As Africa reopens its universities, these institutions of higher learning will need to consider how COVID-19 has reshaped their futures

As COVID-19 struck and countries across Africa went into varying degrees of lockdown in a bid to halt the spread of the virus, the academic future of millions of tertiary education students across the continent hung in the balance – threatening to disrupt a sector viewed as a pivotal catalyst for the future development of nations.

There’s no sugar-coating the reality; a host of researchers, along with respected global organisations including Unicef and the WEF, have admitted that the pandemic caught the continent off-guard, exposing the unpreparedness of many higher-education institutions in Africa to migrate online.

In the usual spirit of ‘African solutions for African problems’, however, governments, education ministries, university leaders and lecturers themselves rose to the challenge, forging partnerships across the globe to maintain the highest standard of learning possible. Utilising resources including everything from radio, television and paper-based approaches, to solar-powered tablets, smartphones and social-media channels such as WhatsApp and Facebook, they adapted quickly, instituting innovative solutions that might otherwise have taken years to become part of accepted pedagogy.

Laura Czerniewicz, Director of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, based at the Centre for Higher Education Development, speaks for many of her African university counterparts when she says ‘the move to remote teaching was unusually rapid. There was no time for the usual deliberate course design or online teaching strategies’. Naturally, it is critical to support academics and course conveners to develop material fit for remote teaching to ensure students can continue pursuing the academic programme from their homes. But, she stresses, the type of online learning also has to take into account the students’ context, considering poverty-related challenges (such as lack of access to electricity and high data costs).

These are issues that have thrown up significant hurdles to continuing tertiary education in countries including Nigeria and Kenya, despite Nairobi’s Silicon Savannah being firmly established since 2016. South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt are the four main tech hubs on the continent, becoming commonly referred to as ‘the innovation quadrangle’.

In April, University World News (UWN) Africa Edition reported that Nigeria’s universities struggled to shift their activities online following the 20 March federal government shutdown. The publication quoted Omololu Soyombo, Professor of Sociology at the University of Lagos, who blamed the crisis on poor internet infrastructure and the absence of a reliable electricity supply. By September, however, a Global Citizen online article noted that e-learning solutions had ensured that universities and private schools in that country were the least-impacted segment of the Nigerian education sector.

In Kenya, meanwhile, it was not possible for universities, pre-COVID-19, to change the administration of learning or teaching policies, since their management and governance powers rest with that country’s Ministry of Education and the Commission for University Education. Jane Gakenia Njoroge, a lecturer in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Kenyatta University, says in an opinion piece published in the online Nation newspaper that the pandemic opened the way for the redrafting of policies to include online and blended learning, playing a major role in reshaping policymaking at universities.

‘Despite challenges like inadequate facilities and equipment, and lack of preparedness by staff and students, universities can now offer blended learning,’ says Njoroge. She points out, however, that this approach to teaching also exposed gaps in Kenya’s Education Act, and in the capacity to teach technical courses online. ‘Courses that require the presence of the learner and the instructor in the same settings should provoke universities to relook the policy formulation, planning and strategising for teaching them, to ensure quality delivery,’ she says.

Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of South Africa’s University of the Free State, draws attention to the difference between online learning, and emergency teaching and learning, to illustrate the depth of the challenge that universities across Africa faced when countries’ education environments were abruptly shut down.

‘Online learning is the result of careful instructional design and planning, using a systematic model for design and development. With remote emergency teaching and learning, this careful design process is absent,’ he writes in an opinion piece on the university’s website, explaining that careful planning for online learning includes not only identifying the content to be covered, but also how to support the type of interactions important to the learning process. Such planning, preparation and development time for fully online university courses typically needs six to nine months for delivery. Hence, Petersen suggests, it would be unfair to measure emergency remote teaching against proper online learning. ‘COVID-19 is presenting unique challenges to universities globally, but it also provides us with an opportunity to be innovative, to improve social solidarity, and to co-create new ways of engagements among stakeholders for the greater good of society.’

Interestingly, UCT Vice-Chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng says that while COVID-19 fast tracked the preparation of students for a digitally mediated world with the launch of emergency remote teaching, many of the institution’s academics now say they will never teach in the same way as before. UCT teaching will now draw from various methods, including fully face-to-face and fully online, she says. ‘The new way [of teaching] puts the needs of students with barriers to learning at the forefront. It helps us design good learning experiences and reconsider methods of assessment,’ says Phakeng, adding that it is also helpful to disabled students and those for whom English is their second language. Her view is echoed by her counterpart at the University of Pretoria, Prof Tawana Kupe, who agrees that the reliance on face-to-face or contact teaching was being disrupted by the rise of digital technologies. A return to purely contact teaching, he says, is not going to be possible. ‘People have experienced something that seems more relevant to a future marked by increasing digitalisation. Universities will now need more resources allowing them to move with greater speed in changing to hybrid or blended teaching and learning,’ according to Kupe.

University vice-chancellors in more northerly countries, discussing how COVID-19 has affected higher education in their region, spoke with one voice during a webinar on responses and lessons learnt from African universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. They emphasised that while they were unprepared for the magnitude of the disruptions wrought by the coronavirus, universities had to seize the opportunity to become more resilient, adaptable and flexible.

The point made by Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice-Chancellor of the US International University-Africa, in Kenya, that the pandemic had laid bare problems about infrastructure and capacity in universities, was a common theme. ‘Some have been able to move seamlessly from in-person teaching and learning to using online platforms; others haven’t been able to do so,’ he says.

At Makerere University, Uganda’s flagship and one of Africa’s oldest and most respected institutions, Vice-Chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe says that while some online programmes are up and running, the transition to online ‘has not yet been a success’. There are plenty of other successes he could record, however. Medical staff and graduate students provided critical services at teaching hospitals, working on the front line of the pandemic; the university has been involved in research into herd immunity and immunity responses to see how they could impact on future prevention and treatment of COVID-19; and researchers are also modelling the pandemic in Uganda to inform planning and interventions.

Nawangwe highlights two other innovations, repurposed from the Ebola epidemic, that have emerged from Makerere University. The first is an EpiTent, an award-winning structure that can be utilised as an isolation unit or a mobile hospital; the second is a rapid COVID-19 testing kit. Evolved from a kit developed for Ebola, it produces a result in 15 minutes and costs less than US$1. Another UWN Africa Edition report highlights other gains: every African Research Universities Alliance learning institution took the initiative to engage in research to understand the virus within the local context, and to support the search for a vaccine, it states.

South Africa’s University of Pretoria, by its participation in the WHO’s multi-centre clinical trial for Africa, has been working towards the project objective of accurately estimating the effects of antiviral treatments on in-hospital mortality. It has also been leading a South African Medical Research Council study on the development of a rapid test method.

Scientists at the University of Ghana, the report adds, have successfully sequenced the genome of the coronavirus in the country; and Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia has been allocated US$307 000 by the state to study the psychosocial and economic impacts, while also focusing on vaccine and diagnostics development.

In the words of Zeleza, as Africa begins opening its borders and universities start to reopen their doors, these institutions of higher learning must take seriously the role they have to play in the fight against COVID-19 – as creators and disseminators of knowledge, through teaching and learning, but also via research. ‘We must be at the forefront of understanding the crisis,’ says Zeleza, who adds that universities must also be at the forefront of creating ‘the kind of world that we want in the future’.

By Di Caelers
Images Gallo/Getty Images