Universities, together with research institutions and other institutions providing tertiary education, play pivotal roles in every society as knowledge generators and as providers of skills for national development. Africa suffers from the quantitative inadequacy of higher education institutions and qualitative insufficiency.
In the past 30 years, most countries have liberalised their educational sectors to pave the way for private universities to be established to absorb some of the growing numbers of students unable to access higher education through public universities. It is also not uncommon, under transnational provision of higher education, to find campus offshoots of universities in Australia, China, India, Europe and the US in African countries.
Bereft of current data, it is envisaged that conventionally Africa has close to three thousand accredited universities. A 2017 survey report by Quartz Africa on the top 10 most populous countries in Africa showed a little over 740 universities serving some 660 million people, while the USA, with a 2020 population of 331 million had some 5,300 universities in 2016.
Even though at about 12% Africa trails the current global tertiary enrolment rate of 32%, the current massification of enrolment in Africa’s universities without a correspondent increase in physical and human resources is partly to blame for the general falling standards on the continent. The instructor-learner ratio widens and the overdependence on examinations as the main assessor of the learner has weakened internal quality assurance processes in many universities.
At the same time, the fiscal environment hinders the aspirations of these institutions to metamorphose into entrepreneurial institutions of higher learning in order to remain competitive in terms of relevance, financial sustainability, and student enrolment.
In our technological age, it has emerged that one characteristic of the university of the future will be one that transcends borders, and more precisely a virtual one without classrooms. One other characteristic of the university of the future is the use of artificial intelligence for interactivity and content delivery. Fortunately or unfortunately, the ‘future’, as we are envisaging and avidly preparing for has been truncated.
The outbreak of this novel coronavirus (COVID–19) has exposed the world’s unpreparedness for virtual or online learning. Universities that derive a substantial portion of their revenue from the enrolment of foreign students will feel the pinch more since there is an uncertainty on the re-opening of the academic year just like an uncertain future awaits the world after the containment of COVID-19. The internationalization of enrolment has been an important alternative source of income for many universities in Africa. It is also estimated that students from China account for a little over 30% of the annual foreign students’ intake in American universities.
In Africa, most institutions of higher learning are hurriedly responding to an extraordinary event that will compound their already existing challenges of budgetary inadequacies, systemic inefficiencies, low adoption of technology and low capacity for generating funds internally. Unprepared universities are being urged, even though not under compulsion, to deliver online teaching so that academic work is not disrupted. Arguably, African universities are the least prepared for virtual classrooms for any meaningful engagement. In essence, Africa will continue to lag behind, and the chasm will widen if we fail to leapfrog into the technology bandwagon now.
However, the process of transiting to virtual learning is easier said than done. In the immediate short term, this is bound to have limited success. Already, there are protests against the imposition of online learning for a number of reasons. In simple plain words, the infrastructure for electronic learning (e-learning) is unavailable. Building a virtual classroom for every student requires the availability of a laptop (not smartphones) for each; as well as constant power supply and the availability of high-speed internet services at cheaper rates at the disposal of every learner.
Africa’s internet penetration is only 39.3 % of its current population of 1.3 billion inhabitants and student protesters are arguing that imposing online teaching during this time will worsen the plight of their underprivileged colleagues. They argue that even in America, there are still underprivileged communities without access to computers at home and relying on public places for internet access is impossible due to movement restrictions from the lockdown imposed by the State.
On the supply side, lecturers, some of whom are moonlighting and thus overburdened with academic work, are not well versed in the technology for face-to-face facilitation, let alone online delivery.
However, the situation is not that hopeless as there are some success stories that can be showcased for others to learn from. Some universities still offer open and distance learning (ODL) and some countries have already established Open Universities which are doing marvelously well in online learning. The African Virtual University (AVU) is also worth mention in this regard. Likewise is the African Leadership University which has campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda, and has activated its online learning channels.
On 3rd April 2020, UNESCO launched a multi-modular free of charge online course on “Be an Online Tutor in 24 Hours”. It is an initiative of Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University Dubai (HBMSU) to provide necessary training to teaching and academic personnel of various personnel covering the essential topics on online education processes. This includes managing and operating online classrooms via the internet and helping acquire the necessary experiences related to how to use modern technology techniques to fully perform their roles. The 4-hour course is available at https://futureskills.hbmsu.ac.ae/
The ongoing Pedagogical Leadership (PedaL) training series is a visionary and novel programme initiated by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) in 2018 with funding from the UK Government (DfID) to build cohorts of lecturers who are being groomed on modern teaching methods and the application of technology for facilitation using online resources. Several universities in Africa are subscribing to PedaL, which has so far been rolled out in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.
This period of uncertainty should serve as a preparatory phase for Africa’s institutions of higher learning to transit to online education. There is no certainty on the aftermath of COVID-19 and, just like earthquakes, there might be aftershocks which will put universities that had adopted online teaching streets ahead of those that did not.
Identifying some of these reasons for the low absorption of e-learning in Africa is perhaps just the first step of a rather long and complex process. Proffering solutions calls for the concerted effort of all education stakeholders towards a comprehensive and holistic investment in education at all levels. There should be a MOVEMENT and the main protagonists in the African context should be the African Union, which has the political clout to require accountability, working with Ministries of Education; Finance; Science and Technology. Supporting the African Union should be designated implementing agencies like the Association of African Universities (AAU), the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), African Capacity Building Foundation (ADEA), the Regional Economic Communities (RECs), and other regional educational blocs like Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), PASGR, Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) and Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Supérieur (CAMES).
Other stakeholders at the national levels are the institutions of higher learning (which are the direct beneficiaries) national education regulatory bodies, and other strategic stakeholders like international and national development partners, the telecommunication industry, research and education networks, professional bodies, university alumni associations, the academic Diaspora, curriculum experts and ICT experts among others.
Working together ensures that the continent takes online education holistically, with appropriate budgets and funds to ensure that all levels of education (from nursery to tertiary) are factored into the discussion and decisions.
The following recommendations are just prescriptive for consideration:
In the immediate short term, which is now, this is the time to act with speed. It is the planning phase that requires budgetary commitments. Universities should also be identifying other institutions with remarkable successes in e-learning for experiential learning.
Between the short and the medium-term (up to the next two years), African universities need to build the capacities of teachers on the basics of creating and uploading content for online teaching. Furthermore, no new universities should be accredited if they cannot provide evidence of technology-based teaching. At least 40% of content (mode of delivery – teaching and learning and assessment) should be online.
In the medium term (two and three years), universities should adopt a blended or hybrid teaching and learning approach. During this period, they should be testing the resilience of various tools and technologies used for the virtual education. Any challenges in delivering online programmes in academic programmes which require practical experimentations, such as engineering and health, would have been sorted. All existing universities should have 50% of their content uploaded online.
In the long term (latest by 5 years’ time), all universities in Africa should have virtual content, and governments would have invested heavily in infrastructure for virtual learning. In addition, universities, working in partnership with government and the private sector, would ensure that each university student has access to a laptop or tablet (not mobile phones) and internet services for uninterrupted academic work. Institutions like the Association of African Universities, and the National and Regional Research and Education Networks like UbuntuNet should be in the forefront of negotiating for high speed but cheaper bandwidth for universities in Africa.
In unity, we stand.
By Ransford Bekoe, Educationeering Disciple Of Emeritus Prof. PAI Obanya
- Agyemang Okyere Darko, TV Host Of African Students’ Voices, AAU TV
- Isabella Tetteh-Ahinakwa, TV host of Events Update, AAU TV