By Dominic Osei-Boakye
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the survival of a private university sector, in Ghana, which employs thousands of Ghanaians, was heavily dependent on admission numbers and students’ ability to pay fees. Worse yet, several of these universities were even struggling for students due to the dwindling number of international students coming to study in Ghana. To add insults to injury, they faced a fierce competition from their counterpart public universities who had expanded their respective distance education programmes in a bid to boost up their Internally Generated Funds in order to compensate for the drop in Government subventions to their institutions.
As if that was not enough for the already crippling private university sector, COVID-19 reared its ugly head raking in havoc of global proportions. The sector was hard hit where it actually hurt- right in the middle of the semester- when most students had not even paid their semester school fees. Sad to say, several of these universities did not have the requisite technological systems in place to ensure the unabated continuance of the academic activities even in the midst of the crises.
The Accra Institute of Technology (AIT), an independent technology-focused research university based in Accra, Ghana employed a model, which has by far proven to be the surest way of survival in this pandemic and beyond. The operations of AIT has continued uninterrupted despite the pandemic due to their strength in using technology to boost teaching and learning. The university has a Learning Management System dubbed ‘LEMASS’ which is effectively utilized in the delivery of online teaching and learning modes for their students. One would wonder how AIT came by the exact systems needed to combat the challenges that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.
Interestingly, these systems were not developed as a mere survival measure, as it were, for COVID-19 as in the case of several struggling universities. In fact, these technological systems cannot be developed in weeks or months to solve specific problem at a time. Development of such systems and solutions takes years of dedication, discipline and commitment to arrive at a working system fit for the specific educational purpose. The AIT success story of implementing technology in education predates COVID-19 back to 2009 when it was the only university in Ghana that had a system, which allowed students to submit assignments, access electronic library, partake in quizzes etc.
Lecturers in the university could grade their work online and assess their students in whatever form using the same system. Therefore, a ban on physical contact with students had zero impact on their operations since they were already using systems. All the university had to do was to deploy these systems with very few modifications due to the pandemic in order to better serve our students.
In an effort to eliminate any physical interaction between students and the faculty of AIT while still realizing the same outcomes of the teaching and learning experience, the institution deployed a clearly stated protocol to better streamline the entire online learning experience. The AIT Protocol for the Delivery of the Online Teaching and Learning Program stipulates the five (5) different components of the process namely:
Online (Asynchronous) Teaching and Learning; Online (Synchronous) Class Sessions (OCS);Scheduled Online Interaction Sessions (OIS) with learners on pre-planned topics, issues) and/or general issues during Scheduled Online Office Hours of Instructor; Scheduled Online Forum Sessions (FSO) with Instructor; and Online Feedback Sessions (OFBS) with Instructor.
The Asynchronous online learning applies to the case where learners log-into say a learning management system/platform like LEMASS and/or other sources to access learning materials, resources and assignments earlier on posted or made available online on the platform by the instructor/lecturer in preparation for a scheduled Online(synchronous) Class Session(OCS). This means that for each Online Lecture Topic (OLT) of the syllabus that a Instructor/lecturerintends to teach each week online, students would always expect the Instructor/lecturer to identify and direct them to relevant resources as a pre-reading and/or reference materials/resources to be accessed in preparation of the OCS and to refer to for revision after the OCS.
On the other hand, the Synchronous online learning or Online Synchronous Class Session (OCS) applies to instructor-to-learner and learner-to-learner learning interactions that are happening at the same time, – meaning in real-time via a teaching delivery system/platform (like GOOGLE CLASSROOM, ZOOM etc. depending on what students agree on with their lecturer) at a scheduled time on the university timetable to engage in the teaching (by the instructor) and the learning (by the learners) process. Students would expect that the Instructor/lecturer would make available to them the lesson presentation (e.g. LSPs, prepared PowerPoint presentation, or other lesson notes) that he would be going through during the OCS at least 24 hours before the OCS so that they can go through before the session. After every OCS, students would also expect on LEMASS, assignments/quizzes/tests on the OLT to examine their level of understanding of the course materials/notes presented during the OCS.
Each instructor is expected to schedule one Online Forum Session (OFS) per week on the OLT for that week. The OFSs are to be done using the facilities of LEMASS and/or any other prescribed platform by the university. The process is as follows: The Instructor post the initial issue/subject/statement relating to the OLT in question to be discussed on the forum and learners are to contribute to the forum following laid down guidelines; Participation in the forum is compulsory and would be graded as per the clearly stated guidelines in the Online Forum Grading Template developed by the university; and Participation in the OFSs will take the place of attendance and participation as in face-to-face teaching accounting for 10 per cent of the final grade of students.
Instructors delivering online courses at AIT are also expected to interact with learners online in between the scheduled Online (synchronous) Class Sessions (OCS) to check on how learners are coping with the course materials assigned to them in preparation for the next Online (synchronous) Class Session (OCS) and also to discuss specific topics or aspects of the course materials that learners find challenging. This means for each registered course, students would expect Instructors to have at least 3 OISs per course per week with learners, and spend at least a ½ hour (30 minutes) per each session.
In addition to the Online Interaction Sessions (OIS) for the asynchronous and the synchronous delivery of the course (OLT-by-OLT), Instructors are also expected to engage in an Online Feedback Session (OFBS) with learners. This will include facilitating: Unscheduled one-on-one feedback session with students (if and when a student request for feedback on any aspect of the online learning process of the course in question or a particular OLT); and General feedback to students on a given course you are teaching on assignments/test/exams, course-learning materials, lessons among others.
All these components combine to give the students the needed guidance that is unmatched by even a face-to-face interaction with their lecturers. Yes, when technology is used in education,risks are reduced, cost is managed, learning convenience is maximized and the risk physical contacts with its accompanying challenges are contained, if not eliminated.
However, it is rather sad that a university like Accra Institute of Technology, which has been preaching the use of technology for the past ten years has not received maximum support to train, educate and help other institutions to reach their optimum level. It would be a big shame, if after surpassing this pandemic and surmounting its accompanying challenges, we resort to the old ways of doing things. All roads must now lead to AIT to learn how they have used technology to defeat the educational challenges emanating from the pandemic. It is COVID-19 today, but we don’t know what will come tomorrow. There is, therefore, the need to relook at our educational delivery in this technological era. A good start would be to go the AIT way.
Osei-Boakye is the Registrar, Accra Institute of Technology (AIT)