Online Education or Delayed Education?

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“The ADVENT of COVID-19 was the GENESIS or our EXODUS from 19th Century Education to 21st Century Education.” -DDW 

By Dr. Darren Wilkins | 0886703789\0777129092 | [email protected] 

Much has been said about the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all sectors of the world. In Liberia, every sector, especially the Education sector has been greatly affected. Truth be told, despite the colossally negative impact on our Education sector, the ADVENT of COVID-19 was the GENESIS or our EXODUS from 19th Century Education to 21st Century Education. COVID-19 has forced a change in our education system and our way of living, which we reluctantly or simply refused to embrace earlier. In fact, in our education system, COVID-19 has kindled a “techno-pedagogical” ecosystem that will force educators to be technology-literate going forward, as they strive to educate our future leaders. The emergence of this “techno-pedagogical” ecosystem in our education system is a result of the introduction of electronic learning or e-Learning by some tertiary institutions in Liberia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent times, there has been a controversial discourse involving the decision by some tertiary institutions to offer their courses online in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Proponents of online education argue that e-Learning is the only viable alternative to ensuring continuity in education, especially at the tertiary levels, during crises such as COVID-19, which has prompted the “new normal” of social distancing. Opponents on the other hand, argue that while it is true online education is a viable option at this time, Liberia is “not ready” for a Virtual (online) Learning Environment (VLE), and that institutions should wait until the end of COVID-19 to return to the traditional or brick and mortar learning environment.

What do opponents mean when they say Liberia is NOT READY? Their argument is that Liberia lacks the “bare minimum” to provide a VLE. Lack of “Bare minimum” means that we lack the required infrastructure (affordable internet connectivity and electricity), computing devices and the capacity (faculty) to offer courses online in Liberia. Access to such a platform will be limited to the “haves” only, according to them. They suggest that the best thing to do is wait until COVID-19 ends. Yet, the stopped short of telling us whether the expected COVID-19 or whether they know when it is going to end.

The basis of proponents’ argument include: the strides Liberia has made over the years in infrastructural development (internet included), the need for an alternative learning environment to continue education in the wake of a crisis (based on past experiences- Civil War, Ebola, etc) and the actions that other countries that share similar challenges as Liberia, are taking to ensure continuity in their educational systems. Proponents believe that while Liberia faces challenges, strides made over the years such as access to high-speed internet through the Africa Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine optical fiber cable; lower cost of computing devices due to advancement in technology; the huge numbers of Liberians that Government sent to other countries for training/education; the number of Liberians in the Diaspora willing to contribute remotely, the growing number of institutions providing training and education in information and communications technology (ICT), etc., can drive some level of online education delivery in Liberia during and after COVID-19.  Most of all, the Government of Liberia’s recent intervention in negotiating with GSM/MNO companies for “FREE” access to e-Learning Platforms (during COVID-19) is another stride made, that proponents believe will help institutions ensure continuity in their efforts to deliver their courses online.

Proponents also use institutions like AME University, Starz College and the Adventist University of West Africa examples of institutions that have already “gone online” to complete their semesters. Starz College, I was told, had begun offering courses online prior to the COVID-19. The University of Liberia had been working on its e-Learning Program since mid-2019 and had planned on “Piloting” that program in March of this year. Unfortunately, COVID-19 disrupted that plan. All of these developments, proponents argue, have been achieved with the available limited resources in Liberia.

In short, opponents are saying do nothing now; just wait; while proponents are calling on their Governments to act now, so that the future leaders do not lag behind as other nations move toward things like artificial intelligence, virtual reality etc.

I will have to say I agree with proponents on this one. History can bear me out that we’ve had several crises in Liberia that have disrupted our education system. During those crises, we had no alternative but to sit and wait until things got back to normal; no matter how long those crises lasted. Remember the prolonged Civil War and Ebola? Unlike the other crises, COVID-19 gives us an option through the internet. And, while our internet platform may have its challenges, it is at an appreciable level to help us achieve e-Learning, e-Commerce, e-Health, etc.

While I fervently embrace the discourse between proponents and opponents, I strongly believe that the discourse should gravitate toward the opportunities we currently have, and not just the challenges. Why do I say this? Do I feel Liberia is ENTIRELY ready and capable of implementing full and seamless change from a traditional learning environment to a virtual learning environment to ensure continuity in education in a jiffy? Absolutely not! We are not 100% ready and I am not sure if anyone can be 100% ready for a change, especially when it’s abrupt as the one COVID-19 has brought on us. Yet, Liberia has made strides over the years that put us in the position to venture in such “waters”, to some level. We may NOT be fully ready for online education, but tell me, how many countries around the world can say that they are or were FULLY ready and prepared at the initial stages of implementation, especially in this pandemic?

Since the end of March when the COVID-19 pandemic caused 1.8 billion students to be out of school, I have been on webinars and online meetings with educators, ICT heads and professionals, ministers, directors, policy makers, et al. All of them agreed that e-Learning is the alternative but there were challenges that they explained and complained about. Everyone on those meetings had the same challenges: infrastructure, computing devices, the possibility of inequitable access, lack of capacity, etc. Yet, each nation, despite the myriad of challenges they face, decided that they would use the limited resources available (many talked about Free and Open Source Solutions) to provide online courses, to ensure continuity in their educational systems. Hitherto the writing of this article, I am yet to hear of an nation that is awaiting the end of COVID-19, to go back to the traditional teaching and learning environment.

I was once a student of the University of Liberia (UL) I know the challenges of being a student at our state-owned institution. In fact, during my time as a student at the UL, the challenges were exponential; further exacerbated by the civil crisis. There were no Digital (online) Student Registration Systems, there were no computer labs, and there were no such things as emails or the internet. I remember going to classes and standing outside to take notes (through the windows) because the classes were too crowded. I remember having to wait for a subsequent semester to take a course because the course wasn’t offered the semester I needed to take it. Worst yet, I remember being denied my first entry level engineering job in the United States because I didn’t know how to use the CAD software, despite my stellar performance on the written aptitude test.

It is the above experience that caused to me recommend online learning in my book “A Digital Liberia”, at the University of Liberia and other tertiary institutions; and, that book was written in 2010. Perhaps if we had started at the time, we would have been FULLY ready by now! Methinks?

Here’s what I think. I think that since eLearning is a “relatively new phenomenon” for some folks in Liberia, they have not garnered a good understanding of how it works, so, they only see the challenges. Clearly, there’s a need for awareness. This article would be even longer than it already is, if I try to fully explain eLearning. So let me try to provide a brief explanation and my choice of online learning for Liberia.

There are different types of elearning programs: Fully Online, Hybrid/Blended/Partially Online, Distance Learning and Web-Enhanced Courses.

Fully Online Courses– Fully Online means courses can be delivered 100% online and in two ways: Synchronous and Asynchronous. Synchronous means there needs to be some form on interaction between instructor and student; something like a virtual face-to-face interaction between students and instructors.  This format sometimes requires prolonged presence online via video conferencing systems like ZOOM, MS TEAMS, GOOGLE MEET, SKYPE, etc. For example, law schools that use the SOCRATIC method of teaching, thesis defense, or any other course that requires face-to-face interaction can use the synchronous format.

The second way to deliver a “fully online” course is the Asynchronous way this format is cheaper (no ZOOM or video conferencing necessary; may not require huge amounts of internet data). It’s basically an independent study approach where the instructor uploads content to the Learning Management System at the beginning of the semester, allowing the student to access it anytime, at any place despite geographical locations. Activities like assignments, quizzes, forums/fora, message boards, etc, are utilized and a student can only use 30 minutes or at most or an hour to read, post, download, or upload assignments; just as he or she does on Facebook. This does not require a student to be in an online class for hours as would a synchronous format.

Blended Learning/Hybrid Online Courses– This type of e-Learning is expensive because it combines both on-campus and online presence (for students: Transportation and data packages). In the wake of COVID-19, blended or hybrid learning might be a problem for institutions. In addition, blended learning requires resources that many institutions (including private institutions) do not have currently. To provide education and control the student population taking into consideration the existing health protocols and the new normal of social distancing, may be doable but expensive.

Distance Learning (DL): Distance learning is carried out remotely by using electronic communication and is not bound by geographical locations. This style provides a more flexible course schedule for those that have a family and/or are working students.

Web-Enhanced Courses (WC):  Web-enhanced courses are traditional face-to-face courses that use tools in the E-Learning environment to expand student learning beyond the boundaries of the classroom.

In my opinion, considering the e-Learning options and new normal of social distancing caused by COVID-19, I believe that the primary online teaching and learning SHOULD BE “fully online” but Asynchronous. Of course, this is just my personal opinion. You are free to differ with me!

Frankly, when COVID-19 does end, and we do go back to the traditional teaching and learning environment, things will never be the same.  If you don’t believe me, then think about how 911 changed the way we travel. E-Learning is an option that we have. We can choose it or we can wait until COVID-19 ends. Clearly moving from the traditional environment to an online environment has challenges. Yet, if we keep saying “We are not ready” and not make any effort, we will NEVER achieve anything. And our education system will continue to retrogress. We have to work with what we have, be ready to embrace change no matter how tough or bitter it may be, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Keep in mind though, we still have options: Online Education or Delayed Education.

Until next week,

Carpe diem.

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