Concerted action is needed to ensure that remote leaning in Ethiopia doesn’t affect education quality and exacerbate inequality
It is beyond doubt that virtual learning platforms (VLP) have lots of benefits for universities and students, such as efficiency and flexibility. And currently, they are vital, as educational institutions try to cope with COVID-19’s disruption of their programs.
Well designed, they could help universities recover and create institutional resilience against similar future threats. But the challenge is making a successful transition from face-to-face instruction to VLPs.
Technological change constantly creates new forms of risks. Risks have always been part of human history, but contemporary threats can be global. To survive, our solutions have to be not only efficient, but also farsighted. Moreover, with increasing complexity, our remedies can create new risks layered on top of old ones.
Lessons are all around us that societies must work on this problem. In a word, this means reflexivity. Reflexivity means processes of thought and action that involve critical thinking, informed discussions, the development of new fields of study, new norms, new institutions, or new arrangements—or, in our case, a new learning platform.
VLPs themselves bring opportunities and threats. We have to understand the pros and cons and strategize to harness opportunities and mitigate the downside. Yet so far, our educational leaders have overlooked basic issues which could prove costly in due course. Now is therefore the time for reflection and reflexivity. If we have to build a higher education system that can bounce back from this crisis without jeopardizing its quality, we have to be creative, iterative, and collaborative.
Concepts and objectives
Because of the magnitude of this initiative, there is a need to define the expected outcomes. In our case, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MoSHE) is leading the shift to VLPs. The platforms are varied, encompassing online instruction, e-learning, hybrid-instruction, and tech-enhanced instruction. What exactly does the ministry refer to when it advocates for a shift from classroom to virtual instruction?
Currently, there is a lack of conceptual clarity.
We need to know the reason to shift to VLPs. Is it to continue learning? Is it to ensure students graduate according to pre-COVID schedules? With limited infrastructure and capabilities to implement VLPs, have we considered the implications for quality of education? Was it considered that our digital literacy is worryingly low to support smooth transition? Clarity on these issues will help define our objectives and assist our education partners’ support for any shift.
With around 80 percent of the population residing in rural areas, accessing internet is an enormous challenge. Urban areas also have numerous dead-spots and weak connectivity. With university teachers staying and working from home, frequent power outages disrupt their connectivity.
MoSHE and universities instructed students to access website repositories to download academic resources during the pandemic. Ethio Telecom waived costs on visits to these sites, which was commendable. But, unless students own their own device for online access, they will be required to frequent internet cafes, which charge per minute, regardless of the website visited. Ethio Telecom’s waiver thus, in some cases, benefits owners of internet cafes, not students. How are poor families expected to afford this?
The MoSHE website and what is being offered as e-learning is more like a web-assisted provision of course materials that teachers provide as part of their classroom instruction. Resources are offered to students without opportunities for them to engage with their tutors or peers. To say the least, this is an uninspiring method of teaching. More importantly, if students complete their academic requirements through the current arrangement, it would undermine the quality of education and make our universities ‘digital diploma mills’.
Furthermore, the majority of students—undergraduate as well as graduate—cannot effectively utilize web-based resources for study. They are heavily reliant on PowerPoint presentations and abridged lecture notes. It is even hard to share course materials to all students via email as part of classroom instructions. Of course, universities are working on this challenge; the reason I mention it here is to underline the passive educational culture and cyber activity among our students that does not justify the rush to implement VLPs.
The initiative has more serious implications for graduate and post-graduate students. For instance, master’s students usually get their thesis proposals approved in the first semester of an academic year; and, they were preparing for fieldwork when the pandemic hit. It is both the burden and holy-grail of social research that it involves interaction with humans. The methods necessitate face-to-face contact between researchers and study participants—a risky thing to ask students to do at this time.
Of course, surveys or interviews can be done via phone, but who will bear the cost? Besides, most students haven’t yet made contacts with study participants, and locating and getting participants’ consent is difficult. This problem becomes more profound when we consider such themes as mental health, homelessness, or migration.
Teachers’ proficiency on VLPs has been overlooked. Moreover, most platforms require subscriptions. VLPs involve unique methods, and the teachers using VLPs need support. Teachers could be highly proficient in content drafting for conventional delivery, but course contents have to customized for VLPs. And we should not forget the special support teachers for students with disabilities need to adapt to the change.
Course materials available on websites are materials that teachers provide as part—not as replacement—of class-based instructions. This is not to deprive MoSHE and universities from what they achieve. It’s to underline that there remains a lot of work to be done to ensure course materials are formatted for use by students with little assistance from teachers or tutors. And, how accessible are the course materials to students with visual impairment?
Where is the government assistance to institutions affected by the pandemic? Academic calendars are suspended and university campuses closed. Students are with their families. Some are poor and others live in crowded households—but, regardless, we are telling them to go online, download materials and study. The majority don’t have laptops and a few have smartphones. Even if they managed to download these resources on public computers, what would they read them on? Should students or their families buy them a smartphone or a laptop to do it on? Are students expected to print hundreds of pages of course materials and supportive readings? That is a big ask.
At the same time, we know not all students come from poor families. Some will have home internet access, books and a learning space. Communicating with their instructors or research advisors via phone, email, Telegram or WhatsApp would not be a challenge. This contrasting scenario creates inequality. If there is no assistance to students from remote areas, with no or intermittent electricity, large households, and limited resources to invest on VLPs, we are allowing those with resources to get ahead of others.
I cannot overstate the implications of this scenario. If we allow this to prevail, we are helping the production and reproduction of inequalities in educational outcomes that do not reflect students’ talent, abilities or commitment. As Horace Mann argued back in 1891, we must ensure education and learning remain as “the great equalizers of the conditions of men.” If we don’t create a system around VLPS that levels the playing field for all students, we might as well accept now our higher education will grow unequal. It is therefore imperative that we create a support structure for children of poor families to help them to succeed in the VLPs we are promoting. Otherwise, our universities relying on poorly-designed VLPs could easily become another but subtle way of rewarding our students’ family privileges with better grades and progression.
MoSHE and universities promoting VLPs have created platforms and populated them with resources. Students are told to access these resources and prepare on their own until universities reopen. They are struggling. We are struggling and the leadership is rather adamant it should work. This is what we need to address:
Most universities have decent ICT infrastructure that could be boosted with modest investment. There is the additional problem of power interruptions. We cannot afford to buy a generator that provide power to all staff residences. But we can install generators that support WiFi routers or modems (or whatever keeps the connection on) during interruptions.
There is a need to ensure academic staff who do not reside in university residences have reasonable access to internet as they practice social distancing. We could redirect some of the redundant MoSHE and university budget to provide internet access to teachers’ homes; and, national and international organizations and foundations are keen to support such activities if we have a proposal.
Adjusting curricula to fit VLPs is daunting. Nonetheless, there is ample room to introduce modest changes and adjustments, such as customizing contents, adjusting methods, approaches, etc., as we build capacity and infrastructure. One thing is for sure though: There should be coordination and consistency among academic units and universities in introducing changes on course and research work.
Similarly, students with fieldwork requirements could be allowed to revise their methods, but guidelines on how to do so should be worked out in a coordinated manner. MoSHE or universities can’t just say students should consult with their supervisors and make things work as they go. That would be very reckless and create more chaos in its wake. There needs to be structure. The quality of higher education is already lacking and requires thorough corrective interventions. We shouldn’t compound our problems.
All the talk about VLPs should be accompanied by plans to build capacities and readiness. There should be training for teachers, or at least provide them with resources on how to utilize the web. In fact, it could serve as a pilot program to launch VLPs for students.
Besides, course materials should be formatted to support e-learning. They should be interactive and include sections that make them accessible to all students, and teachers need support in this regard. I can’t emphasis enough how students with disabilities are forgotten from this dialogue. How are they supposed to access web-based resources and utilize them without any support?
University quality-management unit should coordinate this and issue guidelines. These guidelines should outline designing courses for VLPs: aim, objectives, contents, assessment, and evaluation. Departments have to be guided in this venture. They can’t just be told do as they think is appropriate and expected to deliver excellently on their outputs. The leadership’s role in our ministry and universities is crucial here so that we don’t jeopardize the entire educational system with measures that would create further crises.
Students should receive government support to access the internet, and cover the costs of phone interviews, communications, and printing. We do not need to create a new system for this. Based on cost-sharing agreements, universities have been providing monthly living allowances to student through the banking system. We can use that method. If the government could think of additional student support programs, it would go a long way to ensure equality of access.
Otherwise, expecting students to read and cover the entire semester courses in a shortened timeline (and all that in absentia) and sit for exam when they return to campus would be inviting poor performance. Without providing support that considers the living conditions of most Ethiopian households, which often do not encourage academic activities, we should not expect students to be as motivated and engaged as we wish them to be.
Another issue on student financial assistance is for how many months should students’ financial assistance continue? What if, God forbid, we don’t contain the pandemic and our universities could not be safe for students to return? Does it mean we will terminate it and let all the investment go down the drain? This is particularly true for undergraduate students who are expected to complete their academic year after returning to campus.
Assuming things don’t pan out as we hope, we have to start working on the chosen VLPs—revising curriculums, training teachers, boosting ICT capabilities, crafting appropriate and accessible course materials, etc.— so that we will be ready to shift to fully-fledged VLPs when the time arrives. This means students could attend courses online, fulfil course requirements, and complete their academic year. This will justify continued financial support to students while they are off-campus.
To make all this work, we have to ensure everyone is on the same page. There could be debate on how best to do it, but we are all in this together. As such, MoSHE and university leaderships have to ensure efforts are coordinated. Otherwise, the ethical and policy problems confronting our higher education system as we depend more and more on ICT for VLPs will be daunting.
And, the consequences could be ruinous for a system that has not yet started recovering from years of decline.