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E-Learning in an EBOLA environment: A practical way forward

OCTOBER 13, 2014 By Rashid Justice Dumbuya

As I resume classes on Monday here in the UK, I am so unhappy and broken in spirit especially when I consider the fact that thousands of students in my country are presently not attending school and formal lectures because of the outbreak of the Ebola virus and its attendant consequences. The entire educational system in Sierra Leone is currently on hold for over 3 months now. For a nation that is just coming from a 10 years devastating civil war and one whose literacy population is just a little over 30%, this social injunction will surely have debilitating consequences for the growth and economic transformation of the country.

But as I sat and ponder over this demagogue, something interesting dropped on my mind and I feel a deep sense of responsibility to share it to all and sundry.

QUESTION- Assuming E-learning had been encouraged and prioritized in the University of Sierra Leone, would it have made some positive difference during this challenging period?

E-learning (or eLearning) is the use of electronic media, educational technology and information and communication technologies in education. E-learning includes numerous types of media that deliver text, audio, images, animation, and streaming video, and includes technology applications and processes such as audio or video tape, satellite TV, CD-ROM, and computer-based learning, as well as local intranet/extranet and web-based learning. E-learning can occur in or out of the classroom. It can be self-paced or can be instructor-led. E-learning is suited to distance learning and flexible learning, but it can also be used in conjunction with face-to-face teaching and education as well.

Here in the UK where I study, E-learning is promoted and encourage at all times. A good deal of our lectures and classes take place online and assignments and research papers are also done and submitted by students online. Announcements from the University administration and the University lecturers are all communicated online. We all have our student username and passwords to access the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) where we get updates, instructions and announcements from the University, Faculties and Departmental authorities. There are numerous Libraries and resource centre facilities in the University precincts operating on a 24hrs basis with full internet and Wi-Fi connectivity.

This enables students to effectively converge and do their research work and assignments without any hindrance. Lecture materials are posted on the VLE by lecturers and students get all the lecture materials and information from this device and download same to their computers and pen drive. Examinations are even conducted through computer based systems and are also written and submitted online.

In light of the above, assuming the educational system in Sierra Leone would have maintained an E-learning environment that was structured in this manner; perhaps the Ebola crisis would not have had much devastating impacts at the very least on University education since students would have still being able to receive formal lectures, assignment and course materials online from their respective academic tutors and lecturers while at home.

Even though I have graduated from the University of Sierra Leone a couple of years now, I sometimes ponder how I miraculously survived my 8 years journey in Fourah Bay College University of Sierra Leone without having a computer or even knowing how to operate one.

Today, as l pursue my LLM here in the University of Dundee within an intensive E-learning environment, in  retrospect, I now realised that the problem was not actually with me but  the  entire educational system in Sierra Leone which did not place E-learning as a priority in the mode of education within the  University of Sierra Leone. If E- learning was a characteristic of the university system, I would have been left with no option but to get a computer and learn how to operate it by force.

If assignments, lectures, course materials and administrative instructions had been submitted and communicated online, trust me, no one would have reminded me to increase my knowledge in computing. Coz, I would have been irrelevant within the academic system in every respect.

Unfortunately, still in Sierra Leone today, the status quo remains the same in the University of Sierra Leone and the educational system as a whole. Chalk and blackboard remains the primary mode of delivery of classes and lectures; and a good deal of assignments and exams are still written and submitted by hand. A great deal of the University lecturers do not even know how to do power point presentations for lectures or make available electronic research summaries and links to their students.

In an age where computer and electronic devices have become the singular and most effective mode of communication; producing graduates that are a novice in these technologies is not only disgraceful for the nation but also suicidal to the relevance of graduates themselves especially in a competitive and technologically driven world. This situation is quite a bizarre indeed.

Let me therefore conclude by making an urgent appeal to the government of Sierra Leone to do a complete overhauling of the educational system in the nation after the Ebola impasse by ensuring that the following actions are stringently implemented:

1. That the University of Sierra Leone maintains a comprehensive E-learning and online education environment going forward.

2. That all Universities in Sierra Leone have 24 hours internet and Wi-Fi connectivity within their respective campuses.

3. That all Universities in Sierra Leone maintain a well-furnished and sustained Library and resource Centre facilities that are fully loaded with computers and updated text books and materials; and  providing services to the student population on a 24hours basis.

4. That lecturers and course tutors be mandated to send their assignments online to their students and at intervals do on line lecture sessions with them. On the other hand, students should also be mandated to submit their research papers and assignments online through a software that detects plagiarism and academic fraud.

5. That the University administration staff be mandated to operate a Virtual Learning Environment device (computer programming software) through which all  registered students in the university will be able to access information through a username and password code on all matters pertaining to their welfare including lecture materials and information.

6. That computer education be made a compulsory subject in all schools in the country.

7. That energy investment be given a priority in the country so as to be able to empower and make effective such laudable initiatives.

Ebola is certainly a number one enemy of the nation; but on the flip side however, the occurrence of the epidemic has perhaps helped to re-awaken us all to see and understand clearly the areas of investment that ought to be prioritize after the stormy period is over. I hope and pray that investment on energy, medical facilities and E-learning education would be top on the agenda going forward.

Rashid Dumbuya ESQ is an International Human Rights Lawyer and a practicing Barrister and Solicitor from the Republic of Sierra Leone. Rashid holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws honours degree from Fourah Bay College University of Sierra Leone as well as a Master of Laws degree in International Human Rights Law from the Centre for Human Rights University of Pretoria, South Africa.

He has worked for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone and the UNDP Access to Justice Office in Freetown. Rashid is currently an LLM candidate pursuing Petroleum Law and Policy at the University of Dundee, Scotland, United Kingdom.

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