COVID-19, FG and ASUU: Who Wants to Give Nigerian Students Extra Year?

From its refusal to allow e-learning in member universities, to its prediction of a 2021 resumption date, the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) seems to have put itself in an unfavourable position in the public’s eye. The Union seems to be fast becoming a cog in the wheel of progress for students in Nigerian public universities.

Nigeria recorded her index case of the coronavirus disease on the 27th of February 2020. In a bid to curb the spread of this deadly virus, the Federal Ministry of Education ordered the closure of all schools in the country on the 19th of March, 2020. This directive led to an abrupt cessation of activities in schools nationwide, leaving stakeholders unsure of when things will return to normal.

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, so it was not surprising to see that within a few weeks some state and private-owned primary and secondary schools had deployed online learning measures to fill the lacuna caused by the closure of schools. Not to be left out of this innovation, the Federal government also launched a free e-learning portal for primary and secondary school students on the 24th of April 2020.

Perhaps thinking to consolidate on the progress made with the e-learning portal for primary and secondary schools, in April the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, directed public tertiary institutions to commence online lectures.

The National President of ASUU, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, was quick to send a memo to member institutions, instructing them not to comply with the Federal Government’s directive. In the memo, Prof. Ogunyemi was quoted as saying: ‘lecturers must not engage in online teaching because without Senate’s approval, a vice chancellor has no power to change the mode of lecture delivery’. He said:  ‘Therefore, do not obey any Vice Chancellor’s call for online teaching under whatever guise. It is a blatant violation of the university laws. It is in the interest of our universities, our students, and our nation to resist any attempt to undermine the ongoing struggle’ .

In an interview with the media, Prof. Ogunyemi added:  ‘Virtual learning will not work. Let’s break it down; when you talk of virtual learning; practically online teaching and learning, I think the first question we need to ask ourselves is, do we have the infrastructure for that? When you talk of infrastructures in the institutions concerned, do they have facilities and if you want to take it to individuals, can they afford it?’

With the above statements credited to the President of ASUU one is forced to ask who exactly is the union fighting for? Are they on the side of their members who have been on an indefinite strike since the 23rd of March, 2020, over non-payment of salaries or are they truly fighting for quality education?

Recent statements by Professor Ogunyemi may clarify the union’s stand. Ogunyemi, in an interview with the media published on the 19th of July, said universities will not resume even if the  Federal  Government directs schools to be reopened.

He said:  ‘Talking of universities, it should be noted that the crises are beyond COVID-19. There are fundamental crises that will make universities reopening longer and impossible for now. We had long told government our position and until they meet necessary conditions, universities are not resuming even after COVID.

“There are outstanding issues and government is not ready to fix our universities and provide enabling learning environment. For instance, we are talking about revitalisation… if our institutions are well equipped, there is no reason why coronavirus should stop academic activities.

‘You cannot talk about social distancing in universities without talking about additional lecture rooms. So, we have two crises delaying resumption. The health crises and the refusal of government to make our universities standard,’  he said.

Going by the above, it won’t be remiss to ask if ASUU has considered the plight of millions of university students who may now have an extra year added to their academic calendars through no fault of theirs? Well, if no one will fight for them, the students are ready to take up the task.

A cross section of students from Usman Danfodiyo University, Sokoto (UDUS), and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (ABU), spoke to THE NATION newspaper and expressed their disappointments over the comments from ASUU.

One of the students, Shehu Shamsudeen Ahmad, a 200-Level student of Law at UDUS, urged the Federal Government not to pay attention to the advice given by the ASUU. Ahmad said: “Nigerians should accept the fact that this pandemic has come to stay with us for the time being, let us not use the pandemic as a cover to hinder the progress of our educational system. Our education is important and, as they say, ‘we are the future of Nigeria’ let our schools be reopened,” he pleaded.

Is ASUU talking from a place of expertise when the union declared that e-learning cannot work in Nigeria? Is it wise for them to be fighting for standard education now when the coronavirus has left everyone in a state of confusion? What does it take to have an operational e-learning system in public institutions? Let’s look at these issues a bit closer.

One of the points raised by ASUU’s President was that approval is needed from a university’s Senate before the mode of learning can be changed. Since COVID-19 has thrown everyone a curve, waiving this approval or granting automatic approval should be a no brainer. However, our universities are not known for their proactiveness so Prof. Ogunyemi can easily cite this as an excuse.

Another possible factor for ASUU’s unwillingness to take up e-learning is the National University Commission’s (NUC) mandate for universities to possess an Open and Distance Learning (ODL) license before they can operate Distance Learning centres. Of the 171 universities in Nigeria, only twelve have an ODL license. This has not stopped some private universities them from teaching classes online.

The most valid reason ASUU gave for her reluctance to deploy e-learning is the unavailability of necessary infrastructure. ASUU complaints and strikes over lack of infrastructure has become a rite of passage that many an undergraduate in public tertiary institutions go through. This, however, does not discredit the point. But what do universities need to deploy e-learning?

There are so many ways that e-learning can be deployed, but I will dwell on only two of them. I will be drawing from my experience as a graduate of a federal university and a former staff of an online education company.

One way to deploy e-learning is to have lecturers schedule online classes using common meeting software  like Zoom, Google Team, Microsoft Teams, and others. To do this, lecturers and students need reliable Internet connection and electricity. Anyone living in Nigeria will tell you that you need to have plans A, B, C, D, to cater for the glitches from your Internet service providers and electricity providers. It’s easy to foretell that weekly online classes can quickly become cumbersome when lecturers have to keep repeating “can you hear me?” or in some cases lose and regain connection intermittently during classes.

Another possible reason why weekly live classes may be problematic is in cases where one lecturer is teaching about three or four levels across the department. Implementing this was hard enough when schools were open, I can only imagine how boring and monotonous it will be to do this online for the foreseeable future. This tedium will only be a challenge at the initial stage because universities are meant to create dynamic solutions to existing problems by upgrading and updating society with new and engaging ways of doing things.

A second way of deploying e-learning is to have pre-recorded classes, where lecturers will have recorded their lessons ahead, prepared assignments, quizzes or whatever exercises they want students to work on, and then have all of these uploaded to a Learning Management System (LMS). What would then be left would be to give students access to this platform to take their classes. Best part of this is that the LMS can be designed in such a way that students can have access to their course lessons and other materials offline, which is what Lagos State University (LASU) has been able to achieve.

While option two is desirable and gives the best result in the long run, the initial costs, energy, and preparation needed to implement it is enormous and can frustrate the unprepared. Furthermore, the lecture delivery mode of most lecturers leaves much to be desired, and can be a problem in successfully deploying e-learning. I can remember the many boring monologues I endured in the name of lectures at the university.

The problems of internet facilities, smartphones/laptops, electricity will still arise, but they can be easily overcome with the cooperation of all stakeholders.

ASUU should be at the helm, championing proactive ways for the 2019/2020 academic calendar to continue running despite the closure of schools, instead of the pessimistic outlook and predictions they have been sharing. Let them follow the example of LASU who successfully engaged the Lagos State Government, the local ASUU chapter and her students and are now enjoying the dividends of an efficient e-learning platform.

A robust e-learning system is not an impossible feat in Nigerian public universities if ASUU can see reasons to cease positioning itself as cog in the wheel of progress of public university education.

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