Stepping into the past with online degrees

A virtual university classroom at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya

A virtual university classroom at Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya

IN July, 2012, President of University of Virginia, Teresa A. Sullivan, was summarily dismissed. And in similar fashion, she was summarily reinstated by the school’s board of visitors.

According to reports in the American media then, one of the reasons adduced for her earlier dismissal was the perception that she was not moving forward fast enough on Internet learning.

The reports went ahead to point out that while the University of Stanford was doing it, just the same way that Harvard University, University of Yale and Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT) were neck-deep into Internet learning, the University of Virginia seemed to be lagging.

Barely days after Sullivan was reinstated, it was announced that Virginia, alongside other universities, engaged the services of a firm called Coursera to develop and offer online classes, which would lead to the award of online degrees to subscribers.

In this era where Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is the order of the day, one must avoid the social media, sundry web platforms and indeed the Internet like a plaque if one must avoid coming in contact with advertorials for online degrees daily.

This sheer magnitude of the advertorials, simply put, illustrates the rising demand for, and acceptance of online mode of education by knowledge seekers across the globe.

According to experts, taking university/college degree courses online has been around for many years, but being able to take an entire degree online is a relatively newer phenomenon. It’s new enough, in fact, that the United States Department of Education only started requiring student enrolment numbers for both online courses and online degrees as of Fall 2012.

Blanket ban, a hastily taken decision
At a time when knowledge acquisition has been so democratised that there is barely no course of study that cannot be learnt by a willing student, from the farthest corner of the earth via online platforms, what looks like an advertisement of the long road that the National Universities Commission (NUC) has to travel in order to keep pace with contemporary reality in knowledge acquisition, was on display recently.

Penultimate week, the NUC warned Nigerians against patronising online universities and other degree awarding institutions operating online. It did not stop there, but went on to say that it would not recognise any certificate obtained from such institutions.

Media director of the organisation, Ibrahim Yakassai, who spoke at a press conference in Abuja had stressed, “Nigeria will not recognise online degrees. Online degrees are not accepted in Nigeria at the moment.” he said.

Yakasai also used the opportunity to warn Nigerian students and parents against patronising Maryam Abacha American University in Niger Republic saying, “We wish to restate that as the only quality assurance agency for universities in Nigeria, the NUC is maintaining its stand that degrees from Maryam Abacha University will not be accepted in Nigeria,” he said.

According to Professor of Chemistry at Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, Emmanuel N. Maduagwu, “The recent proclamation by the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) warning Nigerians against patronising online universities and other degree-awarding institutions operating online, and categorically stating that any certificate obtained from such institutions is not recognised, seems to me a hasty decision that needs urgent review so as not to stall the development of the country, particularly in the area of capacity building.

“It is the search for the Golden Fleece and the quest for higher education, that could not be readily procured in Nigeria in the then colonial era, that compelled many Nigerians of the old order to set sail to foreign lands, especially to the Americas and to the United Kingdom to seek their fortune in terms of acquisition of academic laurels, especially the bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees. Many of those who undertook the journeys to fetch the Golden Fleece eventually returned to Nigeria and made distinguished contributions to the socio-economic development of Nigeria. However, I recollect that at a time when the pursuit for higher education acquisition, abroad, was intensifying, an unsavoury argument arose as to the genuineness and worth of some of the degrees that Nigerians returned to the country with, especially those which were awarded by certain universities in America.”

“The advent of the computer age has no doubt made both the emergence and sustenance of the online university system a real possibility. And rather than downgrade the potential of the online university system in resolving the huge quagmire in which the Nigerian higher education system finds itself today, the NUC ought to embrace it and design ways and means of monitoring and evaluating the emerging concept of the online university and other degree awarding institutions and the degrees they offer. This would be with a view to integrating the new phenomenon, as soon as practicable.

Finally, in my opinion, the online university system would be in the same realm as the distance learning mode; the correspondence colleges; the nomadic schooling; the video-conferencing platform, online academic publications and the open university system, all of which are recognised by the NUC. This, of course, is provided that adequate verification, checks and balances, monitoring, evaluation and regulation are put in place and ensured at all times.

For Prof. Ayobami Kehinde, of the Department of English Language, University of Ibadan, by putting a blanket ban on online programmes and degrees in the country, NUC has bitten more than it can chew.

“The commission is biting more than it can chew with the ban because there are some online degrees that are of good quality and standards. So the holistic approach to this issue that the NUC has taken is not right.

“I am not saying that all online degrees are good and acceptable, but what they should do is to go through the right processes and know, which one is substandard and which one is not. But declaring that there is nothing good in all online programmes and degrees, is not good. So I would advise those affected to take a step by taking the NUC to court.

The NUC was established in 1962 as an advisory agency in the Cabinet Office. But in 1974, it became a statutory body and Prof Jibril Aminu was appointed its pioneer executive secretary.

Currently operating as a parastatal under the Federal Ministry of Education (FME), the commission in its over 47 years of existence, has made immense efforts transforming into a very important arm of government in the area of development and management of university education in Nigeria.

Its main functions include granting approval for all academic programmes run in Nigerian universities; granting approval for the establishment of all higher educational institutions offering degree programmes in Nigerian universities; ensuring quality assurance of all academic programmes offered in Nigerian universities, and channeling for all external support to the Nigerian universities.

The commission, which discharges its responsibilities by recruiting adequate and relevant manpower and appealing to universities for their sustained support and understanding, also relies on support from the Federal and state governments as well as other stakeholders in its bid to improve on the quality of tertiary education and graduates of the nation’s university system.

Listed as its goals include: attainment of stable and crisis-free university system, working with Nigerian universities to achieve full accreditation status for at least 80 per cent of the academic programmes, initiating and promoting proficiency in the use of information and Communication Technology for service delivery within the commission and the Nigerian university System and the upgrade and maintaining of physical facilities in the Nigerian university system for delivery of quality university education among others.

Benefits of online learning

All these notwithstanding, the recent dismissal of online degrees and institutions in the country by the NUC, has left many either tongue-tied or in shock, especially considering the benefits, which this node of learning confers.

For instance, because of the variety of programmes and courses on offer, no matter what students wish to study, ranging from nursing to neuroscience, can be found, and done online. Online programmes can be a more affordable option than traditional colleges, even though not all online degrees have less expensive net tuition prices than traditional colleges.

Because there are no physical class sessions, lectures and other materials are electronically sent to the student, who will then read them and complete assignments. Students will not have to fight traffic, find parking spaces, leave work early to go to class, or miss important family time. This ensures that learning takes place in more comfortable environments.
Convenience and flexibility are another set of benefits, which online schooling confers on students because with online courses, they (students) have the opportunity to plan their study time around the rest of their day, instead of the other way around. In other words, they can study and work when they are at their peak energy.

More interaction and greater ability to concentrate is another vital feature of online learning, just as career advancement is because students can take online courses, and even complete entire degrees while working, while in-between jobs, or while taking time to raise a family.

Since even the most basic online course requires the development of new computer skills, as students learn to navigate different learning management systems (LMS) and programmes, online learning therefore improves ones technical skills. These skills learnt also come in handy in diverse ways including creating and sharing documents, incorporating audio/video materials into your assignments, completing online training sessions, etc.

NUC’s action within the ambits of the law
Professor of Development Communication, University of Maiduguri, Prof Danjuma Gambo, is not surprised at NUC’s posture because of the legion of online activities that challenge its quality assurance mechanism. But he is also quick to caution against throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

Gambo, who is also the National Coordinator, African Council for Communication Education, Nigeria chapter, said it was imperative for great attention to be paid online learning because “a lot of things are going on the Internet, and we are battling with what I call predatory publications. That is, publication coming from very questionable sources. Most of them are online open access journals from questionable sources.

In what appeared to be a word of caution to NUC, he said, “We have to be careful the way we react to some of these issues because there are well established credible universities, with credible programmes that give online opportunities to candidates and therefore the NUC needs to be very conscious when it comes to dealing with such online programmes. There are some of them that are quite credible, they are established and managed by very credible institutions that are known all over the world. So, a blanket dismissal may not work out very well for the country. But I think that the NUC should develop a criteria for classifying specific online programmes, just as it does in regular programmes.

The NUC also needs to, for now, make a statement specifying the characteristics of such programmes and to be updating Nigerian universities and would-be candidates on programmes they need to be wary of. Already some people have graduated from such programmes, so what are we going to do with such certificates, which nobody said anything before now.

Gambo further advised the NUC that “as they work towards distance learning and open university system, it is important to also consider Nigerians that desire to get degrees through some kind of liberal arrangements, for the simple reason that they cannot go to regular institutions.

“Overall, I think that NUC reserves the right to make such moves, but in doing so it should also come to terms with realities of the moment so that we don’t throw away the baby with bath water.”

President of Association of African Universities (AAU) Prof. Olusola Oyewole, stressed that the national regulatory agency of any country has the right to offer advice on the quality of educational delivery that its citizens subscribe to.

Oyewole, who is also the vice chancellor of Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), “The non-acceptability of online degrees by the NUC does not mean that online mode of educational delivery is bad. Indeed, many institutions now combine both face-to-face delivery with online delivery modes, for effective teaching and learning.”

He continued, “A study of the fraudulent online degree providers reveals that the process of examination is compromised and credits are offered without actual learning. Some of these online degree providers are “degree-mills,” where degrees are offered for cash without learning. In some dubious online courses that ought to run for three to four years in conventional programmes, they are offered for six months. Until the online delivery providers can provide assurance of the quality of their contents and process, their credibility will continue to be in doubt,” he added.

He, however, claimed that the decision of the NUC will not affect well-structured distance learning programmes of institutions that already have in place, good quality control activities for their course materials, delivery and examination processes as many of the distance learning programmes had already included face-to-face contact hours with the students, while the delivery mode may be online, the examination process still demands that the students be physically present for examinations.

Professor of French, Applied Linguistics and African literature and HOD European studies, Babatunde Ayeleru, applauded the NUC for the decision and said it is long overdue.
According to Ayeleru, who is also Head of Department of European Studies, online institutions have been bastardised and should be properly monitored, “I align with the decision of the NUC because our people have abused the online thing. When you talk of online degree programmes, you are talking of distance learning programmes, which can also be said to be ODL system. It means you are providing education for those who missed it initially.

That is why the system is elastic, here in UI, apart from our distance learning programme, we also have the Open and Distance Learning (ODL). Open in the sense that it is elastic and it can be adjusted to your own programme. What is important is that some controlling mechanism that will enable this online schools to control their activities should be put in place. Even in regular universities, we have such mechanism that help us to control the processes and procedures. You have to monitor the teaching and make sure that teachers and students attend classes regularly.

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