NIGERIA: Debate over integrating ICT into curricula

Debate is raging in Nigerian universities about the need to integrate information and communication technology learning into the curriculum, in response to growing demand for computer skills in the labour market. The engineering faculty at Lagos State University has clinched senate approval to integrate certified ICT courses into its programmes - the most radical approach yet taken to ICT learning by a university in the country - but many in the sector still argue that computer literacy is the responsibility of students.

The issue has divided academics into 'conservatives', who are a minority but hold powerful positions in the higher education system, and who believe that acquiring computer and ICT skills is a private affair. In the opposing camp are 'reformers' who argue that ICT skills have become so integral to acquiring and generating knowledge that ICT training should urgently be integrated into the curriculum.

At Lagos State University, engineering faculty dean Professor Adebayo Sanni said that ICT certified courses had become compulsory for all engineering students and would be provided via a public-private partnership involving the ICT company New Horizon.

"The ICT courses will run simultaneously with normal engineering programmes. Thus every engineering graduate will eventually hold both an engineering degree and internationally recognised ICT certificate," Sanni explained. "We are preparing our students for employment requirements and opportunities in this knowledge-driven 21st Century."

Lack of teachers, student strikes and deliberate under-funding of universities during military regimes, among other things, undermined learning in Nigerian universities.

One of the fall-outs has been the production by universities of poor quality graduates, most of whom also do not have computer skills - a problem with which public and private employers have had to contend, including by retraining graduates to bring them up to speed with the demands of the job market.

The advent of multi-party in Nigeria nine years ago was accompanied by two developments: a flood of local and foreign investment in the economy, and the introduction of information and communication technologies (ICTs).

But the Nigeria Employers' Consultative Association, an influential umbrella of employers, complained that by the late 1990s employers were finding that university graduates being recruited into managerial positions were ill-trained and ill-prepared to handle strategic operations involving the use of ICTs.

"One of the greatest challenges Nigerian universities have faced since independence was the introduction of ICT into the Nigeria economy," it said. "Our graduates, especially those recruited by local and multi-national private companies, could not make use of the computers which are the fundamental tools of operations in theses companies."

Legend has it that a job-seeking graduate being interviewed by an oil company searched around for a rodent when sat before a computer and asked by the interview panel to show them the 'mouse'. The job-seeker had a first class honours degree in business administration from one of Nigeria's leading universities.

This, said Okon Akpan, a lecturer at Rivers State University of Science and Technology in Port Harcourt, is an illustration of how ill-trained Nigerian graduates are in ICTs.

In response to rising demand for computer skills, private computer training colleges sprung up across the country. "Virtually all the banks, oil and telecommunication companies patronised, in various ways, these computer training institutes," said Christiana Ohaeto, a Lagos industrial relations expert, sending employees to them to acquire computer education.

Witnessing the positive impact of this private sector strategy, and with the slow introduction of computers to replace typewriters and other outdated machines, public corporations also began to send staff to computer institutes for training.

The need to be computer literate also affected people in Nigeria's various security arms. The United Nations made it compulsory for all officers in peace-keeping operations to be computer literate and able to use the internet for field operations and report writing. Officers or the military and police also began to enrol for computer training at private colleges.

Also, increasingly older staff in companies and the public sector are obliged to acquire at least basic computer skills before they can be promoted. Kunle Gbemi, a marketing manager for an airline company, said there was pressure on staff to enrol in computer training - "on our own and especially at weekends" - or new graduates could "soon become our bosses".

But in recent years employers, especially in the private sector, have lost interest in retraining graduates. Rather, said strockbroker consultant Mariama Usman, companies now insist that graduate applicants have acquired basic computer and other skills before they are given jobs.

Hence the debate in Nigerian universities over whether it is up to them - or students - to ensure that people graduate fully equipped to deal with the demands of the world of work.