The possibility of online learning at Nigerian universities
Man using laptop   Source: NESA by Makers via Unsplash

Getting into a Nigerian university is not only based on your exam scores, but it also depends on if your institution of choice has enough room for you. 

Every year, over 1.5 million students write JAMB exams and meet the cut-off marks for the schools they apply to. However, only a little over 500,000 of them get admitted into universities. 

Simply put, there isn’t enough space. 

Students in federal universities are familiar with sardine-like situations in lecture theatres that are filled at overcapacity. 

But the woes don’t end there. Students also take longer than necessary to finish degrees due to strikes. These long out of school periods, instigated by disputes between staff and the government, can last from a few days to 6 months. In many cases, the academic calendar is extended for a year or two.  

As a result, there is even less space for a new batch of students from secondary school to start their first year.

To solve the capacity problem, the Federal Government has promised to build new schools and encourage the set up of more private universities. But more universities means higher costs - something the government has consistently struggled to deal with. 

Perhaps there’s another way: online learning. 


 

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What is online learning about?

As the name implies, students learn and engage through the internet. Here, the main selling point is that pupils can gain knowledge while the government avoids building or running physical buildings. 

Globally, online courses are gaining traction as a more affordable and flexible mode of learning. Many universities, including Ivy-league schools like Harvard, are offering undergraduate and graduate degrees online, allowing universities to expand beyond their physical capacities. 

We also can’t ignore how online learning becomes, even more, pressing in a time like now where schools have been closed due to lockdowns. To keep the semester going, Pan Atlantic University and Covenant University have launched online classes. And crucial to a quick set up, was the pre-existence of e-learning platforms. 


 

Satisfying consumers and customers

For wide-scale online classes in Nigeria; adoption is highly dependent on the consumer and customer - which are usually different. 

The consumer is the student, while the customer is the financier of the service, often the parents and guardians or even the student themselves. 

A functional virtual learning system gives the student the classroom experience - listening to the teacher audibly and other classroom engagement.  

Once the process of learning requires a rigorous procedure of connecting or any other hindrances, the service loses its appeal to the student. 

“We try to work very closely with our students, what they prefer, what works for them, we don’t impose,” says Dr Obiaya, the Dean of Media and Communications at Pan Atlantic University, Lagos. 

On the customer’s end, it must be financially within reach. And in fact, one of the reasons for the recent preference for online courses is its affordability

The lower costs that come from online learning also allow for cheaper options than the full fees alternative. 



Learning from home 

Source: Oladimeji Ajegbile

 

The Nigerian Factor

As with many other things in Nigeria, several challenges can prevent the success of virtual learning.

An obvious one is poor infrastructure for both the students and teachers. 

What are the chances that everyone can attend an online lecture given Nigeria’s electricity situation? How do they keep up with the high cost of data? How about the cost of purchasing laptops or mobile devices to attend these lectures? 

The cost of internet subscription - data - threatens to be a huge challenge for students and teachers, who ordinarily would take advantage of internet facilities on campus. 

‘A friend of mine joined the class just once, and she stopped. After one class, she had used about 1.4GB, which was because for that class, everyone had their cameras and microphones on’ *Kenneth, a student of the Nigerian Law School shares an experience with the high cost of data. 

He also felt the brunt of the poor electricity situation, ‘we've not had light so I could not join the classes for about six days.’ 

Available alternatives weren't any different, ‘At first, I was putting on the generator because I thought the light would be back soon, but on the 4th day, my dad said if I wanted to continue, I had to pay for the fuel myself.’

Teachers also have their complaints. 

Prof. Ayo Atsenuwa, the Dean of Law at the University of Lagos, highlights: “Most lecturers in the university have to provide computers for themselves, so you have to think, to what extent will people want to augment what is supposed to be government responsibility or funding?” 

The government and private universities might be saving physical building costs, but others will arise.  

One other less obvious potential problem with online learning is the social impact. 

Traditional, campus education offers more than just a degree. It provides an experience where one can take advantage of other non-academic activities and opportunities that exist within the school, such as sports and other associations.

Living independently away from home and interacting with new people helps build character and soft skills that are needed in the real world. Not to mention the networks that are built. 

For many, the university gives a chance to figure life out, without the comfort of living at home. Online learning takes that away. 

Activities like networking can still happen on the web, but it won’t be a perfect substitute for living and learning on campus. 

The actual process of learning will also be different. Being on-site allows for more interaction between students and teachers. There are more opportunities to ask pressing questions and get responses promptly. Some course, like sciences, also require practical work that might be difficult online. 

As opposed to learning virtually, being in school enforces discipline due to the fixed time of classes and lectures. One advantage of online learning is the flexibility of when to take courses; however, that mostly works for those disciplined enough to follow through. 

 

 

University laboratory 

Source: University of Nigeria via Flickr


 

COVID-19 waits for no one 

While no federal university has launched a fully online degree program, the restrictions to movement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has opened schools to the possibility of adopting it. 

“I have to say, for the University of Lagos, there had been thinking in that direction, even before Covid, but now, a committee has been set up to come up with a strategy to put it in place,” said Prof. Atsenuwa.

To implement online learning, the issues addressed above have to be dealt with. 

For one, the challenges of high data cost might require a collaboration between the telecommunications providers and the Federal Government to subsidise the rates of subscription on the platforms where the learning would take place. An example is Edo state's digital homeschooling platform which launched recently.

Another alternative is adopting the uLesson model of having all the resources on a device - which would be a part of the school package, rather than downloading it online or watching it directly from the internet. 

To solve the problem of poor electricity, online lectures can avoid live classes. That way, the student can watch them at their convenience and when electricity is available to them. 

Optional off-grid electricity solutions can also be made available to students at affordable rates. For instance, the MTN Lumos offers enough electricity to power a few devices for ₦20,000 one-off cost and as low as ₦4,850 monthly. Something the government could still subsidise.  

The opportunities of online learning do not entirely expel the idea of building new schools, as this would remain a preferred option for some - maybe even society given the social skills pupils pick up. 

However, virtual learning offers some form of flexibility that can be taken advantage of. For example, virtual learning can facilitate a system where the school’s last school semesters can be taken at home online, to open up space for more first year students to join campus.

It might be a while till we get here, but after the experience with COVID-19, we might find that we are ready for online learning sooner than we thought. 

 

Name changed to protect his identity*

 

You can follow this writer (@GbemiAlonge)

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Gbemisola Alonge

Gbemisola Alonge

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