Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education in Africa: The Transition to Online Teaching and Learning

As we are all well-aware, COVID-19 has changed our way of live and experts have labelled the pandemic as the most crucial global health calamity of the century and the greatest challenge that the humankind faced since the 2nd World War.

What started as a regional health crisis in late 2019 had, by March of 2020 grown into a global pandemic never seen for a century. As at June 20, 2020 there have been 8,766,035 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 462,691 deaths, reported by the World Health Organization (WHO).  According to the WHO data, within the same period, Africa has 287,385 cases reported, with 7,708 confirmed deaths and 132,959 recoveries.

Despite the relatively lower number of COVID-19 cases in Africa compared to Europe and other parts of the world, the virus has now spread to every country on the continent, and remains a major threat to the continent’s health systems. A new study by WHO predicts that if containment measures fail, even with a lower number of cases requiring hospitalization than elsewhere, the medical capacity in much of Africa would be overwhelmed.

Almost all African countries have responded by putting in place lockdowns and public health measures to promote physical distancing, wearing of mask, good hand hygiene, isolating cases and testing and tracing of contacts of people with COVID-19. Even though these measures have helped slowed down the spread of the pandemic in Africa, it has affected every aspect of life and changed the world as we know it.

It will be recorded as not only one of the most pressing issues of our time, but also as an occurrence which has most acutely highlighted the fault lines in our society.

Within academia, COVID-19 has exposed some of the weaknesses on our campuses. In response to the pandemic, almost all governments in African decided to shut down educational institutions to help minimize the spread of the disease.

To ensure academic continuity, most universities were mandated to make a transition from face-to-face teaching to the virtual environment. So, most universities went online on a scale never seen before.  This decision was abrupt, hasty, and rapid without any contingency plans in place. This exposed a number of challenges for most of the institutions. Most institutions lacked the capacity to move to the virtual environment/ The technological infrastructure as well as Internet connectivity for most of the schools was a challenge.  In addition, there was lack of adequate faculty preparedness, inadequate technical support, as well as students who lacked access to connecting devices as well as reliable Internet connectivity.

According to UNESCO, 9.8 million African students experienced disruption in their studies due to the closure of their institutions.

Fact is, we still cannot predict the long-term impact of COVID-19 on academia. But one thing we know for a fact is that a number of lessons have been learnt from the impact of COVID-19. We have learnt about the digital divide within universities on the continent as well as the digital divide between rural and urban schools. We’ve learnt about the logistical challenges confronting students in their attempt to transition to the online environment; and others.

Our educational leaders are now fully aware of the implications of COVID-19 and most of them, together with the support of government and donor agencies are putting in place long-term measures to mitigate the long-term impact of COVID-19.

This has led to innovation in ways universities go about their business, innovation in teaching, innovation in scholarly work, innovation in fundraising, and others.

Given the impact of the pandemic, one response that has become part of mainstream academia is digital transformation of the educational sector through online teaching and learning. This has now become the new reality and almost all academic institutions are racing to prepare for this new reality. This has now become the DNA of educational institutions not only in Africa but the world over.

For online teaching to be effective, institutions have to put in place a number of measures. First is an upgrade of the technological infrastructure to support the transition. This will require substantive capital investment that maybe the means of most institutions.

Second, is the provision of adequate Internet connectivity. Without this, no meaningful online activities could be undertaken.

Third, is to equip faculty with new set of skills than they’ve relied on in a traditional classroom setting. New skills in online presence, new skills in online facilitation, new skills in student engagement, new skills in the use of online tools such as the use of a learning management system, and others. This will not happen overnight but institutions have to put in place a road map for implementing a robust online faculty development plan.

Regulators will have to overhaul their processes and procedures to facilitate the regulation of online teaching and learning systems. The pandemic has proven that teaching and learning can occur outside the classroom, without brick or mortar. Current accrediting systems were not setup to regulate online teaching. This calls for the enactment of new standards and guidelines. The era of filling out numerous, time-consuming manual documents for accrediting agencies should be history. A great deal of time is lost that could have otherwise been directed to purposeful endeavors. Thus, there is the need to streamline accreditation processes.

We still cannot predict the impact of the pandemic on higher. But the university as we know it will never be the same. This creates an opportunity to rethink what the future of education would look like and put in place measures to adopt to the new normal.

Nana Prof. Osei Darkwa, President
African Virtual Campus

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