COVID-19: University campus format changed for good

Were it not for momentous events in human evolution, life itself would be dull, monotonous, boring, and above all, static. The first giant asteroid that hit the earth surface some 65 million years ago created such a huge splash that it wiped out the dinosaurs. Debris from the explosion thrown into the atmosphere permanently altered the climate. It led to the extinction of 75% of the species that existed at the time. Humanity later evolved from the ruins. Then, we had the Italian polymath, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) with his findings that nature could be studied with mathematical precision, and asserting that the earth was in fact round, and not flat. The religious dogma of the era had most people believing the earth was the centre of the universe. According to Galileo, the earth and other planets revolve around the Sun, not the other way round. He was arrested by the religious police and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1633 for his “heretical” belief. He died in 1642, but the “heresy” later became conventional wisdom. Then, came George Stephenson’s locomotive engine built in 1812, ushering in the Industrial Revolution, transforming business operations from small scale to large scale conglomerates. Then, Thomas Edison and his scientific team invented and patented the light bulb in 1879, banishing darkness as it was then known. In the modern era, molecular biology gave us Deoxyribonucleic Acid (aka DNA) in the 1950s now with the real possibility of finding treatment to all diseases known to man, and halting the ageing process with the view to making death no longer God but man’s wish. Thereafter, heaven will be revealed to be right here on earth.

Then, fast forward to the present “world wide web” (www), creating the so-called information superhighway, the “dotcom” revolution, the “tech” revolution championed by Google, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. As if humanity was awash with too much fun discoveries, then came COVID-19 with a bang! The coronavirus pandemic threatening to eviscerate humanity one dozen at a time, killing people indiscriminately. By good scientific account, however, humanity will overcome the virus (the poison in the air), soon enough, but modern way of interaction, I believe, has been altered forever. One of which is the traditional board and study (brick-and-mortar) model, otherwise known as the university campus. What, for instance, is the point of a large concentration of people inside the perimeter fence of the university when the same service can be provided via remote learning in the comfort of the students’ homes? There are two foundations upon which the new model of university education of the future could be built: One is the “online” degree model, whereby students do “tele-learning” from start to finish. It is already being done, but it is not an option generally seen as useful. Many employers scoff at online certificates for the purpose of employment as such certificates are open to fraud and abuse. They are, at the moment, being issued for vanity purposes by quark colleges hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet. However, once the traditional, mainstream university themselves enter the online market, the game would take a different turn for the better; it will become a highly regulated affair for all concerned.

The other existing model for university learning, which could point to the future is the open university system, whereby students practically study by correspondence with specified physical contact with tutors at specific locations and time during the academic year. Traditional university could copy and expand this with the aim to minimising year-long accommodation on the campus. Students are given their course materials, and attached to their personal tutors, with whom they interact remotely throughout the year. Mass gatherings of students on the campus could then be arranged, say, once in a semester for a couple of weeks of mixing and interaction with fellow students. What is being discussed here would be viewed as “heresy” by the Pretorian Guard of the traditional university campus system, I know. But, thankfully, there will be no Galileo-style arrest here. From the monasteries in ancient Greek, where religious education and philosophy were drilled into select adult males through to Roman colleges of apprentices in technical trade and blacksmithing, the mortar and brick model developed and grew in importance culminating in the first generation of university education over two thousand years ago. The Ivy League of universities around the world took their roots from this. Mass university campuses have subsequently become the norm in the modern world. They have become the place to groom and develop the elite of industries and public administration. Any proposal to do away with this tradition would be stoutly resisted almost universally. But, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the calculus.

The pandemic has opened up a window to the world of opportunities at the level of tertiary education. Who could have imagined that course work and examinations could be conducted for thousands of students in one go and be electronically invigilated whilst they were writing the exams? Technology has made it possible to see the examinee in real time, as they log on to the system. The university system they log onto takes over the screens in front of them, so that lecturers and their IT support network can tele-guide the students all the way. The remote camera on the standard laptop is used to see the student behind the screen, even engage in live conversation with them. There is a giant screen at the IT department inside the university where batches of students are assigned to an invigilator who can interact with the students in real time. There is no possibility of logging onto other online sites, or an impostor taking the exam for a student. In most cases, the questions are set in such a way and manner that the computer itself will do the marking at the end of the exercise. All that is left for the tutor is to collate the results. Now, what would you say if I told you that this is precisely what many private universities have done in this country in the last couple of months? Meanwhile, publically-funded institutions have remained in abeyance, thanks in large part to the universities’ union, Academic Staff Union of Universities’ opposition to re-opening.

Publicly-funded universities are in no position to compete with private universities when it comes to equipment and material provision for students. Many private universities who have not invested in IT hitherto will now do so in leaps and bounds knowing full well that they would be left behind by their rivals if they fail to do so. In the age of austerity and belt tightening, how much money can publicly-funded universities attract from the government? The existing universities are nothing but the shadows of their old selves. It is time to take stock and consider the future viability of our publicly-funded universities in this country. Government would either invest heavily in them in the way not seen since Awolowo’s education revolution in the old Western Region, or allow them to wither and be absolved by better-equipped, and better-managed private institutions nearby (another heresy? Watch this space). Above all, the one-size-fits all regime imposed by the university regulator, the National Universities Commission, is out of date and out of sync with the times. Why not establish a commission for private university? This column has argued for a change in the governing structure of private universities several times (For example, see, “Corporate governance model for Nigeria’s private universities,” The PUNCH, January 1, 2019). Coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in society, but it has also created an opportunity to be innovative and proactive in grasping the challenge of learning with modern technology. Digitalisation of education IS now the new normal. Anyone arguing?

Copyright PUNCH.

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