Co-operation for HE access using new modes of learning

An oft-cited figure from a 2015 UNESCO statement stipulates that higher education demand is forecasted to swell to 414 million prospective learners by 2030. The scenario of building large, new institutions each week to accommodate such demand clearly won’t happen. Nor will the scenario of doubling the number of students on existing campuses.

MOOCs – massive open online courses – may play a greater role, but are unlikely to gain traction among first-degree learners, the population where the access issue is most acute. Amid these constraints are the pressures to maintain quality and credibility in any expansion scenario.

In Nigeria – which is already feeling immense enrolment pressures – the National Universities Commission (NUC) and a small number of the country’s universities are considering alternatives to ameliorate their own access issues by shifting some learning away from the campus and onto the computer.

This was the focus during a two-day workshop on blended learning – purposely fusing elements of online and face-to-face learning – held at the National Open University of Nigeria in mid-April.

The Commonwealth of Learning, in collaboration with the Regional Training and Research Institute for Open and Distance Learning (RETRIDAL), organised a workshop for nine institutions at varying stages of becoming dual-mode institutions – offering programmes concurrently in face-to-face and online or blended formats – along with representatives from the NUC.

The workshop built on the previous year’s where the Commonwealth of Learning and RETRIDAL trained participants on guidelines and policy development to satisfy NUC requirements to become dual-mode institutions. In the current setting in April, delegates from each university, with policy papers in hand, returned to acquire knowledge on building capacity for implementation, with enrolment growth in their sights.

The Nigerian context

Nigeria will soon surpass 200 million inhabitants, making it Africa’s most populous country by a wide margin. It is also among the continent’s youngest – 42% of Nigerians are 15 or younger. Despite passing the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination that qualifies them for entry each year, millions of young Nigerians are denied entry to campus-based higher education, an outcome that will be exacerbated given its demographic trends.

Although some of those denied entry are absorbed into distance learning institutions, many change their minds due to scepticism or other concerns about quality with this mode of learning, according to Funke Sule, chief open distance education officer of the Open and Distance Education Division at the NUC.

Recognising the value held by learners for a campus-based experience, blended learning has emerged as a viable alternative. Undergirding discussions on blended learning was the need for cross-institutional co-operation to contextualise best practices and to formulate a network where challenges and opportunities could be shared across institutions.

Blending learning: the solution?

Workshop participants were trained on the use and the adaptation of open educational resources, the implementation of technology-enabled learning and strategies on effective blended learning. In a train-the-trainers modality, participants were tasked with subsequently conducting their own workshops upon return to their home campuses.

The utility of blended learning focused as much on enhancing learning outcomes as increasing enrolment. Student-centred learning, such as using the flipped classroom approach and teacher-facilitated collaboration, were emphasised.

Strategies for accommodating a growing enrolment were viewed through the concept of rotation. If effective learning of content can occur independently, then collaboration and problem-solving can occur in tutorials on campus.

Just as some of the world’s most congested cities allow cars on the road only on alternating days, universities could engage in rotating, or alternating, days that cohorts of students may be on campus, if effective blended learning policies and practices are deployed as part of a larger strategy on access.

Old approach, new perspective

Technology notwithstanding, ideas on blended learning emanate from an established literature on open and distance learning (ODL) that has been put into practice by open and dual-mode universities around the world for more than a generation.

Nigeria’s National Universities Commission has embraced ODL practices as integral to its university system. Along with guidelines and quality assurance mechanisms on ODL, the NUC has devised the Information and Communications Technology-Enabled Supported Blended Learning Model that offers direction on the centrality of learning materials, deployment of appropriate technology, a face-to-face component, robust learner support, assessment and requirements on instructor-to-learner feedback.

More broadly, institutions applying for dual-mode status (10 of Nigeria’s 163 universities have the dual-mode designation) are tasked with demonstrating their capabilities against 13 benchmarks that include programme philosophy, staffing, efficiency and funding, to which the NUC assigns a grade (70% is the pass mark, according to Sule).

The NUC’s representatives reinforced the importance of these requirements in their presentation, prompting a spirited discussion on the challenges some universities have faced in achieving these benchmarks.

With successes accumulated in a short 16 years, the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) was a fitting venue for the workshop. “NOUN is the best in the galaxy,” boasted its vice-chancellor, Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu, during the workshop’s opening ceremonies. With enrolment of 420,000 learners, he has a point, particularly as it relates to providing access in Nigeria.

Although NOUN has yet to surpass the million learner mark, as have the Indira Gandhi National Open University in India and the Open University of China, what distinguishes NOUN on its home soil is its inherent view on co-operation.

Hosting workshops for would-be competitors is perhaps antithetical to any institution’s mission. Given the issues at hand, however, the outlook is of spurring greater co-operation among Nigeria’s emerging dual-mode universities in the pursuit of improving access and sharing best practices.

In a higher education climate disproportionately focused on rankings and internationalisation, the issue of access – as the largest challenge facing the sector – is consistently overshadowed. The world’s emerging markets – where effectively all future enrolment demand will occur – will require innovative strategies, heightened attention and greater resources devoted to ameliorating access.

The blended learning initiative for dual-mode universities espoused by the Commonwealth of Learning and RETRIDAL is a salient example of innovative thinking that can chip away at the looming enrolment demands forecasted for 2030.

Kirk Perris is adviser: education at the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver, Canada. Another version of this article was first published as a blog on the Commonwealth of Learning website.