As e-learning system of education, which most higher institutions have adopted due to COVID-19 pandemic and loss of over nine months to industrial action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) gains momentum, students across the country have been faced with the challenge of keeping pace and poor Internet connectivity and penetration.
For example, students of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife in Osun State, have lamented the fate of their academic pursuits with the online classes introduced by the school authorities.
They feared that the online classes might lead to mass failure, as they lack needed resources to actively participate in the virtual lectures.
Authorities of the higher institution had announced that online classes would commence on January 8 and students would attend classes virtually to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community.
But speaking with The Guardian on the telephone, a 400-level student of Biochemistry, Miss Zainab Agbolade, said lack of sufficient data, poor Internet facility and lack of quality phones and laptops could mar the process.
She wondered how the university intends to conduct online classes for its practical courses, adding that performance of students would drop with the new teaching approach.
“I don’t know how they expect us to take practical courses online. Most lecturers may not even take us these virtual classes; they would just ask us to read up materials online.
“There are some lecturers that we even find difficult to understand their teachings in physical classes, now that we are having online classes, I wonder how we are going to cope.
“It is obvious that students would miss a lot, because aside lack of data to browse, electricity is not constant in our area. I pray we don’t end up having mass failure and that is why I call on fellow students to develop themselves personally,” Agbolade lamented.
A 300-level student of Management and Accounting, Mary Onyia, expressed sadness over online classes, as she doesn’t have quality phone that would withstand several online classes.
“I kind of feel not happy about it, because the process is not too convenient for me. My phone isn’t good,” Onyia lamented.
At the Federal University Oye Ekiti (FUOYE), lecturers and students described the virtual learning as very challenging and difficult due to poor Internet facilities, as many areas within the campus and residential areas are not covered by the various telecommunications networks.
A lecturer in English and Literary Studies, who does not want his name in print, said: “Online teaching is quite challenging, in terms of poor Internet reception and coverage by facilities, such as Oye-Ekiti.
“I cite an example here. I have been making effort to teach my students online via the WhatsApp application. What I do first is to record the lecture and send to them on the platform.
“But most of them complain of not being able to download the recording and this delays the lecture period and drags it too long.”
Another lecturer, Dr. Emmanuel Afolabi Bakare of the Department of Political science, said: “Poor reception on the Internet is a major challenge. For me, I have been making serious effort to teach online and it is working and I am improving.
“But let me give you an example of what I sometimes encounter. First is the challenge to get all students on ground, as some of them tell you they do not have smart phone for online lecture and others say they are in an area with poor Internet reception.
“So, to tackle the first challenge, I first ask all the students to register their presence on the platform by typing ‘present sir’ and I type the lectures for them, so they are reading it.
“As soon as I finish typing, I will just pick any of them randomly to answer any question I wish to ask. It usually takes long when network is poor, but we are getting used to it and making progress.”
As for Wole Balogun, a lecturer in Theatre and Media Arts: “Online teaching isn’t very good for our kind of profession and we have intensive practicals that are rehearsals for stage and media productions.
“But we have adopted other very good alternatives. For instance, for a class of 100 students, we share them into two groups of 50 each and since we already have a tradition of two lecturers paired to teach a course, the two lecturers take same topic simultaneously for the two groups of the class.”
“For our practical productions, we have split one and half hour performance into 25 minutes extract of same performance to be given by groups of same class, which have also been divided.
“What happens is that for our theoretical classes, we send notes to students online either on WhatsApp or other platforms and such notes can be further explained during the physical class that are usually well-spaced and strictly following COVID-19 protocol.”
A student of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Miss Josephine Oladeji, said virtual learning is difficult, tasking and makes comprehension somewhat uneasy.
“This is not the best of time for us students. Our lecturers are not helping matter; they don’t simplify their lectures for us to understand,” she bemoaned.
A member of the management, who craved anonymity because he was not authorised to speak, said the management of FUOYE has put proper arrangements in place for virtual learning.
“We have made provisions for stipends for lecturers who need to buy data for their online classes. We have also improved on the reception system on campus, such that any student who is on campus can easily assess the Internet for online teaching.
“There have been challenges, but we are learning to surmount them and we are indeed surmounting them.”
On the issue of cancellation of session, he said the university has cancelled the 2020/2021 session, noting that the those new students who ought to have resumed in November last year for Harmattan semester would now resumed in October this year.
He stated that the most affected by the decision are those admitted in 2019 before the outbreak of COVID-19, while returning students also lost one academic session.
“Talking about the effect on students, we can only hope for the best. The current situation appears to be a national malaise that is not limited to our citadel of learning here,” he said.
The Coordinator, Centre for Information, Press and Public Relations, Lagos State University, Ademola Adekoya, of the Lagos State University (LASU), Ojo, Mr. Ademola Adekoya, identified technical competence, data and infrastructure as issues that must be addressed to overcome the challenges of online learning.
Adekoya said one of the challenges is technical competence of lecturers, adding: “If they are not technically savvy, they cannot do any online teaching. For somebody who is used to face- to-face lectures, you are now asking him to migrate to online is a serious challenge for him. So they have to develop the technical competence.”
He said to solve that problem, LASU brought together a team of ICR, multimedia and education technologists to conduct seminars and teach the lecturers what they need to know about online teaching and what they need to have in place.
Adekoya acknowledged that many people might find it difficult to buy data for themselves, noting: “What the university did was to provide free WiFi all over campus for students and staff to use for online learning.”
He noted that without the necessary infrastructure to set up online learning, there would be problems, adding that universities must provide working materials, including laptops for lecturers for them to teach the students.
“Poor Internet connectivity is a serious challenge, but LASU solved that problem with the help of the State Government using a platform called Envevo. All Lagos State-owned higher institutions are now on the platform.
“What they had the students do was to migrate to the platform using their matriculation numbers. So, they had the lecturers uploading the content of their lecture and the students having access to them.
“It is also easy for the students to have access to the platform. At their convenience, they can go there to download, study and respond to whatever they need to response to.”
Adekoya stated that LASU already had a distance learning research institute, where they were conducting online learning even before COVID-19, stressing the need to adapt to online learning reality, as its the way of the future.
Speaking with The Guardian on these concerns and challenges, a telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko, said the political will is lacking in the deployment of e-learning in Nigeria, especially in the varsities.
According to him, how can the country boast of huge bandwidth capacity to the tune of 40 terabytes, yet institutions are not served adequately well because of bottlenecks.
Aluko said until there is political will to help operators take the bandwidth from the shores of the country to cities and hinterland, having a robust online lecture will be a mirage.
He stressed that e-learning in Nigerian tertiary institutions is still a dream because of poor ICT infrastructure and other socio-economic reasons.
“Due to very high primary cost of infrastructural development and to increase public access to internet and other ICTs, the developing countries are still far behind from getting benefit from the e-learning,” he stated.
An official of one of the operators, who spoke with The Guardian on the condition of anonymity, said the telecommunications firm supplies bandwidth capacity to some universities, especially the private ones, in the country.
“You know, it is majorly the private varsities that make use of such infrastructure. Hardly will you see public varsities invest in such, except for some management offices, which must communicate.
“But we have seen some private varsities invest in Internet infrastructure,” he stated.
According to him, the belief is that the COVID-19 has further exposed the importance of ICT across the globe, Nigeria inclusive, as most things are now done online.
“Internet has become an important infrastructure, even the United Nations (UN) has declared it as fundamental human right. It is a matter of time; the public universities will start investing in WiFi and the rest,” he stated.
Findings showed that the major problems hampering the proper implementation of e-learning in Nigerian tertiary institutions in general include inequality of access to the technology itself by all the students and the high cost of a personal computer (PC) and laptop in Nigeria, considering the income level of an average worker in the country.
Accordingly, few students privileged to have a PC/laptop are not connected to the Internet, as this attracts extra cost, which they cannot afford.
Also, there is the challenge of technophobia, where most of the students have no computer education background; hence they are afraid of operating one, with some going to the extent of hiring expert at a cost to fill their admission, registration and other documents meant for them to fill in online.
However, the very few who have access to the computer do not know how to use it and maximise its usage.
EduCeleb.com reported that only 87 of Nigeria’s 170 universities are able to offer 24-hour WiFi service, going by statistics obtained from the National Universities Commission (NUC) detailing how much Nigerian universities are capable in this respect.
The report explained that on the basis of ownership, universities owned by private entities in Nigeria are the ones able to provide Internet access to their staff and students 24-hour daily more, with 58.6 per cent of them able to do so. They are followed by federal universities, where 58.1 per cent could offer Internet service for 24 hours as well. In state universities, just 38.6 per cent of them are able to offer 24 hours daily Internet service.
Furthermore, 18 universities are able to provide Internet service for between 15 and 23 hours daily. Those that can provide between eight and 14 hours are 36, while 14 other universities are able to offer WiFi services for between two and seven hours daily.
However, five universities have no record of how many hours open to air Internet service they can provide.
Nigeria Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Olusola Teniola, expressed mixed feelings on the capability of tertiary institutions ability to run online courses.
Teniola said: “Yes and no! Affordability and meaningful connectivity status within the country suggests that private schools and universities located in cities are able to provide online services.
“However, public-run schools and universities appear to struggle with providing the same level of tuition due to affordability, accessibility and availability challenges.”
According to him, most institutions are at various levels of digital literacy and inclusion is still very low in a majority of communities.
Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fiam WiFi, Akin Marinho, observed that investments over the last 20 years have focused primarily on one particular type of technology- GSM-, reason why e-learning has not been ubiquitous and appears to be a huge gap when it is now needed the most.
Marinho said the challenge with WiFi networks is that there are very few companies that truly believe in the technology as the way forward, adding: “How one makes money from such networks has been the main stumbling block to rolling out such networks in Nigeria, and gaps in expansion, even to schools? The cost of fibre, right of way, the actual cost of bandwidth is also high. Power is as always an inhibitor to growth of any industry.
“But we believe we have found the way to achieve success by building community WiFi networks in high density, low income areas, which we power using solar. And crucially, our network is not over-designed nor over-engineered to achieve this.”
On expanding WiFi services across the country and to tertiary institutions, the Fiam WiFi boss said he is a staunch believer that government should create an enabling environment for business to thrive and ensure that there is fair competition.
He stated that government cannot do everything, as it has competing priorities, such as health, education, physical infrastructure, defence and security; hence: “I firmly believe that only private enterprise can drive public Internet access. That is why we have partnered with express wifi by Facebook, whose mission, as well as our DNA, is to connect many more millions of people to the Internet.
“We believe that this partnership will result in achieving our mission to connect 50 million more Nigerians to the Internet over the next decade.
“The Facebook partnership helps us build operate, grow and monetise our business in a sustainable and scalable way. We look forward to rolling out the partnership across Nigeria over the next few years.
“The national broadband plan (NBP) calls for investments of between $3billion and $5billion to get 80 to 90 per cent Internet penetration over the next decade.
“However, the NBP really only envisages GSM technology as the principal way to achieve this. This, for me, is wrong if Internet must expand to every part of this country, even to our universities and other tertiary institutions.
“We must look at alternative technologies, such as TVWS, satellite, and some of the amazing things done in India and Kenya by some American tech giants.
“We believe that with $500million, about 10 per cent of the budget of the NBP, we could get 90 per cent Internet penetration in Nigeria in less than three years and thus increase the GDP of Nigeria by 15 per cent as a result of that.
“The World Bank says that for every 10 per cent increase in Internet penetration, you could have a three per cent increase in GDP,” he stated.
Credit: The Guardian News