With 82% of students in sub-Saharan Africa stranded without internet access, the courageous efforts of many African universities to embrace online delivery have become bogged down in the digital divide. COVID-19 has shown that an affordable and accessible internet is needed more than ever.
As universities continue to adapt to online learning, the collective experiences of open and distance learning institutions on the continent could support their efforts.
In many African countries, open and distance learning has been introduced to meet the growing demand for higher education, as existing higher education institutions lacked the capacity to absorb the growing number of students. wishing to pursue higher education.
For example, the Open University of Zimbabwe was created by an Act of Parliament in 1999 to complement the only two universities in existence in the country at the time against a backdrop of growing student population and demand for university education.
Likewise, the Open University of Tanzania was established in 1992 by an Act of Parliament as the third public university in the country. The institution, which offers more than 80 courses, now has 30 regional centers in Tanzania and six coordination centers in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Rwanda and Uganda.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has shown that open and distance learning, facilitated online, is the way forward to ensure the continuity of university teaching and learning as African countries are struggling with the disease.
However, African universities face a myriad of challenges to effectively facilitate open and distance learning activities despite considerable efforts to adopt online delivery.
This was evident at the Association of African Universities’ (AAU) Quadrennial General Conference which was held virtually from July 5.
Making presentations at a plenary on open and distance learning in higher education in Africa, educators feared the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the digital divide, increasing inequalities in access to education as universities embrace online and blended teaching and learning.
Top management educators from universities in Cameroon, Egypt, Eswatini, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe told more than 500 conference attendees that open and distance learning is taking place. is transformed from print learning materials sent by courier to digital services – emails, discussion boards, Moodle delivery and instant online education through mediums such as Zoom.
But the move to online delivery is not a smooth journey for many African universities as they are hampered by a myriad of challenges that are driving the digital divide, the speakers said.
Widening the digital divide
âThe digital divide has never been more evident than it is today,â noted Professor Karen Ferreira-Meyers, Associate Professor at the Distance Learning Institute at the University of Swaziland.
With the disease disrupting physical learning in the classroom at all educational institutions, Ferreira-Meyers said online learning could help bridge the digital divide, but is being undermined by poor internet connectivity, especially in rural areas of Africa.
She noted that 82% of students in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to the internet, making it difficult for everyone to integrate e-learning.
Professor Elifas Bisanda, vice-chancellor of the Open University of Tanzania, said the high cost of the internet in Africa has exacerbated the digital divide between North and South.
However, he was encouraged by the evolution of open and distance learning, in particular the increase in completion rates currently at 60% at the Open University of Tanzania.
âThe Open University of Tanzania has opened access to higher education to learners from over 40 countries, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa,â Bisanda said.
But countries are redoubling their efforts to overcome the digital divide and other challenges facing open and distance learning.
According to Professor Theresa Nkuo-Akenji, vice-chancellor of the University of Bamenda, Cameroon, the government has purchased 500,000 laptops to distribute to university students to facilitate online learning in the country.
Nkuo-Akenji, who is also a member of the AAU board of directors, said laptops help meet the teaching and learning expectations of students and course leaders.
Professor Peters Olufemi, vice-chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria, said technology is needed more than ever amid COVID-19 and its impact on education.
âThe possibilities offered by technology to bridge the distance between teacher or institution and student have made it possible to [technology] no longer needed, âOlufemi said.
He said the university has developed an e-learning policy to help define its trajectory. In addition, the university coordinated a joint initiative of open and distance learning universities in Africa to develop a guide to quality assurance tools for online teaching and learning.
To overcome the obstacles posed by COVID-19 and associated pandemics, he advised governments to invest in online education as a lasting solution.
“African governments must invest heavily to ensure that Internet access is available at a cheaper rate for this [online education] happen, âhe said.
Ferreira-Meyers called for increased internet access in Africa to bridge the digital divide and improve inclusive learning through skills development, internet access and use.
This, she said, could be resolved through public-private partnerships to reduce the high cost of the internet in Africa.
Professor Paul Gundani, vice-chancellor of the Open University of Zimbabwe, said a strong budget is needed to help put in place the necessary information and communication technology resources to support learning in online in African universities.