well in online learning. The African Virtual University is worth mentioning in this regard. So is the African Leadership University which has campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda and has activated its online learning channels.

On 3 April, UNESCO launched a multi-modular free online course called “Be an Online Tutor in 24 Hours”. The four-hour course is an initiative of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University, Dubai, aimed at providing training to academics and teachers, including the managing and operating of online classrooms via the internet and how to use modern technology.

The ongoing Partnership for Pedagogical Leadership in Africa (PedaL) training series is a visionary programme initiated by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research in 2018 with funding from the United Kingdom government to build cohorts of lecturers groomed in modern teaching methods and the application of online technologies for teaching. Several universities in Africa are subscribing to PedaL, which has so far been rolled out in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.

This period of uncertainty should serve as a preparatory phase for Africa’s institutions of higher learning to transit to online education. There is no certainty on the aftermath of COVID-19 and, as in the case of earthquakes, there might be aftershocks which may put universities that had adopted online teaching earlier streets ahead of those that did not.

Concerted effort

Proffering solutions calls for the concerted effort of all education stakeholders towards a comprehensive and holistic investment in education at all levels. There should be a movement, and the main protagonist in the African context should be the African Union, which has the political clout to demand accountability, working with ministries of education, finance, and science and technology.

The African Union should be supported by designated implementing agencies such as the Association of African Universities, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, the African Capacity Building Foundation, the Regional Economic Communities and other regional educational blocs, such as the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, the Inter-University Council for East Africa and Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Supérieur.

Other stakeholders at national levels include the institutions of higher learning themselves (which are the direct beneficiaries), national education regulatory bodies, and other strategic stakeholders such as international and national development partners, the telecommunications industry, research and education networks, professional bodies, university alumni associations, the academic diaspora, curriculum experts and ICT experts, among others.

Working together ensures that the continent approaches online education holistically, with appropriate budgets and funds to ensure that all levels of education (from nursery to tertiary) are factored into the discussion and decisions.

Recommendations

The following recommendations are for consideration:

• The immediate short term, which is now, is the time to act with speed. It is the planning phase and requires budgetary commitments. Universities should also be identifying other institutions with remarkable success in e-learning for experiential learning.

• In the short and medium term (over the next two years), African universities need to build the capacities of teachers in the basics of creating and uploading content for online teaching. No new universities should be accredited if they cannot provide evidence of technology-based teaching. At least 40% of content (mode of delivery – teaching and learning and assessment) should be online.

• In the medium term (between two and three years), universities should adopt a blended or hybrid teaching and learning approach. During this period, they should be testing the resilience of various tools and technologies used for virtual education. Any challenges in delivering online programmes in academic fields which require practical experimentation, such as engineering and health, would have been sorted. All existing universities should have 50% of their content uploaded online.

• In the long term (latest, in five years’ time), all universities in Africa should have virtual content, and governments would have invested heavily in infrastructure for virtual learning.

• In addition, universities, working in partnership with government and the private sector, would ensure that each university student has access to a laptop or tablet (not mobile phones) and internet services for uninterrupted academic work. Institutions like the Association of African Universities and NRENs (national research and education networks) such as UbuntuNet should be in the forefront of negotiating for high speed but cheaper bandwidth for universities in Africa.

In unity we stand!

Ransford Bekoe is a staff member of the Association of African Universities (AAU) and for the past 20 years has served in various capacities. He had been a focal person on the environment, a project officer on university-industry linkages, the facilitator of AAU’s Leadership Development Workshop series, and is currently the programmes manager of AAU TV.

Contributions to this article were also made by Agyemang Okyere Darko, host of the AAU TV programme “African Students’ Voices” and a young researcher under the tutelage of AAU; and Isabella Tetteh-Ahinakwa, co-host of AAU TV’s “Events Update”, a programme with updates on upcoming events in higher education in Africa.

This has been reposted from https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200406161738518