We watched in disbelief as COVID-19 emerged in China and ravaged parts of Europe and the Americas. Being a deeply religious country, we prayed and hoped that we would be insulated after all, we were miraculously spared the 2014 Ebola crisis that hit a number of West African countries including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.
Our hopes did not last beyond March 12, 2020, when our first two imported cases were reported. The third case recorded on March 14, 2020 was a University of Ghana student who had returned from a trip abroad. That hit home painfully, and we quickly had to act.
Upon the recommendation of the University of Ghana Emergency Response Team (UG ERT), put in place earlier to lead our COVID-19 response in case it got to us, continuous assessment tests scheduled for that weekend as well as lectures for the coming week were immediately suspended through a broadcast by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ebenezer Oduro Owusu.
The following day, the President of the Republic, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo announced the closure of all schools, including universities, and directed that educational institutions should explore avenues of delivering our education remotely.
Moving Online: Managing the Change
Very quickly, an inter-agency meeting was convened by the Minister of Education to brainstorm how education could continue, given the closure of schools.
Various options, including the use of mass media (radio, television) and learning management systems (LMS) for different levels of education, were considered. One thing was clear – resources were unevenly distributed in our institutions.
Perhaps more critically, internet services could not be assured nationwide. Even among higher education institutions, some were better resourced to provide online education options than others.
A uniform strategy could therefore not be applied across the country. Each higher education institution was tasked to come up with an in-house strategy, which would take into consideration its human and IT resources.
At the University of Ghana (UG), we quickly set to work. Our LMS had been in place since 2014. It had been deployed for the teaching of our distance education programs, and was receiving minimal use by faculty members for our regular on-campus programs.
A five-member team was put together to lead the management of our teaching and learning program during the COVID-19 period. The efforts of the team were coordinated from the Office of the Pro Vice-Chancellor responsible for Academic and Student Affairs (ASA).
To fulfill regulatory requirements, a proposal on the University’s online teaching and learning strategy was prepared and approved by the Business and Executive Committee of the Academic Board of the University.
The proposal which covered a short to medium term strategy addressed the following issues:
- Resources – The utility of the University’s LMS, internet data provision and whitelisting of our learning sites by major telecommunication companies.
- Capacity building – Online training for faculty and students on the use of the LMS.
- Course delivery – An asynchronous approach was recommended and encouraged; faculty members were encouraged to use e-resources for practical components of courses as much as possible.
- Assessment – Continuous assessment (CA) was given more weight under this arrangement. The former 30% CA was raised to 50-70%. Assessment tools available in the LMS were also highlighted.
- Revised academic calendar – the academic calendar was revised to allow for a three-week interruption as a preparatory period.
- Provision was made for students with special needs by securing additional assistive technology licenses.
- In recognition of the fact that, despite our best efforts, not every student would be able to access our courses once they were off campus, we provided arrangements for such students to return to campus at a later date under strict COVID-19 safety protocols to complete their semester, when restrictions were eased.
- Monitoring and Evaluation – The UG E-learning Quality Control Committee with representatives from all the four Colleges and the Academic Quality Assurance Unit of UG was set up to monitor and evaluate the process.
- Arrangements were made for the conduct of oral examinations for graduate students online.
Our major challenges throughout the process were: a lack of nationwide, robust and reliable internet access, and the high costs involved even where it was available; lack of suitable technological gadgets for accessing the programs, especially on the part of some students; and inadequate proficiency in the use of the LMS and IT infrastructural gaps.
To address these gaps, the University provided limited data to its students, staff and faculty. It also improved its IT resources by procuring more licenses for plagiarism and assistive technology software, and purchased additional storage.
Our support service was expanded to cater for the increasing demand, and online training in the use of the LMS was provided. Most importantly, the University executed a sustained communication strategy, which consisted of a series of e-mail communications to the communityas well as radio interactions on the University’s radio station by a number of university officials, including the Pro Vice-Chancellor (ASA).
All these were intended to provide information on a process which appeared novel to many, and to address their apprehension and concerns.
Following the ease of restrictions, a well-managed process was executed to allow first, final year students and then continuing students who could not access the online teaching and learning program, to return to campus and complete their semester online. Again, we were unrelenting in our communication strategies as we slowly opened up our campuses.
Beyond the University Community
Beyond addressing our teaching and learning needs, the University, through its well-known Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research (NMIMR), has since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country, been at the forefront of testing. The facilities and staff of NMIMR were deployed to support the nation in this regard.
The story of the country’s relative success in containing the dreaded spread of the virus cannot be told without mentioning the significant role played by NMIMR.
Beyond its involvement in testing, NMIMR, in conjunction with the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), successfully sequenced samples of the virus to obtain critical informationabout the nature and composition of the viral strains present in the country.
It has been seven months since the dreaded COVID-19 was confirmed to be present in the country. Decisive responses by the government and educational institutions and perhaps other conditions that we are yet to fully comprehend have kept us from recording as many fatalities as had been predicted.
We need to continue with our lives as we manage the spread of the virus, and technology needs to occupy a central position in our COVID-19 response strategy.
COVID-19 has not been all gloom and doom. It has afforded us the opportunity to quickly and urgently upscale our IT infrastructure and capabilities.
This continues to be an ongoing process, but it is one to which we have to be committed if we are to remain connected, relevant and able to deliver on our mandate to be both a hub of development-driven research and a training ground for highly-competent human resources.
Author: Professor Nana Aba Appiah Amfo,
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Student Affairs),
University of Ghana.