Why NUC approved only 11 varsities to run ODL
Dr Suleiman Ramon-Yusuf is the Deputy Executive Secretary, Academics, National Universities Commission, NUC, and was part of the academic experts who drafted the 2009 guidelines on Open and Distance Learning, ODL, in Nigeria. In this interview with Godfrey AKON, he weighs in on the importance of ODL, and other forms of technology-mediated learning in providing mass instruction and why NUC approved only 11 universities to run as dual mode institutions. Excerpts:
Can you briefly explain the concept of ODL and where we are right now; are we achieving set objectives?
Basically, open and distance learning is a mode of learning that has gained a lot of grounds across the world, having transited from correspondence education in the early days through various stages, to the way we are today where we are talking about technology-mediated learning.
Open and distance learning creates an opportunity for learning to take place without necessarily confining the learner to a space or place. Therefore, it is that mode of learning that goes on without constraint of time space or even pace of learning. In other words, distance learning is driven by flexibility. You don’t have to be in a particular place on a particular date at a particular time for learning to take place.
So it’s a very valuable means of teaching and learning. And in the Nigerian context, it has been recognised as far back as the 1960s, even the 1950s, because many of our forbearers in terms of education graduated from the University of London without necessarily going to the UK. They sat in their various villages and got their materials by post. In those good old days by ship, it took several months but they got their materials, studied and earned their degrees.
So for quite a long time, this has been recognised and in Nigeria, if you look at documentation, the national policy on education recognises ODL as a veritable tool for continuing professional development, and lifelong learning because it usually obvers the need for workers, who want to improve on their educational qualification to leave their employment. You have people studying and working, nursing mothers with children studying. So it enables people to live their lives where learning doesn’t stop.
Now, we have heard employers of labour complaining that graduates of ODL are simply not able to meet up with the demands of employers, what would you say about that?
I am not just a theoretician. Personally, I have conducted a tracer study of graduates of the National Open University of Nigeria. We conducted this study about three years ago. We need to make a point very clear, employers of labour tend to make general statements. We can’t blame them because sometimes they don’t know much about the graduates and courses that they studied.
So it is true that an employer of labour may not know that Mr X graduated from university Y where the programme had been denied accreditation for example. If you find such a graduate performing below expectation then you would be worried.
For us at NUC, we acknowledge the fact that general graduate quality is perceived to be low, and there is evidence that, yes, some graduates are not measuring up to standards. But the truth is that you cannot paint all of our graduates with the same brush. Many Nigerian graduates go to United Kingdom or United States, some with 2:2 and end up passing with distinctions at their master’s programme in one year.
Yes, there are skills gaps here and there. In terms of skills, there are hard skills and soft skills. Many Nigerian graduates may not have some of the soft skills for example, critical thinking, interpersonal or even competing skills, but the hard skills of the definitions of what this is the actual subject matter knowledge, they may have. That is why we are saying many of them do well when they go abroad.
Universities have not perfected the act of the ODL mode even the National Open University of Nigeria. I know as a matter of fact, that there is an intensive training programme we run at the National Open University of Nigeria today where lecturers, academic staff, some for the first time, are beginning to understand what the virtual learning environment is, and how to prepare materials for online education. So for us her in Nigeria, the truth is there is a learning curve as far as Open and Distance Learning education is concerned.
You made a prediction some years ago that about 200,000 students would get admission into ODL by 2013, what was the yardstick and has that prediction come to pass?
Yes, let me say that the National Open University of Nigeria has well over 500,000 students. But you see, in distance learning you need to draw the line because flexibility makes it possible for students to take what you call sabbatical. That is why in counting numbers of students in an institution, you have to be sure which of them is active. So the number will vary from session to session because somebody who has suspended studies is on your book as a student, but is not an active student.
These predictions were made in 2009 and what was the basis? That was when NUC was galvanising action to produce distance learning guidelines. So we projected that if we kept the practice of training ODL academics, we would have a critical mass of ODL professionals, not necessarily professors.
At the time we started, there were distance learning institutes in University of Lagos, University of Ibadan, University of Maiduguri, University of Abuja and Distance Learning Institute in Modibo Adama University. So they were five at the time. In an attempt to clean the stable and let them understand what distance learning was, we suspended admissions into distance learning programmes in those centres because we knew at that time that they were just glorified part time programmes.
Today, we have about 11 distance learning centres in Nigeria but because NUC is very strict about the admission of students, we tie it to the ability to deliver distance learning within the context of the framework of weapon of mass instruction versus weapon of mass destruction. We are very rigid. We do not want to give the impression that distance learning is a shortcut.
We are on course. I am pleased to say that the reforms going on at the National Open University of Nigeria under the chairmanship of Prof Peter Okebukola, is very gratifying and Nigeria stands to benefit massively. Prof Okebukola is the Chairman of the Governing Council of the university and he has instituted alongside with the management of the university, serious capacity building where staff are being trained in the various aspects of e-learning because that this the only way the university can move into the digital era.
We all didn’t expect Covid-19 but it came. In what way can distance learning come to the rescue?
The Covid-19 scenario has exposed our nakedness, not only Nigeria’s but even the so called first world’s. We saw how the system failed. Covid-19 has caused cataclysmic embarrassment for many systems and the disruptions are massive and are still going on. The difference is some systems were able to react quickly compared to others.
In Nigeria, we have not been able to leverage on technology because obviously what a man sows shall he reap. We have not invested in open and distance learning sufficiently to be able to reap from it. Only systems that have been investing in technology and ICT infrastructure before now, provided adequate bandwidth and more importantly, trained their teachers on how to leverage technology, how to integrate technology into teaching and learning.
Rome was not built in a day. The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Right now in Nigeria, it has dawned on us that technology is not an option. Now it is clear that if we must make any meaningful progress, we must rethink technology, we must reinvent ourselves in terms of how to deploy technology to achieve all our educational objectives.
Even here in NUC, we have decided that we will put some good money in place to help to build the capacity of Nigerian academics in terms of digital competencies, because whether we like it or not, we are in a digital economy.
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