COVID-19: ODeL Will Change World’s Landscape of Teaching, Learning

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In this interview with Uchechukwu Nnaike, Emeritus Professor, National Open University of Nigeria and the foundation Vice-Chancellor of the institution, Professor Olugbemiro Jegede strongly recommends open and distance learning for the country following the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted to the closure of all educational institutions. He called for an immediate high powered committee or task force to comprehensively plan for the massive introduction and management of online learning

How would you describe this current situation where all educational institutions in the country are closed?

The situation which has led to the closures of all educational institutions in Nigeria is unprecedented, was never in the wildest dream of anybody and has taken everybody by surprise. It was least expected and along with all that is going on with the COVID-19 situation; issues are affecting many other sectors just as it is affecting education. The health, economic, political, socio-cultural, religious, manufacturing, transportation, oil and gas, communication and many other sectors have been affected.

But how come this invisible, tiny and ubiquitous virus has changed our existence on this planet for good and has indeed terminated, very rudely and abruptly, the continuing existence of others on this planet? To get an insight into this, let us look into the biology, history and characteristics of COVID-19. The disease called, Coronavirus disease 2019, christened by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as COVID-19 is caused by a virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome corona virus 2 (2019-nCOV or SARS-CoV-2). Although its origin has not been definitively ascertained, COVID-19 may possibly have originated from the wet animal market in Wuhan, China, in December, 2019. A strain of the same virus known as SARS-CoV-1 affected more than 8,000 people in 2002/2003. The COVID-19 enters the body through nose, mouth or eyes and attaches itself to cells in the respiratory tract (airways from nose to vocal chords), and can spread to lungs and if not cured leads to death.

What frightens people most and results into all necessary actions of containment, suppression and treatment is that the virus can also end up in droplets that escape from the lungs through coughing or sneezing. This directly infects other humans or indirectly through other surfaces leading to one person capable of infecting directly hundreds of other humans, or indirectly through contaminated surfaces. The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March, 2020. “A pandemic is a new disease that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people. As at April, 2020 COVID-19 has infected over 1,412,103 with 81,103 deaths while Africa has got about 5,000 infected and 100 deaths. Nigeria recorded its first case on 27th February, 2020 and, as at today, has got 254 infected with six deaths. Many believe that due to a variety of reasons, we may not be getting the correct figures and also that it will rise exponentially in due course.
The world has experienced a number of epidemics and pandemics, although none had defied full understanding and quick solution like COVID-19. During the 14th Century, bubonic plague affected 25 million in Europe with a total population of 100 million. In 1432, a devastating epidemic hit Lisbon, spreading to the entire country of Portugal.

Tens of thousands were killed.
From 1918 to 1920 there was an influenza pandemic which killed over 50 million people. In 1981, AIDS has killed over 25 million people with 33 million living with HIV. The fear globally right now is that COVID-19 will sweep many millions away than any other pandemic the world has had to date. This is because COVID-19 appears both more deadly and contagious than other well known influenzas: a main cause though is the lack of a vaccine.
As has been said in many quarters by experts, COVID-19 is the worst health crisis of our times. The data available so far shows that young people, who tend to be asymptomatic, are far more likely to be infected, and as carriers will be responsible for the majority of infections in the population. The statistics from South Korea and Italy confirm this. However, older people (age 65 and above) and those with underlying health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and heart disease are more likely to die.

The characteristics of the young people, the fact that they, by regulation, congregate in schools and other institutions to study and therefore very vulnerable as victims and carriers, are some of the main reasons why schools have been closed. All school and universities have been formally closed from March 20, 2020 although many private institutions had already sent their students away up to a couple of weeks earlier.

According to the United Nations assessment, as at 15th March, 2020, more than 770 million learners are now being affected by school and university closures all over the world as a result of COVID-19. With this unexpected turn of events, we now have a monumental issue in our hands regarding what to do with these normally restless students stuck at home with their parents for hours and days on end. From indications, many students will have to remain at home for the remainder of this academic year. It is conceivable that schools many not resume till September, 2020. The only alternative left for learners in this COVID-19 total lockdown period is ‘home-schooling’ or online learning.

What do you think will be the effect of this total lockdown of educational institutions on the already declining quality of education in the country?

The effect of this total lockdown on educational institutions will be massive, disruptive and destructive in many ways to the country, if solutions are not found, and quickly too. One of such is the effect of a break in or lack of school feeding in some areas and for a good number of pupils in the primary school especially in places where the meal, provided by government, in school is the only meal the pupils get in a day. With the lockdown, these children will go back to hunger land, the protracted effect of which will affect the health and growth of the pupils and hence stunt the growth of their brains and eventual lack of interest in learning or school. Second, with this lockdown, COVID-19 is not only a tremendous shock to the health care system of Nigeria and total well being of Nigerians, but has also dealt a crushing blow and a debilitating and insidious shock, on the economy of the country. The production of crude oil for sale will plummet and the price of crude oil will crash. I read that the price of crude oil has fallen from US$60/barrel to US$20 dollars/barrel. The prediction is that it might go down as low as US$10/barrel or worse. This situation has established a very vicious divide between demand and supply which will exert a significantly strong complementary effect on the whole economy since Nigeria has depended mainly up to 90 per cent on one source of foreign exchange earnings, which is crude oil. You would recall that the 2020 budget which was passed in December, 2019 was based on the production of 2.18 million barrels a day at a price of US$57 /barrel. With the decline in the dollar earnings to less than US$20/barrel Nigeria must of necessity cut down on the budget in the face of oil price crash. You can imagine the extensive harm this will do to our economy, our infrastructural development like roads, building hospitals etc. Nigerians must braze themselves to the possibility of getting to a point when government may not be able to pay salaries again let alone have money to share through the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC). The ultimate effect will descend very heavily on the educational system in at least two major ways: Government will no more be in a position to fund education at any level be it federal, state or local government. Second, parents can no more afford to send their children to school for lack of regular sources of income to pay fees and sustain all related expenses on children’s education. Let me leave it here for you to imagine the untold hardship COVID-19 will bring to the Nigerian populace and the near total destruction to our economy, if the spread of the virus is not checked and a cure is not found. It goes without saying that this will have a serious effect on the quality of education in the country.

Another effect on the Nigerian society that may be looming is the rate of unemployment. Without COVID-19 we already have hoards of youth roaming around the street. Many private sector outfits are already retrenching staff or down-sizing. The data available from different sources (ILO, Bureau of Statistic, etc) put the level of unemployment in Nigeria ranging from 30 per cent to 70 per cent. The effect of COVID-19 will wipe out jobs, sources of funding and all that. With thousands or millions more graduates added to the unemployment market, Nigeria will have very difficult if not terrible days and years ahead. From what is going on now, it looks like global recession seems inevitable with a terrible effect on our national economy. Nigerians should prepare for a tough time of recession to come. Tightening the financial belt may be an understatement, as we many not even have the trousers on our waist for the belt to be tightened or that eventually there may no more be any waist to hold the trouser let alone using a belt. All these and many other associated or ancillary issues will evidently be affected. In the end, they all fall back upon education leading to very low or no quality in our education. At the moment the priority of government should be on health expenditure but need a strategy to flatten the contagion curve that we may experience in the next two weeks. However, government and parents must give room and plan for online learning by all our children who are already feeling bored and restless at home to the detriment of peace and security in the country. There are stories from some local government areas and some cities where these children are causing serious problems in their neighbourhood. Our prayer and hope is that the effects of COVID-19 will not escalate, otherwise what we currently experience as kidnapping, armed robberies and the likes will pale into insignificance in the face of what our society might begin to experience.

Is the indefinite strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities justified at this time?

I believe the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) began well before the entry into Nigeria of COVID-19. In any case, with total lockdown that might eventual happen in the whole country with schools and institutions closed, the strike may not at this time be consequential. What Nigeria must prepare for is the proliferation of many other strikes by other unions within our institutions and in the society at large. Imagine what will happen if salaries of academic and non-academic staff of higher institutions, and school teachers can no more be paid, or drastically reduced and do not come regularly.

All what is developing in the world, and in Nigeria now, is for a recourse to online learning and a clarion call for an immediate high powered committee or task force to comprehensively plan for the massive introduction and management of online learning, or if you like for, children and students to learn from home. Once at home all children including those of ASUU members and other unionists will need to be engaged one way or the other at home. The only viable alternative for children to continue with their education uninterrupted is through online or e-learning. Perhaps COVID-19’s effect on education may be a blessing in disguise; it will put a big, if not permanent, check on incessant strikes which affect our academic calendar and by extension the learning by our students which will have a ripple effect on the quality of our education.

What distance learning options are available for Nigerian students to improve themselves?

Whether COVID-19 stops now or continues for months to come, the effect on the delivery of instruction are already significant and staring us in the face. Nigeria must prepare adequately for it through the search for an alternative or additional instructional delivery system. Nigeria has no choice now but to embrace hook, line and sinker the use of open and distance learning which other countries are already using with maximum success. With ODL there is no ‘educational distancing’, it takes the distance out of learner’s education and the distance can be finance, location, facilities, time and other resources. It could be marginalisation or those previously unreached or demands yet unmet. Now, no child or learner should be left behind. Nigeria must prepare for all her pupils and students and even adults at home who wish to continue learning under the aegis of long life and life wide learning which must now begin from the labour room till the grave. We must use open and distance learning. The distance learning alternatives available for Nigerian students is home schooling or online learning. Many countries have already implemented the use of online learning to cope with the closure of schools and universities. Some states in the USA have made it mandatory and many countries have deployed their facilities for online learning. A number of states in Nigeria including Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Borno, and Kaduna have or are looking into the use of online learning to solve the issues of schooling created by COVID-19. Once ODeL becomes the new normal, a whole new dispensation will change forever, the world’s landscape of teaching and learning (with specific focus on online learning for everybody) as we knew it. Two things are now happening within the educational space because of COVID-19. First, the formal face-to-face teaching and learning is changing and giving way to ODeL as the mainstream teaching and learning vehicle. Second, the way is being paved for the eventual merger of the face-to-face instruction and ODeL instruction. Very soon no one will know the difference and the emphasis will no more be on what mode a learner used to study and graduate but what are the major academic contents learned, what skills and transpersonal learning, which is a major ingredient for the development of the skills needed for the 21st century world of learning, meaningful living and work, has the learner acquired? My vision is to see digital transformation, in Nigeria and the world at large that will lead to transpersonal learning.

Yes, online learning or e-learning or open distance and electronic learning (ODeL) as others would call is the most viable option for Nigerian students to keep pace with their studies and also improve themselves. This will be the new mode of teaching and learning in the whole wide world from now on. So Nigerians, and especially the learners, teachers and parents should better get used to. For years, we in distance learning have been working assiduously for ODeL to become mainstream like the formal face-to-face, brick and mortar type of classroom learning. ODeL, as the mainstream educational instructional tool is now here, willy-nilly. It is no more on the way as a dominant force in teaching and learning in the 21st century, it is now, or already, here.

If the option is available online, how about those in the rural areas?

Online learning is dependent on or enhanced by a number of things which include (i) the possession or availability of an electronic device such as a desk computer, labtop, tablet or a mobile phone; (ii) access to the internet; (iii) availability of electricity or other sources of appropriate and adequate power; and the availability of other infrastructure. Pupils or students in the rural areas or from poor or very low income backgrounds will have difficulty in accessing online or e-learning. The absence of all these and other essentials especially in the rural areas will create what is called a digital divide. These digital and other divides are already being felt and given serious consideration in other parts of the world. It is being said that schools and institutions closures will reinforce the divide and limit access to even online resources to all.
As reported, between 56 million and 80 million people in China reported lacking either an internet connection or a web-enabled device in 2018 (see the New York Times, March 17). Reports from the United Kingdom show that 10% of households in UK have no internet connection. The closures of institutions and schools could disproportionately affect children from poor and low-income families, and between urban and rural areas. These are strong points to consider and which the country must find a solution to. A well planned modern education system with an implementable policy backed by funding and honest and transparent execution will remove the various divides already mentioned.

How can parents and guidance help to ensure that students have time to study without distraction?

Once at home, the children must be engaged to do something either by studying or assisting parents in house chores in the kitchen, laundry or gardening and others. However, `engaging the students to study electronically should be priority for them and their parents. First, there should be an institutional plan or school timetable on what times of the day and for how long the electronic delivery of instruction will take. While parents make provisions for this, they too must be involved in the children’s online learning as reasonably as they can. Parents should be guided on how to assist children study or and complete their home work. Not many parents can assist, especially those who are illiterate but literate or educated ones should be guided to take interest in their children’s education. Children from families whose parents are professionals and graduates with second or third degrees will benefit from the knowledge of their parents in relevant areas of their academic work, including projects, case studies and Tutor Marked Assignments included in the instructional materials of the online learning. Beyond all these, parents will begin traditional roles teachers and lecturers have assumed as baby sitters or locus of control for children from diverse backgrounds and homes. Parents will now be able to tell categorically where their children are, eliminate unnecessary distractions of bad groups or cultism. Parents must seize this advantage with both hands and hearts and minds to demonstrate the love for their children 24/7 and be seen to be relevant in the lives of their children at their critical growing up stages.

Aside thinking about the health of the people, do you think the government should also be thinking about ways to provide alternatives for their education till the lockdown is over?

Yes. As I have said above, the alternative to face-to-face instructional delivery to learners should now not be limited to just the period of the lockdown. Globally, we are now in the era of e-learning and our country should not be an exception just as we must not deny our children the access to and affinity with the use of technology in learning. As mentioned earlier, thanks to COVID-19, ODeL has become the new normal and a whole new dispensation which will change, forever, the world’s landscape of teaching and learning (with specific focus on online learning for everybody) as we knew it. The priority of government must be massive expenditure on health to bring back the situation to normalcy. Thereafter, Nigeria should be prepared to spend as heavily as necessary on education, especially online education. We must have a cast-iron proof of vision for education in 21st century Nigeria. After all the holy book says “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” and knowledge must be at the forefront. The search in the Holy Bible informs that acquisition of knowledge is of paramount importance to God our creator. The word ‘Knowledge’ was mentioned in a total of 169 verses of 35 of the 66 books of the Bible. In one of the verses, it says..the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction’. I have no doubt that other holy books would have similar references to knowledge.

In the world today, knowledge economy is the in-thing. Knowledge capability and capacity, knowledge resources, not natural resources have become the greatest determinant of a country’s entry into and effective participation in global competitiveness. With lessons from emerging economies (Brazil, India and China), our higher education sector must focus on local relevance, sustainable total development and social justice Social thinkers from Confucius through Buddha, Plato, Castro and Castells all allocated a special place to the acquisition and use of knowledge in their theories of development. Our 21st century development of education in Nigeria should be knowledge-intensive development directed at capacity building with cutting edge training and skills acquisition. To make the transition to a knowledge economy, that will create jobs and reduce poverty, we must make appropriate investments in (i) knowledge as embodied in the human brain (human capital), efficient and effective institutions (iii) the use of relevant technologies, and (iv) innovative and competitive enterprises.

From all the data available, Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa, it is the most populous black nation, it is the seventh most populous country in the world, it is the sixth largest oil producing country in the world, it is the fourth world exporter of oil, and the 21st largest economy by GDP ($1.058trillion by nominal GDP). With all these, Nigeria has no excuse not to make its education one of the best in the world, if not the best. Nigeria should massively embark upon the comprehensive deployment of online learning using the entire communication network infrastructure available. To do this effectively and re-engineer our education towards the use of online platform, Nigeria should as a matter of priority do the following: Address the future of jobs and human capital development, develop skills required for the 21st Century/4th Industrial Revolution, combine artificial intelligence with human intelligence to device smarter technologies, make knowledge the commodity and not oil or braun, and use all the above to make our university curricula more quality-oriented and socially relevant. We must strategically use the issues surrounding COVID-19 to our advantage and face squarely the integrated development of online or e-learning for all the sectors of education.

Has there been a similar situation in the past and how was it addressed?

Earlier I gave a brief history of major global pandemics. These included the 14th Century bubonic plague which affected 25 million in Europe, the 1432 devastating epidemic in Portugal, the 1918 to 1920 influenza pandemic which killed over 50million people in the world, and the 1981 AIDS that has killed over 25 million people with 33 million living with HIV. Now we have COVID-19 which experts think will affect several millions. The forecast is that Africa might be the hardest hit for all sorts of reasons which include the lack of accurate date, unavailability of good health care system, absence of an efficient and effective infrastructure, absence of transparency and accountability.

With all the previous pandemics, education did not come to the fore. The population was not this high and the demand for education not as enormous and, of course, technology was not as sophisticated at the level of electronic learning we are now deploying all over the world. Even during the emergence of correspondence education in 1728, the only technologies known to, and used by the world were print technology and postal technology. Even if the older or primitive technology may have been used in the other global pandemics, they were not seen as consequential and therefore not at the front burner of educational development. With COVID-19, we have a few consequences we can capitalise on to drive our rolling out, in massive scale, the use of online learning for the benefit of all our learners. One consequence might be that the existing estimates of case-fatality rates and the likes might be over-estimated. The second consequence is that some immunity already in the system, as we learned from the experience of China, South Korea and Japan, would be of tremendous advantage to the world in checking the spread of the virus.
The third consequence, which is a drawback, is that by the time the world began its intervention in Europe, USA and in Africa, Nigeria to be specific, the virus was already widely spread. As a result, it is conceivable that the estimates from all the modeling used to study how measures of suppression will flatten the curve in the short run may have been under-estimated or as many would conclude, is over-optimistic. Which ever way, COVID-19 may have brought some fruits we can pluck, especially the low hanging fruit of online learning and home schooling, to join the global community in raising the game of educating our people.

Let me conclude with what I have repeated in many instances…The future of learning worldwide is open and distance learning, and especially online or e-learning. Most countries are planning on their education using ODL and online learning as the fulcrum. Nigeria must not, and should not, be left behind. The ball is in our educational court and we must seize this golden opportunity.