COVID-19: Achieving SDG 4 in tertiary institutions through remote learning reforms and digital innovation

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The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread all over the world at an accelerated pace and the disease has already had adverse consequences on multiple countries across the globe.

According to the World Economic Forum, the outbreak of COVID-19 has “highlighted cracks in global trust, the pitfalls of global interdependence and the challenge for global governance.” Just like every other pandemic, it has been a prime business risk and an amplifier of existing trends and vulnerabilities. Resonating with the latter, the health, finance, education, among other sectors, are being served with the harsh treatment birthed by the pandemic.

Amid the ongoing crisis, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), whose core function is to serve as a blueprint for a better and more sustainable future for all, have seen a number of such being compromised and rendered void momentarily. One such is Goal No.4 which gives emphasis to quality education and another, Goal No.9 which highlights the need for industries, innovation, and infrastructure.

Evidently, all the 17 SDGs are interdependent and in given relevance to education, innovation, and infrastructure, Ghana has once again been caught with its pants down. Following President Akufo Addo’s declaration of a nationwide suspension of educational activities effective Monday, March 16, 2020, a question that has often been swept under the carpet resurfaced; how prepared is Ghana in terms of remote learning and distance education?

The issue of the practicality of remote learning and virtual classrooms in the country has often been sidelined and substantial outcomes are evidently yet to be yielded for its proper implementation.

On paper, many universities in the country offer distance education which is more often devoid of the online experience instated by tertiary institutions in developed nations. Primarily, it is another walk-in session, albeit for a shorter duration as compared to tuitions and studies offered during the regular school period. As a result, the need to launch or better still, adopt a sustainable remote learning platform has been long overdue.

In advanced countries, leveraging and incorporating technology into personalized learning is nothing as it has been in practice for years. In Europe for instance, many institutions use tools such as Microsoft Office 365, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom to facilitate distance learning. As a result, in this period of school shutdown, these great technologies simply encourage collaboration in the virtual classroom for both teachers and students.

“All classes have been migrated to an online platform for all universities called Feide and, once you log in, you can access all lecture materials,” Redeemer Buatsi, a postgraduate student at the NLA University College in Norway revealed.

“The program can take 50 students at a time and allows for the projection of slides just like the classroom. You can chat privately with any student or seek explanation on a subject from your tutor, contribute to lessons or comment for other students to read,” he added.

Nevertheless, and quite unfortunately, the scenario differs in the Ghanaian educational landscape. In the wake of the ban on educational activities, the non-existence of such innovations has left schools scouring for a make-shift avenue to deliver lessons to their students in order not to waste the semester. Platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Google Classroom are being used but the feasibility of this is up in the air as many students have little to no exposure in terms of the use of these applications for e-learning.

“I am deploying WhatsApp, Telegram and Google Classroom for my online teaching,” Eric Agyekum, a lecturer at the Ghana Institute of Journalism said.

“With these three platforms, I reach more than 90 percent of my students within 24 hours. I use the Read Receipt feature on WhatsApp to determine reach. Anytime, I post reading materials online, I click on the material to see the number of people on the page that have viewed and not viewed it.

“However, I’m unable to determine whether or not the students have downloaded the materials I post online. Another issue has got to do with the teaching of some practical topics, which has become very difficult to do.

“Getting to students to collaborate and work on group projects and assignments has also become almost impossible, as they have dispersed to their various homes, with some students in remote areas where internet access is unavailable. In effect, we are rolling out the online teaching in a cautious but optimistic manner, such that we don’t do a disservice to students who don’t have constant access to the internet,” he concluded.

In that, innovative tools and programmes are constantly being rolled out, and schools in Ghana should be able to migrate faculties and departments to share software that is remotely accessible. As cited above, programmes such as Microsoft Teams should come in handy to enable staff to collaborate and work from home whenever the need arises – especially in these times where social distance and proximity speed up or inhibit the spread of the COVID-19.

Now, the question of feasibility and the readiness of schools to adopt such initiatives have already been answered with Ghana’s very own premier private university Ashesi delivering the blueprint for other universities to follow. Following the nationwide suspension of educational activities, the school swiftly moved to break the semester into two halves. It then established that the first half of the semester (Segment A) ended on March 13, 2020 and the second half of the semester (Segment B) will begin online.

In essence, the post-mortem of the Coronavirus pandemic will be crucial and should serve as the building block for what could be a fully-fledged digital revamp of the Ghanaian e-learning landscape. For starters, as part of the ruling government’s plans to pioneer digitization in various sectors, a step in the right direction would be the establishment of an official partnership with Microsoft who have redefined remote learning with their innovative tools.

The significance of this to our education system and more specifically our tertiary institutions will be boundless. Not only can both private and public universities have an array of tools to support their day to day learning, but they will also be able to move an entire school into remote mode.

Handy tools such as OneNote, Teams, Sway, among others will be with the students every step of the way, aiding not only the educational program but parents, faculty, and staff as well. In terms of alternatives, Google Classroom serves as a great substitute just like the aforementioned Microsoft tools. The platform gives students and instructors who own smartphones, computers, and the internet the opportunity to replicate the classroom experience on a virtual platform.

“Adapting to this could be quite challenging but not impossible,” says Emmanuel Asamoah, a tech analyst and an entrepreneur in training at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST).

“Access to and affordability of quality hardware products such as fast computers, the high cost of Internet and it’s the slow transmission, are among the problems that could emerge during the implementation of this new measure. Lack of knowledge on the part of teachers who are ‘old school’ and not up to date with modern practices is also a problem. However, we just need to change a few things here and there and we’re good to go.”

With all said, there is the need to ascertain how much the government and its Ministry of Education alongside all the major stakeholders, are willing to invest in acquiring these innovative tools to help the educational system.

After President Nana Akufo Addo’s declaration of a hiatus, the Minister of Education, Matthew Opoku Prempeh indicated there were plans in place for students to be exposed to traditional media broadcast and social media platforms that will help them acquire knowledge despite the closure of schools in the country. While the step is inarguably laudable, a more concrete solution should be on the priority list of the ministry, taking all the above-listed challenges into consideration

Once again, the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic will be crucial to the cause of improving access to education in the country through digitisation and lasting solutions could be acquired to prevent any complications that may arise as a result of impending crisis.

>>>The author is a Level 300 Journalism student at the Ghana Institute of Journalism. Email: [email protected]

 

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