Changing University Tradition in the Midst of A Pandemic

COVID-19 has changed our way of live and experts have labelled the pandemic as the most crucial global health calamity of the century and the greatest challenge that the humankind faced since the 2nd World War.

What started as a regional health crisis in late 2019 had, by March of 2020 grown into a global pandemic never seen for a century. As at January 1, 2021 there have been 84,105,066 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 1,829,846 deaths, reported by the World Health Organization (WHO).  According to the WHO data, within the same period, Africa has 874,036 cases reported, with 18,498 confirmed deaths.

The university has come down to us from the 11th century and is organized on this “factory” model. The “campus” is a scholastic “plant”: lecture halls, classrooms, libraries, dormitories: an elaborate and expensive factory for the housing and creation of an educated citizenry. The pandemic has altered this traditional university model, exposing some of the weaknesses on our campuses.

To ensure academic continuity, most universities were mandated to make a transition from face-to-face teaching to the virtual environment. So, most universities went online on a scale never seen before.  This decision was abrupt, hasty, and rapid without any contingency plans in place. This exposed a number of challenges for most of the institutions. Most institutions lacked the capacity to move to the virtual environment/ The technological infrastructure as well as Internet connectivity for most of the schools was a challenge.  In addition, there was lack of adequate faculty preparedness, inadequate technical support, as well as students who lacked access to connecting devices as well as reliable Internet connectivity.

Benkler demonstrates that what we now have in the computer, the internet, and the cell phone are the modest apparatus for a new information economy he calls “The Networked Information Economy.”

The networked university does not require a physical plant. The computer and the cell phone—owned by the student or available to him or her in a local church or school or café—become the spaces of the university. The computer is the lecture hall, and such programmes as YouTube bring the lecturer to where the student is, and make it possible for the student to watch the lecture at a time convenient, and to watch it as often as it takes for the learning to happen. The computer and the cell phone are the classroom, and the tutorial, and the library. The “virtual library” makes it possible for ten or fifty universities to share the books and journals a university needs, overcoming the expense of paper books in each setting at prices no longer affordable.

The networked university, the virtual university allows faculty and students in any part of Africa to access the best laboratories around the world. If there is teaching talent that is rare, and found only in one university, the networked university makes it possible to share that talent, so that students in all universities can learn. And the virtual university can bring to Ghana or any part of Africa academics in disciplines not yet to be found on the continent. The network, then, becomes the library, becomes the classroom, becomes the school, becomes the university. COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of the networked university which has now become virtual.

Benkler’s concept of a networked information economy is equally applicable to the Virtual High School (VHS)  idea. The courses, laboratories and library of one VHS located at one facility could be accessed by any school and used to enrich its curriculum. If a community had a pretty good school, it might use only a few of the virtual school courses. If the community had a poor school, or none at all, students might go to a local school, or a church, and enroll in the virtual school. The VHS can also connect with the Open Courseware movement and collaborate with top academic institutions around the world, to create curricula and facilities of great quality that existing schools can tap into, but that also can enroll one or three or five students in a community with no school.

Fact is, we still cannot predict the long-term impact of COVID-19 on academia. But one thing we know for a fact is that a number of lessons have been learnt from the impact of COVID-19. We have learnt about the digital divide within universities on the continent as well as the digital divide between rural and urban schools. We’ve learnt about the logistical challenges confronting students in their attempt to transition to the online environment; and others.

Our educational leaders are now fully aware of the implications of COVID-19 and most of them, together with the support of government and donor agencies are putting in place long-term measures to mitigate the long-term impact of COVID-19.

This has led to innovation in ways universities go about their business, innovation in teaching, innovation in scholarly work, innovation in fundraising, and others.

Given the impact of the pandemic, one response that has become part of mainstream academia is digital transformation of the educational sector through online teaching and learning. This has now become the new reality and almost all academic institutions are racing to prepare for this new reality. This has now become the DNA of educational institutions not only in Africa but the world over.

We need to design a new educational system at all levels that prepares students for life and work today; a workforce education that keeps our workers continuously aware of the newest in their fields; we need to design a system of education that is digital in orientation, so that we do not spend what little we have on brick on mortar.

 We need to commit ourselves to doing as much as we can to harness the power of these new technologies for education, and to spending as little as possible on the old technologies–on the brick and mortar for classrooms and lecture halls and dormitories and the rest of the expensive apparatus that drains resources away from the central needs–teachers and students and knowledge that can be communicated without brick and mortar.

Regulators will have to overhaul their processes and procedures to facilitate the regulation of online teaching and learning systems. The pandemic has proven that teaching and learning can occur outside the classroom, without brick or mortar. Current accrediting systems were not setup to regulate online teaching. This calls for the enactment of new standards and guidelines. The era of filling out numerous, time-consuming manual documents for accrediting agencies should be history. A great deal of time is lost that could have otherwise been directed to purposeful endeavors. Thus, there is the need to streamline accreditation processes.

We now have the opportunity to make this possible through ICT. A group of academics and educators, specialists in ICT infrastructure, workforce educators, experts from business and industry, could begin work on such a model.

The future of Africa is linked to the future of digital education, to the possibilities of all the new information and communication technologies to move ideas and knowledge to every corner of the continent; to create colleges and universities without walls. The computer and telecommunications—wires and wireless—can bring learning to all the villages and towns in every community.

Benkler’s concept of a networked information economy applied to education offers several advantages over exiting traditional ways of learning. The model is one such piece of action research: a way of bringing to Africa quickly the entrepreneurial skills, the technical knowledge that Africa needs now, with little money spent on brick and mortar and the conventional apparatus for housing learning.

We should have the courage to develop a different way to use the new communication technologies, a way that recognizes the realities of our time.

Osei K. Darkwa, Ph.D.

Visiting Professor, University of Illinois-Chicago

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