Education plays a pivotal role in the development of a country. It is the key to wealth and national development. There has been tremendous development in Nigeria since independence which correlates very strongly with education. Therefore, education is the vital investment required for the upliftment of the poor. Well-educated people tend to make financial decisions that help build wealth, and accumulated wealth grows much faster for individuals with a higher level of education. This is even more visible in advanced countries. In 2014, United States with a population of 309 million produced 67,449 PhDs while the UK with 63 million people produced over 25,000 PhDs. How on earth are we going to compete with these countries in innovation and services? As usual there is dearth of statistics and information on the Giant of Africa (Nigeria) with 186 million people.
In 2017, about 1.74 million candidates sat for the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), and the universities, polytechnics and colleges of education combined can only admit about 700,000. So, what will happen to the one million that is unadmitted? There are also some millions of qualified candidates who have given up on JAMB due to age or who are working and cannot afford the time for full time studies. We must find a way to accommodate most of these qualified candidates. Due to political pressure, most federal and state universities cannot increase their fees to meet the rising administrative and educational costs, but they can certainly boost their revenue by increasing the number of students they teach using digital classes. We are currently in the golden age of education to teach all who require learning.
The cost of education to the Federal and State Governments is enormous and that is why we still have just 40 federal and 46 states universities. The private universities (74 as at today) are now coming to the rescue of qualified educational seekers and they also deserve financial and infrastructural support from the government. Universities must be allowed to introduce new courses, expand sought-after courses and even close down courses that students do not apply for or for which job prospect are almost zero. The United States of America (USA) have 2618 accredited universities indicating that we still have a long way to go. William G. Bowen the President Emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University has argued for the adoption of online education in his incisive book, “Higher Education in the Digital Age”. He proposed the “hybrid” approach, a mix of online learning with typical face-to-face “classroom teaching” sessions.
There is a seismic shift in online learning that is reshaping higher education all over the world. Nigeria must key into this interaction and not be left out. Nigerian universities must start taking advantage of the Internet to deliver lectures. Digital technology offers us rich, interactive learning environments. Most students now get much more information for their project from Google Scholar and Wikipedia, than from their library. The future is digital no matter whether you are studying medicine or fine arts. No company or hospital or ministry is going to employ a graduate in the future who lack digital skills. Even medical students can develop diagnostic and clinical skills through online scenarios. They can learn from their mistakes with no adverse consequences for real life patients and without the need to be at the teaching hospital. Of course, they must still learn during residency under the close supervision of physician supervisors using real patients, but they can spend lots of hours using the online virtual patients. A science student can also effectively learn more to be a quality control manager from a virtual factory rather than by learning passively from a teacher who may never have been in such a factory position. The same also apply to engineering, pharmaceutical and agricultural students. These students will have honed their skills in simulated learning environments just like the way pilots train on simulators before they fly. This will definitely encourage independent learning. From real educational perspective such hands-on learning is the key to retaining knowledge and applying it successfully.
Part time courses will have more value if most of the courses are taken online (while others are taken weekends) and the students take the same examination with regular students. This way, even some of the technical science and engineering courses can be taught to part time students with the practical and laboratory courses being carried out during weekends. I am positive that science and engineering departments will be the first to fully embrace online teaching so that more time can be devoted to laboratory and practical courses. In addition, more workers and self-employed individuals will apply for postgraduate programs all over the country if more than half of the courses can be taken online. Nevertheless, I will strongly suggest that examinations be taken at the university with regular students. Critics will continue to complain that students are too poor to own laptops and buy data. This submission is wrong. Several of my students have laptops or tablets, and the vast majority own smart Android and iPhones.
Although the National Open University of Nigeria offers distance education, the traditional universities with their depth of experience are better positioned to teach online and compare with their regular students. In many online degree programs, students can access course material on their own time and in a location of their choice. In others, students might attend live lectures through videoconferencing. Therefore, regular university students can take several non-laboratory, non-calculative, non-demonstrative and non-practical courses online. The Head of Department, Dean, appointed director or even the Vice Chancellor can log in and monitor the class sessions. The online course can pack lots of life examples, case studies, 3-D models, applications and figures. Lecturers can also easily introduce recent research reports and even the full texts of published papers. However, I will recommend that online courses for regular students should not exceed 60% of their courses. It is still necessary for the students to interact with their lecturers in a typical classroom. The only real problem that may impede the movement to online education is that most lecturers do no possess good digital skills. Nevertheless, most universities can double their admission if they take some of their classes online and hire younger internet-savvy lecturers. We have many qualified Nigerians with PhD looking for jobs now unlike 20 years ago.
Let us take the case of General Studies. Every university student must take about four of these subjects in their first and second year. In most universities, general studies classes are always so large with hundreds and in some cases more than a thousand students. Students can easily take all general studies classes online. Several universities can even offer these courses together, assigning lecturers from their institutions to teach the different topics. A common examination can be taken at fixed dates in all the institutions. All the general studies courses may even be taken in both semesters making it very flexible for students.
Nigerian universities should not consider online courses as a threat but embrace and take advantage of it. Universities are special places and traditional education is not going away anytime soon. Our universities are in a unique position to expand and supplement the educational services they offer using online courses. Online courses are integral part of the future of tertiary education and we have the deep-thinking and innovative lecturers and professors as well as software developers to bring all these into reality.
Professor Tonukari teaches Biochemistry at the Delta State University, Abraka and he is the editor of the African Journal of Biotechnology. He has co-authored two patents and numerous research articles.