Speaking from the perspective of someone who is both an entrepreneur and investor in ICT- enabled businesses, I will first point out some personal encounters with Open and Distance Learning; and then we shall focus on some key learnings; and then we shall further explore some next steps we might take as a country to strengthen higher education through ODL- making it attractive to the students, investors and all other stakeholders.
Years ago, I was fortunate to start a company called Emerging Platforms that later went on to build Nigeria’s largest educational learning platform — supporting over 150,000 students within a really short time. While we were still engaged, we made the required capital investment and then our fantastic team (of mostly young Nigerians) went on to train and on-board 100’s of tutors. We supported lecturers to produce and publish thousands of hours of rich audio visual materials; then set up a user support centre with round the clock access. Very quietly, we rolled out a truly interactive virtual learning environment called NOUN iLearn!
This, by far, has been one of the most rewarding career highlights for me, and we remain grateful to the National Open University of Nigeria and the National University Commission for the opportunity to serve at that time. There are media reports that last year the 1.8 million candidates who registered for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) jostled for about 850,000 admission spaces (this number was far worse six years ago). And so it is quite clear that Open and Distance Learning must play a very important role in Nigeria’s education mix. Leveraging ICT presents an opportunity to expand borders, improve quality and maintain standards.
Today, across the length and breadth of Nigeria, universities like, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and University of Ibadan to name a few are leveraging ODL to expand and enrich conventional higher education in classrooms. With the robust support of the regulator — the National University Commission, this very positive trend is catching on and in no little way is changing the face of education in Nigeria. This is remarkable, and we are all grateful to the National University Commission for its leadership in this regard.
Permit me to share a few principles that we have found to be critical to making ODL fit for purpose — through the deployment of qualitative and fool-proof ICT components. First is to Design with the local environment in mind. When designing our ICT systems we must take a radically user-centred design approach. We must of necessity consider the peculiarities of the local environment where these users exist. In our work, there are few questions we constantly ponder upon. How do our intended users currently access content? What technology interface do they utilise? What is the impact of power outages on how they interact with ICT? What is their income level and what impact does this have on how they use ICT? One of the biggest insights that will immediately jump at you from this exercise for instance is the need to compress content to the barest minimum size without losing quality or perhaps chunk the size of video lectures.
Provide multi-channel learner support. It is essential to provide a duplicity of easy to use and easy to reach support channels. Your users are going to need it. From experience, these channels should include; social media support, email, toll free lines and on platform chat. It is also usually best that access to these support channels are themselves embedded within the learning environment.
Don’t ignore the lecturers. While an increasing number of the learners are digital natives, the facilitators or teachers are mostly digital migrants. Do not ignore them! To ensure adoption, provide maximum support and create a user-friendly interface that is easy for them to comprehend. It is also critical to ensure incentives and rewards are properly aligned and this most times will require deep institutional changes.
Incorporate Quality Assurance Process in design. One of the paradoxes of ODL is that the goal remains to provide learning online or remotely without compromising on quality. It is therefore essential that the systems we build and implement have non-burdensome mechanisms for monitoring, assessing and evaluating quality on an ongoing basis.
People, process and policy over technology.
Often times we obsess over the shiny new piece of technology or ICT, but the reality is that people, process and policy trump technology every time. It is critical that we build our ICT interventions around; defined and accepted processes; optimized people behaviours and journey maps; and enabling policy frameworks. During your system requirements gathering phase, the needs of the users should determine the structure of your system and not the other way around.
Focus on the use cases for all ODL stakeholders. In building your ODL — ICT system you will benefit significantly from obsessing on what users would actually do with the system. Users here include; the students, the university, the lecturers and the regulator. In thinking about this, I like to utilize the “Jobs-To-Be-Done” model developed by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in 2007. Professor Clayton argues that “Most companies segment their markets by customer demographics or product characteristics and differentiate their offerings by adding features and functions. But the consumer has a different view of the marketplace. He simply has a job to be done and is seeking to ‘hire’ the best product or service to do it.” By anticipating the jobs our several stakeholders actually want to get done with their ODL experience, we are better positioned to design the appropriate ICT interventions.
Avoid over featuring on the platforms. Do not create a complex system. Make it simple, make it easy, make it plain. Avoid too many modules; too many buttons; too many pages! Focus on only relevant modules that satisfy the immediate need of the user and iterate as you go. As the saying goes “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. “Build for scale. Considering the pent up demand and rapidly increasing population, give room for expansion. In less than 2 years we experienced over 100 percent user growth at The National Open University of Nigeria.
Encourage investment in ODL — ICT by promoting contractual sanctity. To encourage more private sector investment in ODL we must of a necessity ensure we protect the integrity of contractual agreements and avoid personalization of agreements based on the administrative tenure of university systems. Investing in ODL — ICT is a long term endeavour and we must encourage investment in the space not discourage it. Today, from where we stand, the above discussed principles are drawn from our collective experience and form a basis upon which future ICT for ODL implementations can be modelled. However, it is also important for us to look to the future. And so I want to end this talk by casting forward into what the future might hold for ICT in ODL for Nigeria.
Advancing technology continues to provide new opportunities for ODL. Soon, more than half the world’s people will have access to mobile phones and the internet. This is an incredible opportunity to continue to expand access by providing high quality education at low cost. At the same time distance education continues to evolve and move from the fringe of higher education to the mainstream presenting new challenges for the field. In looking ahead, we should consider the following.
Access and Costs.
There is no doubt that both access and the cost of higher education have become critical in the discussions. Some of these discussion even now question the value of a conventional degree. So much so that very recently there were news reports that Google, Apple and 13 other companies no longer require employees to have a university degree. The fact is that we must continue to find ways to cut or at least maintain current cost structures while continuing to provide quality and flexible learning experiences that also support faculty and research. This I believe will depend greatly on how institutions leverage ICT for ODL and shift from face-to-face to online. Thereby, further questioning the over-emphasis on physical infrastructure. Remember that by 2050, we are forecasted to have over 400 million mostly young people and we currently are a mostly poor country.
Virtual and augmented reality.
There is a general consensus that virtual and augmented reality will change the educational landscape. Imagine this — a student opens a book to what appears to be a page with a picture of the earth on it. Then, the student puts on a pair of special glasses and a three dimensional images pops out at them. Now, instead of seeing a simple, flat image, they can see various landforms; look at a cross section of the planet to see all of the various layers going down to the earth’s core. There are no buses to take the student anywhere. Instead, the student is given a pair of inexpensive virtual reality headsets. What does all of this mean for the ODL of the future? I will leave you to ponder that.
Cloud, Big Data and AI.
Big Data in ODL can be defined as the data produced by learners and teachers interacting with the learning content in the cloud. This data is collected from the ICT systems that learners utilize and can then be leveraged by artificial intelligence or machine learning to enhance outcomes in interesting ways. For instance Microsoft’s Azure cloud provides tools that developers can leverage to build AI powered applications for schools to harness to provide deep analytical insights into student performances. In the USA, The Tacoma Public School District utilized similar tools for AI powered analytics and improved their student graduation rates from 55 percent to 82.6 percent over the course of six years.
More and more, millions of people are growing up to recognize the mobile phone as the only computing or learning interface they know. If we must educate people at scale, ODL must be delivered on the mobile interface. The coming generation of learners will demand the luxury of assessing learning resources on any device, at any time, from any place. In concluding, I will like to remind us that by 2050, Nigeria’s population is forecasted to exceed 400 million — that is double our current population. We simply cannot build enough hostels or classroom halls to educate all our youths.
One solution however, is to rapidly expand ICT powered Open and Distance Learning opportunities to train and retrain our population for the jobs of the future.
– Aina wrote in from Abuja.