The global academic calendar has been thrown into a state of disarray by the Coronavirus outbreak.
Most schools from basic to universities have shut down their doors and students have returned home to their parents and together self-quarantined. I am currently home with all my three children: two in the university and one in high school.
Convocations and Graduations have been cancelled, some classes have been cancelled (at least one of mine), some exams have been cancelled, university research programs have been postponed.
Leaders around the world are struggling with the decision to finish the spring semester in most cases.
This piece is my take on what is at state and the need to provide wise leadership in a stormy situation like this.
Coronavirus related decisions will forever change the course of history so it must be thoughtful and accurate.
Most academic heads are now promoting online education as a solution to this crisis.
First things first: Online education is not an ad hoc solution to a face to face delivery. Bigger schools are gradually moving their programs online and doing away with face to face delivery.
Top universities in the world such as Harvard, MIT, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. are moving in this direction. Going fully online requires significant planning and investment from all sectors.
To explain my position well, I want to start by identifying Kofi, a level 300 Chemistry student in a university in Ghana located in Accra. Kofi, however, is from Fomena, a small town in the Ashanti region.
Suppose Kofi’s university decides to roll an online program in chemistry to allow him to finish the semester. Let’s look at how this will play.
1. The Chemistry instructor should have all they need to record their lectures, edit them, and put them in a system that can be accessed by Kofi. Bear in mind that recorded videos are very large (a 20-minute screen capture can hit 500 megabytes easily).
So, if the university has not hitherto taken the instructor through an online teaching training, and may not have enough resources including recording platforms both on campus and at home to get the instructor to record and present the work in a manner that can be accessed by Kofi, then the online plan ends right here.
So, before institutions decide to use online to teach NOW, they should evaluate this issue very well. Remember, posting your PowerPoint slides for students to read does not constitute online teaching. They already have those files from other sources.
2. Suppose the university has a strong online platform and the instructor can record and present the material for Kofi to access even from their homes. Well, if Kofi does not have a means to access these materials such as a laptop/tablet or a good phone, then he is stuck. At this point, Kofi cannot be moving around in search of a laptop.
Certainly, he cannot be travelling from Fomena to Accra to access the campus computers. This is how complex the issue is. So, the decision to go online is not a one directional issue but multidirectional. Now, Kofi’s course mate Mary, who resides in Accra has a laptop and can access the files from the university servers. It turns out Mary does not have Wi-Fi neither does she have the resources currently to acquire one. So, what can she do? Nothing!
3. Between the instructor and the student are multitude of resources and support systems that must be in place for an online teaching to take off effectively. Does the institution have office/support staff that can support instructors and students with the volume of questions that will be coming daily? Do the broadband networks have enough bandwidth to support the volume of videos crisscrossing the system? If cheating in examinations is a concern, how do you assess the students remotely?
4. At this point, how will the instructor give feedback to students in the chemistry class on assignments, quizzes and tests? And if the class has a laboratory component, how will it be done from Fomena and assessed?
Taking your classroom online is not a kneejerk decision. Going online requires a lot of planning with significant resource outlays. My advice to the institutions in Ghana is simple, postpone the rest of the semester till the virus is gone. Let the students take their long (summer) vacation NOW and finish the semester when there is green light.
Meanwhile, put the online house in order and pilot some of your courses online later.
Professor Robert A. Baffour teaches at the college of engineering at the University of Georgia, Athens, United States.