Without online learning platforms, a few Nigerian universities are using WhatsApp

Face-to-face learning has been one of the biggest casualties of the pandemic. AUN, Babcock, Covenant, LASU, Crawford and a few other universities quickly pivoted to online learning. They are using WhatsApp, Zoom and Telegram to provide learning to students during this pandemic.

On March 19, as the number of coronavirus cases in Nigeria rose to 11, the Federal Government announced the shutdown of all educational institutions. Millions of students from primary to university levels were forced to return home; to isolate and practice social distancing until the pandemic was addressed.

Tayo David*, a student at the Kogi State University in the mid-region of Nigeria, expected the shutdown would be short. “After a few weeks, they should call us back,” he thought.

Nearly three months later, schools remained closed. Nigeria’s COVID-19 cases have spiralled out of control. By June 1, confirmed cases stood at 10,162 with 287 fatalities, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Without a vaccine, the pandemic will not end anytime soon.

With schools closed, academic sessions have been disrupted significantly. The 21st-century reaction is to switch to digital learning options. For some private secondary and primary school education, this switch has happened. eLearning solutions for these levels are booming. uLessons, an eLearning solution, is reportedly witnessing serious uptake.

However, at the tertiary level, regulatory issues have complicated efforts to develop full-blown online learning for years. National University Commission (NUC), Nigeria’s university regulatory body, does not recognise “online universities” and has no regulatory cover for such institutions.

“There is no regulation that allows you to establish a private online university,” says Kola Aina, an investor who owns EduPlatforms, an edtech company that operates the Edu iLearn platform for universities. 

NUC regulation does not allow universities to fully provide learning remotely.

The Open and Distance Learning (ODL) licence, the closest thing to an online university regulation, was designed solely for universities. Non-university applicants are required to meet basic land and other requirements of physical universities.

Meanwhile, an ODL licence only provides eLearning for a limited number of courses. Acquiring the licence is a struggle that could take a few years. With its incentives low, only 12 universities in the country have an ODL licence, NUC data shows.

In the face of pandemic and disrupted learning, this is a problem for Nigeria’s 256 universities and polytechnics. The ODL licence has seriously limited the capabilities of universities while making it impossible for private non-university players to enter the market.

Universities with an ODL licence have experience operating distance learning. However, their tech is limited and was never designed for scale or for exams. They had excluded themselves from understanding the real-world realities of online learning, especially for the Nigerian environment.

Now it is coming back to haunt many of these schools.

Learning under the influence of Covid-19

Since the shutdown of educational institutions, only a few of Nigeria’s 256 universities and polytechnics have adopted digital alternatives for learning.

Lagos State University (LASU), has made the most progress among government-owned universities. An ODL licence holder, in April the university pivoted its distance learning software, Envivo, into a full-blown eLearning platform. The existing ODL regulation does not allow such, but these are extraordinary times.

LASU’s student email system has been rejigged and made functional. The school’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Olanrewaju Adigun Fagbohun, has used it to communicate with students and lecturers since the shutdown. Lecturers were also trained on how to use the Envivo platform, and given a free hand to combine it with other platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp and Telegram.

“We were just starting the first semester when the shutdown happened,” said Ayobami Dayo*, a student at LASU. She explained that the switch to eLearning has been challenging for everybody including lecturers.

With the new working from home realities, some lecturers have found it challenging keeping up with classes. “One of my lecturers complained that she had no electricity for up to two weeks,” Ayobami shared, “some lecturers also miss class.” Despite these, she said the platform has worked well and lecturers are trying their best.

Meanwhile, students also face their own unique challenges. In addition to the problem with electricity, money for internet data, smartphones and other devices are serious challenges for students.

Since students are presently at home, they no longer receive allowances as they would if they were in school far from home. “Basically, there’s no more money,” Ayobami told TechCabal, “because most of us depend mostly on our allowance. But now it’s all gone.”

Even students who can afford internet data, connectivity is a serious challenge. Network quality is inconsistent in many parts of Nigeria, and Lagos is no different. This affects the effectiveness of Zoom, WhatsApp and Telegram video classes.

“Studying from home, there are distractions. All you keep hearing is the Covid-19 news, everyone is scared,” Ayobami explains. “So trying to read or concentrate on the online classes is challenging.”

Alongside LASU, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) are two other universities that operate eLearning for undergraduate students. However, in the case of UNN, the platform is limited to selected one-off courses rather than degree programs. But at the post-graduate level, UNN’s eLearning platform, developed by EduPlatforms, offers full MBA degree programmes and allows students to learn remotely.

Private universities in Nigeria are making the most progress. They are tinkering with sophisticated eLearning solutions even without an ODL licence.

Private universities lead the pivot to online learning

American University of Nigeria (AUN), located in the North East region of the country, is leading the pack. “Before the government shutdown, AUN had already set in motion a number of strategies to transition to an online learning situation,” said Amina Yuguda, Assistant Director of Communications at AUN, told TechCabal. “[W]e could see that the situation with coronavirus might escalate to a point where we might have to lock the university.”

Founded in 2004 by Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria’s former Vice President, AUN has made a seamless transition to digital learning by March 31.

“The entire campus has been completely wireless since the university opened its inaugural class,” said Abubakar Abba Tahir, Vice President of AUN’s University Relations, told TechCabal. This made the transition easy.

AUN’s administrative activities have been digitized using an Open Enterprise Resource Planning. It uses Canvas, a digital learning platform, to provide tutoring, evaluation and educational resources including international books and journals for students.

With its tech-savvy student community and mostly from upper-middle-class families, AUN had no worries its students would struggle with data or how to use the platform. Instead, it focused on helping lecturers adapt to the platform.

Before the shutdown, examinations were scheduled to hold in April. This didn’t change as AUN held exams on the Canvas platform. According to Tahir, parents and guardians are confident of the online and have little worry if the shutdown extends longer than expected.

However, the eLearning transition led to a restructuring and some staff were laid off. “With this emerging sustainable structure… only critical positions remain while the others are being released honorably with full contractual benefits,” AUN wrote in a press release on May 5.

Covenant University, another popular private university, has made a quick pivot to eLearning following a lockdown of schools. Located in Nigeria’s South West, the university was about to kick off its second semester in late March when the shutdown was announced.

Administrators have resolved that the academic session will not be disrupted, said sources at the university. Long before the pandemic, Covenant had developed an online module and repository of educational resources. Like AUN, the university is plugged into international academic journals and allowed lecturers to upload PowerPoint presentations to students.

Regardless, Covenant’s online module was unprepared for the new demands caused by the pandemic. It did not support real-time learning, video conferencing or class attendance.

“Covenant University, like other institutions, did not see Covid-19 coming,” said a source at the university, “so it was not exactly prepared for a pandemic like this.”

Lecturers quickly switched to alternatives like Zoom to continue real-time learning with students. They have organised students into WhatsApp and Telegram groups and are using administrator privileges on these apps to hold classes and “mark” attendance. Once a class starts, lecturers ask students to indicate attendance; a few minutes later, chats are locked. It is reopened for students to ask questions or answer questions.

Another institution, Babcock University, adopted this method of tutoring. The academic session at the university was almost over when a shutdown happened, Motunrayo Adetiba, a student at the university, explained to TechCabal. “We were done with our curriculum before the lockdown,” she said, “we were reading for exams.”

To conclude the semester, exams were held remotely, while lecturers used Zoom and WhatsApp to organise revisions ahead of the exams. Motunrayo believes that if the shutdown extends, this sort of online learning may be the new normal when Babcock resumes in September.

According to sources, a few other private universities like Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Crawford and Mountain Top University are equally using Zoom and WhatsApp for lectures, while exams are done online. Traditionally, private schools tend to have fewer students, less than 30 per class, than public schools. In the virtual learning environment, it is easier to manage such classes.

However, at government-owned universities, things are a bit different. eLearning is ongoing at only a few of these schools.

eLearning struggles at government-owned universities

The National Opening University of Nigeria (NOUN), an ODL licence holder, is supposed to be the most advanced tech-driven government-owned university. The institution provides distance learning to roughly 100,000 students across 70 study centres in the country and online.

Yet NOUN was unprepared for the new realities of COVID-19. On March 22, it suspended all academic activities following the government shutdown order in March. Academic activities haven’t resumed since, judging from information on its website and Twitter handle.

Conversations with students from other government-owned universities reveal no digital learning is happening and there are no strong efforts to adopt such solutions.

“I was hoping that the pandemic would present an opportunity for mass adoption… but we haven’t quite seen the urgency that is required,” said Kola Aina.

Prestigious institutions like the University of Lagos and the University of Ibadan, are still completely shut down with no strong eLearning plans after two months of shutdown. Both universities are ODL holders.

Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), a government-owned university with an ODL licence, has kept its website active with relevant information. It recommends lecturers keep online classes small, less than 50 students, so things are manageable. However, we could not confirm if virtual learning is actually ongoing at the school.

eLearning plans at government-owned universities may have been complicated due to an ongoing strike by lecturers.

Beginning from March 23, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), a trade union for university lecturers, has been on strike. The strike hinges on disagreement with the federal government over the implementation of a new payroll system.

At any other time, the strike would have paralysed learning and significantly disrupted academic calendars. But with the pandemic, the strike has continued almost unnoticed for more than two months. During this period, lecturers in ASUU’s university chapters have refused to attend to students and until their demands are met.

The union has also asked members not to submit lecture notes for eLearning or participate in virtual classrooms.

“The definition we are giving e-learning in Nigeria today is shallow; it doesn’t reflect the state of our infrastructure,” said Professor Biodun Ogunyemi, President of ASUU. “[I]t doesn’t reflect the demands of e-learning so if we do a corrupt form of e-learning then it means that we are just begging the question.”

This may have punctured eLearning plans in Nigeria’s 79 government-owned universities.

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in the country are rising fast yet is nowhere near a peak. Despite a six-weeks lockdown and curfew, confirmed cases have crossed 10,000. Opening schools could be a bad idea. Re-opening schools mean students would have to travel from various locations back to school. That could expose them to the virus and cause cases to rise even more.

Keeping schools closed addresses this issue. But unless eLearning at various universities change soon, this shutdown period could have negative implications for students. And any pivot to eLearning would challenge the outdated ODL regulation.

*Not their real names.

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Kola Aina owns EduTech. The correct name of his company is EduPlatforms and it operates iLearn. This has been corrected.

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