By Ope Adetayo
For the past ten months, Ahmad, a 21-year-old undergraduate student in the faculty of arts at the University of Ilorin, has been at home. The coronavirus pandemic had first prompted the Nigerian government to shut down all universities and put the country on lockdown. That lockdown was compounded by the ASUU strike which kept university lecturers in the country out of work.
When the strike was called off two days before Christmas last year, Ahmad thought he could finally go back to the familiar environment of the classroom. Instead, as the second wave of the coronavirus hit Nigeria, the University of Ilorin announced that lectures would move.
The University of Ilorin joins the University of Lagos, University of Benin, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta; University of Abuja, Obafemi Awolowo University and Olabisi Onabanjo University, which have all moved online or are planning to do so to avoid the spread of Covid-19, affecting an estimated 250,000 students.
Although the virus’ rapid spread leaves university managements little choice, the move to online learning presents major logistical issues for thousands of Nigerian students who struggle with the high cost of data and access to computers and smartphones, aggravating a class divide and leaving some students behind.
“The first time I heard that we are moving to virtual classes, the first question that came to my mind was: How would I cope?” Ahmad said. Ahmad, who is in his third year at the university, is one of the thousands of students who have suddenly found themselves in an uncharted territory.
Without ever taking a virtual class before the coronavirus pandemic, Ahmad is struggling to adapt to a new system and its cost implications. Despite Nigeria having one of the cheapest mobile data rates in Africa, its price is still very high when weighed against the country’s 30,000 naira ($76.90) monthly minimum wage.
“Before, buying data was not my priority, I usually used the school Wi-Fi but now, I am forced to take out of the money saved to take care of myself,” he said. “The money budgeted for survival on campus is now being channeled into buying data which will affect me when school resumes and it will have impact on my academics because you can’t read when you are hungry,” he explained.
Elvis Boniface, an education consultant, said that the problems are rooted in lack of infrastructural development in Nigeria’s education system. Before COVID, he said, the infrastructure especially the ICT had not been up to standard, even when compared with universities across Africa.
“They have taken it [the financial implication on students] into consideration and this seems to be the only option. However, they have not stretched themselves to ask what the feasible options are,” Elvis said.
University lecturers have cast doubt on the move to online learning, arguing that the infrastructure is not there. “It will not work,” ASUU President Biodun Ogunyemi stated in an interview with Punch newspaper last year.
Nigeria’s economic decline and the substandard level of information and communication technology in Nigerian universities means that the majority of Nigerian university students are at the intersection of financial crisis and computer illiteracy.
Favour, a 21-year old third-year undergraduate at the University of Lagos, revealed that she does not have the basic knowledge of operating a computer, and her university has decided to move the rest of the semester online.
“I am not familiar with [internet classes] and with a computer, I am not that good. I don’t know how to use Microsoft Word or Excel, I just have little idea on it,” she said. With classes in her university slated to start by the last week of January, she hopes to move in with a friend or relation who has “access to a good laptop or phone.” Her situation is not peculiar. A laptop costs thousands of naira and as such is considered a luxury, especially for a student.
Hundreds of thousands of Nigerian students like Favour and Ahmad are now trying to adjust to an education system with a new look. Despite the Federal Government’s directives to open all schools on January 18th, school managements are still wary of exposing their student populations to the hazards of the pandemic due to insufficient provisions.
“With the look of things, I don’t think it [online learning] will work,” Favour said. “The fear of failing and how I will cope was the first thing on my mind, I am just hoping it will not even work.”