COVID-19 pandemic that has killed thousands of people in many countries and forced many countries to close their borders and citizens to stay at home for several months has come to stay for at least two years according to the World Health Organisation forecast before the vaccine to tackle the pandemic can be fully developed and commercialised. Therefore, educational institutions, businesses and professional bodies are adjusting to a new normal. The question the public and education stakeholders ask is how do we achieve student experience or student engagement in the new normal, especially in developing countries like Nigeria? In this article, I critically examine the elements of student engagement and experiences during the COVID-19 new normal and advance some policy and practical implications.
Innovations in teaching and learning focus on applying a set of well-designed practices intended at engaging students, maintaining social interactions, knowledge sharing and excellent student experience. Several education theories and policies emphasise the need to balance the discourse of psych-sociology of learning and student’s engagement, “sense of belonging” with teaching and learning pedagogy. Students certainly pursue education to gain subject or discipline knowledge, achieve social networking and gain economic benefit by gaining post-study paid employment or self-employment. Student development must combine activities focusing on their experiences from recruitment to graduation.
During a recent virtual workshop/induction ceremony of about 50 visiting professors and visiting fellows to Coal City University Enugu drawn from African scholars in the Diaspora across the globe and hosted by the Vice Chancellor of the university, Professor Afam Icha-Ituma and other eminent scholars such as Professor Chinedu Nebo, Professor Osita Ogbu, Professor Chidi Onyia, Professor Chibuike Uche and Professor Chukwumerije Okereke, the discussion focused mainly on the state of Nigerian higher education and adoption of innovative teaching, deep learning approaches, skill development, production of indigenous knowledge and talent retention in the Nigerian universities.
Indeed, enhancing graduate knowledge, skills, entrepreneurial ability and employability has become a priority for education stakeholders in Africa. But how can Nigerian higher education navigate the complex COVID-19 new normal learning environment for the next two years that the pandemic is expected to cohabit? A new normal learning environment will involve maintaining social distancing (instead of social interactions), promotion of individual learning (instead of collaborative or team learning), promotion of virtual meetings and mentoring (instead of face-to-face support), promotion of digital assessments and less of face-to-face assessment (e.g., examinations, presentations and practical assignment).
The quality of learning in higher education involves a variety of interacting variables such as education policies, teachers’ competencies, curriculum design and teaching/assessment methods (pedagogy), orientations of the learners/teachers and the learning environment. Also, the way teaching is structured or organised and delivered is one of the most effective ways to develop students’ learning experience and engagement. The education system must foster equality and diversity by creating teaching and learning environments that proactively eliminate discrimination, inequality of opportunities and diversity. These are important elements that develop students’ emotional, behavioural, and cognitive connection to their study, influences student learning, development and success. These are fundamentals of a “sense of belonging” and “place belongingness” related to individual educational experience and motivators of behaviour. It appears that digital education will be the medium to navigate the COVID-19 new normal learning environment. Digital learning becomes a ubiquitous part of the educational landscape.
But how does higher education maintain outstanding digital student experience? The National Centre for Distance Education and Technological Advancement at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States exemplifies eight indicators developed based on qualitative and quantitative cross-institutional studies. These include (1) Design (teaching and learning should be specific and measurable learning objectives aligned to assessments and learning activities). (2) Organisation (higher education must promote well-organised courses, easy to navigate, logical and consistent). (3) Support (tutors must manage students’ expectations, provide orientations, maintain clear instructions, assessment and grading plan). (4) Clarity (tutors must provide clarity in the expectations of students’ activities, standards, requirements, guidelines and content).
(5) Instructor – interaction (teachers must actively participate in online discussions, facilitate learning and peer interactions, provide timely and detailed feedback on assessments and student inquiries). (6) Peer – interaction (teachers must facilitate frequent and ongoing peer involvement and meaningful collaborative work, provide opportunities and technologies available for students to learn from each other). (7) Content – interaction (teaching must enhance student interactions with accessible and interactive content, support dialogue, critical reflections, analysis and real-world applications of the content, provide materials that are current, rich and enough in breadth and depth). (8) Richness (teaching must provide richness in learning activities, use tools and media).
Of course, the notions of quality of teaching and learning are varied across disciplinary settings and all the eight indicators may not apply in certain circumstances. The concept of blended learning as an instructional model becomes increasingly important. Blended learning usually involves a mix or blend of face-to-face, real-time learning and the use of online digital resources. Adaptability and professional development of teachers remain critical to blended learning because of the use of technology. Blended learning becomes part of educational change, transformation and innovation concerning better pedagogies and inclusive education model. The process must provide adequate support for teachers with technology. It requires significant pedagogical, administrative, institutional support, technological and human capital investment. Very good examples of technologies include Moodle and Blackboard Collaborate with other supported Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).
The VLE is evolving rapidly to adapt to the needs of today’s learners and educators. It is in advanced stages in western and developed countries but not in many developing countries. Many countries in the developing nations lack the digital infrastructure, technology and innovations required to develop digital education, blended learning and therefore, do not foster quality education, equality, diversity, entrepreneurial skills and employability skills. COVID-19 exacerbates these conditions. Some developing countries are on the verge of losing the 2019/20 academic session due to the inability and undercapacity to engage in digital education since the outbreak of the global pandemic. Government and policymakers need to rethink educational policies, funding and institutional governance in the light of the COVID-19 new normal.
Education stakeholders and policymakers need to re-examine the relevance of education in the current global economic, social, health and technological changes. Adequate funding is required to train teachers, provide an enabling learning environment and professional development of teachers. Governments in developing countries need to go into a collaborative funding arrangement with digital and mobile technological operators to provide students and staff with free access to internet and e-learning platforms in the form of vouchers and codes. Special funding must be provided to higher education institutions to provide online teaching and learning platforms that improve student engagement, create opportunities for one-on-one interactions and offer accessibility anytime and anywhere, thereby enhancing students’ experience. Technologies like Blackboard Collaborate, Moodle, Google meet, Zoom and MS Team and other virtual classrooms offer virtual solutions that deliver a level of engagement that makes learners forget they’re not in a physical classroom.
Dr Igwe is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom and also a Visiting Professor to Coal City University, Enugu and International Visiting Scholar to Covenant University, Otta, Ogun State.