AGUNBIADE Tomiwa is clear about one thing, virtual learning is not working for her. Since the programme was announced by the University of Ilorin in January as a way to curtail the spread of the coronavirus and regain lost time after a ten-month halt in academic activities due to COVID-19 restrictions, she has not gained much learning.
The first-year student of Aquaculture and Fisheries at the University of Ilorin has no prior experience of attending virtual classes. Like most students in public tertiary institutions in Nigeria, online classes are a new experience.
She struggled with virtual learning, especially in classes such as Anatomy, Advanced Mathematics and General Studies. Her internet connection sometimes gets slow, and she usually has a hard time getting a chance to ask questions during the live classes.
“There is no way the virtual classes is going to work with the current challenges of poor network, and the lack of interaction with the lecturers. It is as good as just reading on your own,” she said.
According to Tomiwa, the online video conferencing classes organised by the lecturer are held on Zoom and Google Meet where a link to each class is shared with students offering the course to enable them to prepare in advance, but the use of these dual tools depends on the flexibility of the lecturer to simplify a classroom structure on a video call.
More than 1,000 students across six departments in Tomiwa’s faculty are registered for the class, but nearly 50 per cent of the participating students are logged out of the online lectures because the free version of Zoom only allows maximum participants of 300 people.
The ICIR examined the University of Ilorin’s 2021 budgetary allocation by the Federal Government which did not specify any allocation for Covid-19 expenditure to cater for video conferencing applications for lecturers or students.
“It is difficult for students like me to attend these Zoom classes because there is a large pool of students who are on the queue waiting to get into the class so it comes down to luck before you get to attend your lectures.
“Last week, one of my lecturers couldn’t even get into a Zoom class he organised because the class was filled beyond capacity and no single student in the online class was willing to leave so he could log in. Eventually, the class had to be rescheduled,” she said.
On January 18, the Federal Government directed public universities to resume academic activities after the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU called off its strike.
But there was a problem of Second wave of covid-19 to deal with. Data obtained from the Nigeria Center for Disease Control, NCDC coronavirus resource portal shows that Nigeria’s infection rate is growing rapidly having recorded 42,950 new cases in January which is the highest monthly number of infections since the outset of the virus in the country last year.
It has been reported, however, that the spike in the number of Covid-19 cases in Nigeria is likely to decline if remote learning in Nigerian universities is successful. Yet the challenges posed by poor internet connectivity, access to computers and adaptability to the online video conferencing tools by the lecturers jeopardise the process and put students in harm’s way.
READ ALSO: COVID-19: Virtual learning widens digital divide between Nigeria’s public and private schools
Attending class on a mobile phone
Opeyemi Kosemani, a 100 level student of aquaculture at the University of Ilorin was trying to grasp the anatomy of a fish as she flipped open her notebook, pen in one hand and her phone in the other. She found out that this method of learning between slides and the chatbox was difficult.
Opeyemi muted herself on the Zoom class and turned off the camera, yet these functions are sometimes too much for her mobile phone to handle.
“The online class on Zoom allows us to see the names of participating students but the lecturers will still ask us to take attendance and for me using a phone, this is challenging. I will have to start scrolling down the chatbox to get the attendance sheet and other students will continue to distribute attendance sheets so the lecturers usually have little control of the class.
“Using a phone to attend online classes is a difficult task, sometimes I spend time zooming in and out of the page when the lecturer is trying to explain equations on the board especially courses on statistics and mathematics,” she said.
The user experience for mobile phone users in an online class in Nigeria’s public universities differ, Aminat Rufai, a 400 level student of Mass Communications of Bayero University, Kano told The ICIR that the virtual classes are only used for courses on general studies which are theory-based courses.
“I don’t have problems with the Zoom classes in my school because we are divided into groups so the lecturers can control the classes with ease. I am comfortable with using my phone for the classes since they are not congested because my courses are not technical,” she said.
Zoom became a popular video conferencing tool after the spread of COVID-19 made face-to-face meetings risky.
In South Africa, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, NSFAS, approved the disbursement of more than 700,000 laptops for the 2020 academic year to enable South African university students to cope with the disruption of normal classroom interaction since the outbreak of the pandemic.
According to records from the Budget Office, Nigeria’s education ministry did not include any virtual learning intervention measure in its 2021 approved budget to assist lecturers and students in public universities after the seven-month nationwide strike was called off.
Olupelumi Gift, a final year student of the Department of English and Literary Studies at the Federal University, Oye, Ekiti State says she attends classes using her phone on Telegram, an informal distance-learning app where her lecturer sends a PDF document of their course to the students in a group asking them to study the document.
The app allows her lecturers to share their lessons using voice notes, videos, and photos in group chats which resembles a real-life classroom.
“We have not resumed fully so some lecturers send us materials on Telegram asking us to read without explanations, hopefully in the coming weeks we would have fully grasped this online learning programme in my school,” she said.
The case of the University of Lagos is even laughable, yet instructive according to a student.
The University in a newspaper report announced January 25, as the resumption date for academic activities which would commence with online classes due to the second wave of COVID-19. But the announcement was made on a print media instead of sending a message to students virtually.
In a tweet by @ope_yemie which was retweeted by over 3,000 people, she alleged that the University of Lagos had resorted to publishing the resumption date in a newspaper instead of sending emails to students to notify them of the development.
Unilag wants to do online classes but cannot send emails to notify us. They had to do newspaper publication.
— Oga Madam (@ope_yemie) January 21, 2021
Bridging the wide gap
According to a 2020 research published on the Journal of American Medical Association for Internal Medicine, coronavirus infections stems from campuses since young people who contract the virus are far less likely to die than older people.
However, the re-opening of universities across the country could increase the chances of community transmission among student population if the virtual learning programme is unsuccessful.
Ifeanyi Anorue, a former head of mass communication department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka told The ICIR that the virtual learning programme at UNN is riddled with network challenges and both lecturers and students are burdened by additional data expenses.
“There is nothing that can replace the interactive person-to-person relationship in class but since online teaching is our new reality poor network is a major challenge. Sometimes connecting with students through video calls might take hours and cause classes to be re-scheduled.
“Apart, from the network problems, we are experiencing nobody has put in the financial toll of buying data on both students and lecturers because every expense on data comes from your pocket,” he said.
Anorue also explained that lecturers have adapted to the reality where raised a digital hand means to speak during a session, however, they can’t read the facial expressions or body language of students to gauge whether they were engaged or learning.
The pandemic ushered in Zoom’s popularity which many educators adjusted its settings to make it easier for students to join virtual classrooms which showcase as much as 49 people at once on a screen.
Its features boast of real-time noise suppression in its conference-call function to reduce background sounds from keyboards alongside custom backgrounds.
The popularity of the video conferencing application raised a situation called “Zoombombing” where people gain unauthorised access to a meeting and disrupt video meetings by sharing pornographic images e.t.c but Zoom has responded by adjusting default settings for users.
David Olasupo, a software developer with Cuesoft Incorporated, Nigeria, said the country’s virtual learning programme would be properly harnessed if the requisite infrastructure in universities is available.
“The video conferencing classes held at these universities don’t have virtual augmented classes for technical courses which is one of the major core of online learning. Where we have simulations of live events or tools which is beyond video calls,” he said.
Amos Abba is a journalist with the International Center for Investigative Reporting, ICIR, who believes that courageous investigative reporting is the key to social justice and accountability in the society.