Future of online education in Africa: It is no longer a secret that Nigeria is underserved when it comes to the quantity and quality of tertiary institutions available in the country. Some of these challenges can easily be attributed to poor financing, deteriorated infrastructures, and policy-making affecting tertiary institutions in the country, as well as university autonomy, among others.
Nigeria’s ministry of education has publicly noted that the number of tertiary institutions in the country is quite too small. According to him, “In 2019, the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB) announced that out of over 1.8 million candidates registered for the UTME, only 612,000 were admitted in Nigerian universities representing 34 per cent. This shows gross inadequacy in terms of access. The above scenario indicates that Nigeria needs more universities.”
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Notwithstanding, the challenges faced by Nigerian universities are not only based on the number of universities available but also based on the quality of the institutions available. According to AD Scientific Index, the first Nigerian university to come into the ranks of global universities ranking is the University of Ibadan, being number 1355, while in the regional category, it came number 19. This report is arguably poor for a “Giant of Africa“.
To take the scenario a step after the other, the big question becomes, how can Nigeria get out of this situation by ensuring that higher education becomes available for all?
Before dissecting the challenges, let us first identify the root cause problem, which is the problem of funding. Going by the earlier data above, only 34% of UTME candidates were absorbed into tertiary institutions. The question becomes, does Nigeria have the financial capacity to provide the number of universities needed to accommodate candidates qualified for tertiary study in the country – most populous black country in the world? The sad answer becomes “No”, or not anytime soon.
Online higher education is arguably the way forward to ensure that formal higher education become available for all. Online education is the future of formal education, and this future is nearer than we think. For a developing country with a relatively low budget for education, we must think smart and act right by tapping into the ubiquity of digital technology to deliver quality education to Nigerians.
About a decade or two ago, the major method of obtaining formal higher education was through the conventional physical classroom study, also known as on-campus study, but this method is changing globally, and it is changing rapidly. Online education is disrupting this conventional method of study and posing a strong challenger for the conventional brick and mortar classroom education. This is already happening, in the US for instance, about 2500 colleges offers online programmes, this is according to a report published on Harvard Business Review (HBR).
Evidently, universities in the US, UK, including Europe are taking the lead for online higher education, and Africa is increasingly becoming a major target market for these institutions. Ideally, African universities are expected to play a major role in this education revolution, and benefit from the exponential possibility which technology has made available, by increasingly venturing into online education due to it’s financial resources for education funding, as online education isn’t the case.
On the contrary, most education regulatory bodies in Africa are yet to make full provisions for the complete licencing and accreditation for online degree programmes. In Nigeria for instance, according to the official regulatory body’s website – National Universities Commission (NUC), only 12 universities are approved to run distance learning centres. This represent less than 10% of the total universities available in the country.
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Let’s closely examine what online higher education looks like.
Higher education is a post-secondary or a tertiary education leading to the award of an academic degree. However, online higher education is only a method of study to obtain the degree awarded upon completion of a higher education programme. The key difference between online higher education programme and the conventional on-campus higher education programme is the mode of study (online or on-campus). The degree awarded in both method of study is usually the same if studied for the same academic programme.
To further explain this, the degree awarded for online higher education is obtained through distance learning study where such programmes are delivered online or through study centres. Online study is under the umbrella of distance learning, while academic programmes are mainly delivered virtually, through the use of various online study technologies such as Virtual Learning Environmental (VLE), Learning Management System (LMS), E-library, among others.
Under the distance learning umbrella, there is also a study centre. This is not a conventional campus, but a simple student centre where students can receive their classes. In some cases, students in the study centre can still receive their classes virtually, using provided computer sets or other gadgets, they can also receive their classes physically in the event where a visiting lecturer visits their study centre to carry out the classes in person (this rarely happens).
Whatever the method may be under the umbrella of distance learning, in the end of the study, students are awarded a degree which is about the same quality as students who have studied on campus. To make this clearer, students who are studying in the same university for a specific academic programme but different method of study (online study and on-campus study) are awarded the same degree. They can also participate in the same convocation in most cases.
This is the case with most UK and US universities offering online programmes and on-campus programmes. The Universities offering degree programmes for on-campus study sometimes offer an online version for selected programmes. In the end of the programme, students are awarded the same degree for on-campus and online programme. Although in some cases, universities do indicate the mode of study – ‘’online study’’ or ‘’distance learning’’, but this isn’t the case for many. The key information to note is that the degree awarded from an institution hold the weight and carries the same capacity regardless of the mode of study.
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How can Nigeria benefit from Online Education?
There are many ways through which this can be achieved. The first and easiest way could be leveraging on existing regulatory body available – in this case, the National Universities Commission providing full accreditation provisions for existing Nigerian universities to provide online programmes, including provisions for new universities or existing universities overseas interested in setting up online university in the country, hence they are able to meet the set regulatory standard.
In the longer run, there may be need in setting up a parallel regulatory arm under the ministry of education that focuses purely on distance learning. Leaving this burden only on the shoulders of the National University Commission (NUC) could prove this mission abortive or reduce the pace. This parallel arm can work closely with the NUC but will focus on setting and managing the regulatory framework and standard for online degree programmes, including making available provisional technology for online education that can aide the adoption by Nigerian universities.
In the US for instance, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) is the national accreditation agency for distance education programme of study, in additional to other agencies. It is recognised by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), similar to the National University Commission (NUC) and Ministry of Education. In the UK, independent bodies such as Open & Distance Learning Quality Council (ODLQC), Accreditation Council for Distance Learning (ACDL), British Accreditation Council (BAC) provide similar services to ensure that universities meet the needed standard and are able to offer distance learning programme that can compete with global standard. The case is also the same for many European countries.
Nigeria needs to rapidly adopt distance learning degree programmes, where technology becomes a major driver and catalyst to ensure that education becomes available for all. Not only that this will increase the number of Nigerian students the Nigerian universities can absorb, it will also create additional revenue stream for the universities and enable them become self sufficient.
Let’s closely examine some of the benefits online higher education
1. Distance Learning programme (online) will help to absorb more Nigerians into tertiary education. Online education can accommodate significantly higher number of students who can be slatted for various academic sessions or tutoring sessions.
2. Increased income for local institutions as well as an additional income for lecturers. For the universities, this will provide more revenue streams which can be channelled towards improving the quality of programmes (online or on-campus) as well as the overall institution. For the lecturers, it will provide additional source of income since they will be responsible for tutoring the additional students for the online programme, which translates to additional pay or allowances. These lectures can potentially earn x2 or more of their current remuneration.
3. Serve students from other countries. The ability to teach globally is a fundamental benefit of online education. Delivering online higher education programmes will enable these institutions to tap into other markets and serve students from other countries. Again, this translates into more revenues for the institutions.
For the students, they stand to benefit even more, as they can benefit from an array of benefits which online education offers, such as flexible study system, affordability (online education is obviously more affordable), diverse alumni community which can also translate into increased career opportunities post-graduation, and many more!
Vincent Chidozie Okeke is an e-learning technology specialist, online higher education consultant, market researcher, and founder of DoviLearn