KAMPALA – The Association of African Universities (AAU) has called upon universities in Africa to move “urgently” to implement alternative methods of delivering teaching and learning using technology and other distance learning techniques in the wake of the closures of higher education institutions to limit the spread of COVID-19.
In a statement issued on 19 March, AAU Secretary-General Professor Etienne Ehouan Ehile said the AAU was organizing online teaching and learning webinar on 30 March to support the African higher education community.
The webinar will discuss the ‘Effective Integration of Online Education in African Universities’ and the guest speaker will be Professor Safary Wa-Mbaleka, who is currently director of the Adventist University of Africa Online, based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Wa-Mbaleka told University World News that all higher education institutions need to move to online education. “COVID-19 is catching many people unprepared … higher education institutions that already have stable connectivity need to quickly transition to online education.
“This requires expertise in online education, faculty and student training as well as more human power in the area of IT personnel to support both the faculty and the students,” he said.
Wa-Mbaleka said educational leaders need to plan effectively to support the transition, collaborate with experts in the field of online education, and build access to electronic books and journal articles.
Asked about low-tech options for online teaching so that students with low-bandwidth connections can participate, Wa-Mbaleka said Moodle seemed to be the most widely used and it was “mainly free”.
Ehile said that while the safety measures announced by African governments in relation to the closing of educational institutions and the banning of gatherings have a negative impact on the continuation of teaching, learning and research activities of higher education institutions, it could also be seen as an opportunity.
“Even though this appears to be a negative outcome we see it as an opportunity that African universities can explore to introduce technology-based platforms for teaching, learning, and research,” he said.
Ehile said while ongoing assessments of technology adoption by African universities show that a significant number of African universities have implemented some kind of e-learning management system, most had not yet enforced technology-supported teaching and learning – including “those that do have e-learning management systems installed on their campuses”.
On the issue of student access to the internet and bandwidth, Ehile said several universities were collaborating with telecommunications companies to facilitate the provision of affordable or free access to the internet for as long as the students are accessing education-related websites and information.
He cited the examples of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, which is collaborating with Vodacom, MTN and Telkom to offer zero-rated access to specific educational websites; and Ashesi University in Ghana which is offering 10GB monthly data bundles to all students who need it to switch to online classes.
The AAU urged universities to abide by the advice issued by their governments and other relevant authorities in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and to activate their business continuity and disaster recovery plans proportionate to the current circumstances.
It also said universities should plan for “bigger disruptions”, so that higher education institutions are prepared if the pandemic takes longer to contain.
The statement encouraged universities to “teach and learn about the COVID-19 virus” and ensure that all electronic channels of communication are activated and fully functional to facilitate ongoing engagement with the universities’ communities.
Ehile said the AAU has noted various initiatives by African universities to participate in high-end research towards finding a cure for COVID-19, including the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Disease at Redeemer’s University, Ede, Nigeria.
In addition, the University of Ghana Health Services and Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research had formed a Joint Emergency Response Team to bring education and awareness on preventive measures and diagnosis of COVID-19 at the University of Ghana campuses.
Makerere University in Uganda has developed a dedicated website to provide Africa with facts and research-based information on COVID-19. Ehile also mentioned the ‘War Room’ at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.
The AAU announced it is conducting an assessment on the preparedness of African universities to adjust to the COVID-19 safety measures introduced by African governments and has called on all vice-chancellors or their appointees to participate.
The AAU said its own face-to-face capacity building initiatives scheduled for March and April in various African countries would now be delivered online.
Reacting to the AAU’s measures, Professor Juma Shabani, director of the Doctoral School at the University of Burundi, said they were important since they call on universities to fully participate in national efforts to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic and encourage them to be proactive in developing appropriate action plans for post-pandemic recovery.
He said the AAU and sub-regional university associations should collaborate over the establishment of electronic platforms for sharing information and best practices on the pandemic within and between universities, including through the use of electronic newsletters, video-conferences and virtual discussion forums.
He said universities should also be part of “national discussions on economic recovery strategies that take into account the negative impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the implementation of national development plans”.
In response to the AAU statement, Atta-ur-Rahman, UNESCO Science Prize laureate and former coordinator general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, said the AAU needs to push awareness in the continent’s academic communities of the critical importance of social distancing in order to control the virus.
He said there was an urgent need for Africa to keep up to date with the science of the coronavirus, and for more research focused on indigenous medicinal plants, some of which could have active compounds to combat the coronavirus.