Considering the power of distance education and technology-enabled learning to address the challenge of access and quality confronting the education system in Nigeria and some African countries, the Commonwealth of Learning has over the years been working with various institutions in West Africa to harness the full potential of open and distance learning. The President and Chief Executive Officer, Commonwealth of Learning, Canada, Professor Asha Kanwar, shared with Uchechukwu Nnaike some of its success stories, as well as other interventions in the region and other Commonwealth member states. Excerpts:
How long has Commonwealth of Learning (COL) been working in Nigeria and West Africa, and at what level of education (primary, secondary or tertiary education) has it focused its activities in the region and why?
Let me begin with a brief introduction to the Commonwealth of Learning or COL, which is an inter-governmental organisation established by Commonwealth Heads of Government, when they met in Vancouver in 1987. Our headquarters are in Metro Vancouver and we have a regional office – the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia in New Delhi. Our mission is to help Commonwealth member states and institutions to harness the potential of distance learning and technologies for expanding access to education and training. COL’s mandate is to work in the 52 member states of the Commonwealth, which span all regions of the globe – from the Caribbean to Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Nigeria is an active member of the Commonwealth and provides financial and intellectual contributions to COL. As a major donor, Nigeria has a seat on our Board of Governors. This is currently occupied by Ambassador Mariam Katagum, a renowned advocate of education and sustainable development.
COL has been working in Nigeria and West Africa since the early nineties. Member states in the region wish to provide more opportunities for secondary schooling, especially for out-of-school youth, increase the number of trained teachers to improve the quality of education and expand access to higher education. Nigeria is a young country with 46 per cent of its population between the ages of 15-35. Half of these young people are women.
The scale of the challenge requires alternative approaches. Distance education and technology-enabled learning can help us increase access, reduce costs and improve quality, and it is for this reason that COL has been working with various institutions in West Africa to enable them to harness the full potential of open and distance learning (ODL). Initially, COL worked in higher education and then expanded its activities to include teacher training and open schooling. Now, COL is using flexible and blended approaches to provide technical and vocational training in Nigeria and Ghana.
Distance education in not new to Nigeria and dates back to 1887, when several students enrolled as external students for the University of London matriculation examination. The University of Lagos established the Correspondence and Open Studies Unit in 1973, which is now the Distance Learning Institute. This was subsequently followed by other universities largely for teacher education, and the National Teachers’ Institute was established in 1976 as the dedicated distance education institution for teacher training. With such a strong foundation of distance education, Nigeria was a natural partner for COL.
What impact has COL’s intervention had in Nigeria’s education system and on its citizens, especially in fixing the current challenges of access and quality education?
According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the GER for tertiary education in Nigeria was just over 13 per cent in 2010. This is well below the OECD average of 40-50 per cent required for sustainable development. Over the period 2004 to 2009, there has been a steady increase in the number of qualified applicants seeking admission to Nigerian universities, yet the intake has not exceeded 19 per cent during this time. ODL was seen as a viable option for clearly absorbing the increasing demand for tertiary education.
The National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) was established in 1983 and then revived again in 2002. COL played a significant role in the ‘second coming’ of the institution by providing support to strengthen systems, develop capacity and promote collaborations with other open universities in the Commonwealth. As a leading distance learning institution in Africa, NOUN offers the Commonwealth Executive MBA/MPA programme along with institutions in 10 other countries.
NOUN is also host to RETRIDOL, the institute that develops Open and Distance Learning (ODL) capacity not just in Nigeria but also in West Africa. RETRIDOL organises several capacity-building activities in Nigeria and the region, in course development, integration of ICT and adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER), to name some. NOUN is now a mega university, which is providing quality higher education at lower costs to thousands who would otherwise have remained outside its purview.
The quality of education to a large extent depends on the quality of teachers. Does COL have an initiative or project that is currently focused on teachers in Nigeria? If it does, tell us about this initiative and how it aims to improve teacher quality and learning outcomes.
Currently, we need 2.7 million additional teachers globally. ODL can play a role in helping achieve such scale. COL has enjoyed a close collaboration with the National Teachers’ Institute (NTI), Kaduna since 2000. At that time the institute went through a strategic planning exercise to ‘refocus, revitalise and restructure’ and to renew its approach to distance learning. COL supported initiatives in the capacity-building of staff that led to an improvement in the quality of course materials and gave NTI a leadership role not just in Nigeria but also among teacher training institutions in Sierra Leone, The Gambia and Uganda.
COL has also worked with NTI to develop a ‘Green Teacher’ programme which aims to inculcate environmental concerns among children from a very early stage. Both the ministry of education and the ministry of environment were involved. Incidentally, both Alhaji Hafiz Wali and Dr. Abdurrahman Umar formerly from NTI Kaduna, served as COL staff at different periods of its development.
What has been the response of the Nigerian government to COL’s activities in the country? Has there been any form of collaboration or partnership with government and local stakeholders?
Both the ministers of education are very supportive. In fact, Professor Anthony Anwukah participated actively in COL’s Eighth Pan Commonwealth Forum, which was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in December 2016. These forums are organised every three years in different parts of the Commonwealth. In 2013, COL organised the Seventh Pan-Commonwealth Forum in Abuja in partnership with NOUN. The then minister of education inaugurated the event which attracted over 600 participants from 50 countries who experienced at first hand the warmth and generosity of Nigerian hospitality.
How does COL measure its impact in the country and also maintain the standard of its programmes?
COL is committed to delivering results and achieving value for money. Not only does it track the progress of its interventions internally on a regular basis, it also commissions external evaluations every three years to measure its impact and refine its processes based on the lessons learned. These external evaluations are placed on our website so that they are readily available to any stakeholder that wishes to refer to them. COL also prepares country reports for each member state, highlighting the work done over a plan period and presents to Ministers of Education when they meet every three years at the Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers (CCEM).
How do you reach illiterate and under-served communities?
In education, the unreached are those groups of people who either have no access to education or have dropped out of the educational system without completing their desired goals, and therefore cannot fully participate in the economic and social development of their nations. They may be unreached because they are located in remote regions without educational facilities or they may be too poor to afford education. In some cultures, women and girls are given low priority in terms of access to education.
Language can also be a barrier for many communities who do not speak the dominant languages. Today, 15 per cent of the world’s population suffers from some form of disability – how does our educational system reach out to this constituency? ODL has been reaching these groups successfully for over five decades.
In 2011/12, COL supported a programme for the training of teachers in nomadic communities in Nigeria. An audio-vision programme was designed to help nomadic teachers implement a constructivist approach in their teaching and learning. NOUN also offered the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in West Africa with support for the technology platform from COL and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, a good example of south-south collaboration.
Please tell us about any other initiative or project that COL is engaged in in the West African Commonwealth member states
As you know, there are four Commonwealth member states in West Africa and we are working with partners to address some of the pressing needs in these countries. In Sierra Leone our focus is on building teacher capacity.
In Cameroon, COL is working to build capacity of teacher educators in integration of ICT. COL is also promoting Open Educational Resources (OER) in Cameroon, so that the ministry of education can develop and place one open textbook in the hand of each child. In Ghana, COL is supporting skills development and strengthening the livelihoods of farmers through the use of ODL and blended approaches.