Professor Oyesoji Aremu assumed office three months ago as the director of the Distance Learning Centre of the University of Ibadan. In this interview, he discusses with LAOLU HAROLDS some of the things he intends to do to take the centre to a new level, among other issues relating to Open Distance Learning.
In countries where ODL is already well established, like India, South Africa, China and so on, distance learning institutions attract the highest number of students. In Nigeria, however, inadequate access to tertiary education is still a very big issue, and our ODL institutions don’t seem to be helping much. What is slowing down progress in this regard?
I would like to stress the fact that those countries also had their own teething problems. By the time India started open distance education, it wasn’t as if it came up suddenly and people embraced it. I’ve been to UNISA, in South Africa; it also had its initial problems.
Now, when we talk about the problem of access, it’s not about access per se. We should talk about the problem of access if there are no equivalent institutions. There are equivalent institutions in form of distance education. The question then is: why is it that many candidates and their parents do not see these institutions as alternatives? It has to do with attitude! We should first address the question of attitude.
People have wrong attitude towards open distance education; whereas, it’s not new in the country. If you are talking about the era of correspondence college; the likes of Chief Obafemi Awolowo used correspondence college. Chief Afe Babalola, who people celebrate as a lawyer, also did not go through the four walls of the university to receive his legal education – and that was an archaic form of open distance education. Now, we have the ODL that leverages on technology. We also have the wrong perception that ODL is meant only for people in the working class – of course, yes; but in view of the new development, it’s not only people in the working class that access distance education in Nigeria.
At UI DLC, has there been, in recent times, an improvement in capacity – by way of number of students or programmes?
Prior to 2011, Ibadan Distance Learning Centre had 28 programmes, including subsidiary programmes; but by 2011, we lost many of these programmes to our regulator, the NUC, mainly because of course materials. It’s not as if we did have course materials, but they were not updated. So, we lost some programmes and we were left with only six programmes. This affected the number of students that are now on board. In the past, we had about 16,000 students, but now we have about 11,000.
But we’re making efforts to bring them back on board. In fact, now, in six of the programmes we’ve approached NUC that we are ready to have another validation.
The beauty of ODL is in its flexibility. How flexible are your programmes?
The flexibility is in terms of the fact that learners can come for their programmes; but it’s also not compulsory for them to be physically present. Wherever they are, in the confines of their homes, offices or car, they can learn. They have the materials that are in audio and audio-visual formats; they can download them. At the point of entry, we attach our learners to Learner Support Officers (we call them Academic Advisors). It means even before you come to see your lecturers, these people must have been mediating with you online. At the end of the first or second week, you should have completed the first module on your own. It is the work of these academic advisors to begin to listen to them, relate with them, give them quiz and so on. By the time we now invite them to the interactive session, which is between four and six weeks depending on the programme they are running, they are coming to meet with their facilitators for the first time. At that level, we can then ask questions on what you have read; you can also seek clarifications on some of the materials you have read. The only time you are invited again is when you come for the examination. So, it means people can work on their own and at their own pace.
Another thing is that when you come for the programme, and you are not doing well in a programme, you can transfer to another programme. Our flexibility has to do with not only course content; it’s also in terms of delivery.
I know a lot of advocacy or enlightenment has gone into this, but many still question the thoroughness of ODL programmes. Beyond advocacy, what do you think needs to be done? And what are you doing to change this mindset?
It is a mindset that is not good for Nigeria. If it (ODL) is done very well in UNISA, in UK and India, and people are doing very well, what are we talking about in Nigeria? We are making efforts on the part of stakeholders in the university. We celebrate what we refer to in the University of Ibadan as ‘parity of esteem.’ What we give to our learners in open distance education in University of Ibadan DLC is the same content that their counterparts in regular programmes are having. I teach two of the courses on our programmes here. What I teach my regular students is the same content that I teach the ODL learners. It is the same colleagues that meet with regular students that also teach our ODL students. It is the same examination that we give our regular students that we administer to our ODL students. So, if it is the same people teaching you; and you have the same content and examination, you also get the same certificate.
What level of ICT knowledge do I need to have to partake in this kind of programme?
The very first thing we stress is that you should be able to know how to handle the mouse and be able to go through the computer and type A B C D. When they come and we discover that they don’t have this knowledge of ICT, we ask them to go through computer proficiency. And we are not saying you must come to Ibadan for this; you can go and train yourself anywhere, but you have to come to our centre for certification.
How pocket-friendly are your programmes?
I would say that Ibadan DLC charges the least in Nigeria. It ranges between eighty-something thousand naira to around N120,000 per session, depending on the programme you are running.
There is this reluctance to allow graduates of ODL to partake in national service. What is the update?
The situation is the same; but like I said earlier, distance learning is primarily meant for people who are working. The question now is: if I have my job, and I come for a distance learning programme, at the end of the day, what would I go and do for one year in NYSC? However, they may not go (for national service), but the NYSC still recognises them and gives them exemption certificate. Though, you can’t serve because of the nature of your programme, but you have an exemption certificate from NYSC.
What should we expect from DLC under your leadership?
There is a legacy on ground, and we need to build on it. However, while building on the legacy, we need to redefine certain things: where did we miss it the last time, how can we do it better this time? And so on. One of the things I intend to do is to get the DLC calendar right. I told my learners when I gave them the first lesson that I would have zero tolerance for any elongation of their programmes. Arising from that, we’ve given them a calendar for the 2016/17 session, which will end by December this year. By February (2018), we should be able to start a new session. By the time we finish 2017/2018, God helping us, we will have normalised things, so we won’t have the issue of students having long-term programmes or five-year programme running to six, seven years. Students should be able to come and finish their programmes at the appropriate time.
I told you we lost some programmes; right now we have approached NUC with nine programmes. Six of the programmes are old programmes and three of them are new. Nursing is there, Sociology is there and Computer Education is also there. We want to make sure that we work more to attract more learners. I think there was a point in time Ibadan DLC had more than 17000 learners; but right now, we have about 11,000. We think that in the next three years, we should be able to have about 35,000 learners on the programme. We are talking about postgraduate programmes as well; we have about three programmes on board, and we want to have open doors for more (postgraduate) programmes.
Then, in Ibadan DLC, we don’t just want to be doing teaching and learning; we also want to engage in research, so we will make Ibadan DLC a centre of excellence. There are researches that can be conducted in the area of ODL – and we have people that can do this. The people I referred to as learner-support officers and academic advisers are people on their PhD programmes. We’ll make use of them. We’ll partner with the Research Management Office of the university to work together on this. I also want to focus on staff welfare and training.