The COVID-19 pandemic that is currently ravaging the entire global landscape in 2020 provides a unique opportunity to evaluate our common humanity. The virus that has hit the cosmos like a raging tsunami is a telling testimony to the fact that at a time of global crisis, human beings irrespective of race, class, gender are susceptible to grave danger. The crisis has deflated the arrogance of powerful elites and left self-conceited purveyors of empire scrabbling for succor and safety. A bewildering “wilderness experience” unfolds before our very eyes, and naturally many people have taken cover under the monumental sacred canopy. For all intents and purposes, the global pandemic has made 2020 an annus horribilis on many accounts. It has wreaked havoc on the global economic architecture, shut down commercial travels, paralyzed all global sporting events, suffocated the healthcare industry, left developing countries yearning to breathe free, and totally shut down educational institutions. Andrew Cuomo, the intrepid Governor of New York summarily described COVID-19 as ‘death.’ The menacing fangs of the monster of death clawed at everyone. Thanks to the innovative technology of the microscope, we know that the invisible monster and the agent of death looks like a spiked-ball with an uncanny grotesque aura. The globe, wrapped in bandages has been put on a ventilator and it is grasping for breath and air. As the strange virus bites harder, communities all over the world scurry for palliatives and a dynamic deus ex machina. All the hubris, fueled by scientific advancements, power, and constructed hierarchies went up in smoke. The folly of human manipulations and machinations witnessed a colossal failure. In a surreal and sublime sense, the virus underscores the vicissitudes of life. The poet William Blake wrote:
Man was made for Joy & Woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
In spite of its melancholic manifestations, the pandemic has provided a great opportunity to deeply reflect on the precious nature of life and the future prospects of the world. It has given a new sense of awakening and awareness for the political class in developing countries to ponder creative ways to improve their country’s medical infrastructural facilities that have become ineffective and moribund. It has provided the much-needed wake-up call for many countries to put their house in order. Jawaharlal Nehru once remarked: “Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, they force us to think.” I am also reminded of a lyric of a song by the American Rock Band, Grateful Dead: “Once in a while, you get shown the light in the strangest places, if you look at it right.” The global pandemic has spelt out with brutal clarity the need for societies to reassess and re-position themselves in terms of educational, scientific, and financial transformation. In theological parlance, an opportune time is known as a “kairos” moment. This illustrious time provides the unique opportunity to redesign our thought processes and programs for “a stitch in time, saves nine” and “tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” It is a time to close the debilitating “say-do” chasm and concentrate on positive paradigms and concrete constellations that can transform communities. Yoruba people say that one should not “fi ete sile lati pa lapalapa” meaning one should not “abandon leprosy to treat ringworm.”
This affirmation provides the segway to get into the thrust of this short article. As an educator, I strongly believe that our present global situation makes the issue of synchronous learning highly imperative. Most people can see the urgency and relevance of solid educational systems. Educational advancements remain an empirical process for building human capital. Nelson Mandela once observed that: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” When all is said and done, a nation without viable educational platforms and personnel remains vacuous and rudderless. The ethos of educational enchantment is well-established in Nigeria. On the official crest of Obafemi Awolowo University, a book which represents knowledge boldly unfolds. This is a powerful symbol for empowerment and enlightenment. Authentic education transcends myopic sensibilities. Nigeria must vigorously valorize the building of truly creative, bold, and invigorated educational programs.
All over the globe, Nigerian students are raising the educational bar. In his report in February 2020, Fareed Zakaria at CNN maintained that Nigerians in the United States are the most educated immigrants from all over the world. Nigerians have overtaken Indians and Pakistanis who had previously held the status of being the most educated immigrant community in the US. One can conveniently write a compelling monograph on the educational and professional achievements of Nigerians all over the globe. But charity begins at home they say. Our present global predicament makes virtual learning inevitable. There is no other way around this issue. In an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), Professor Segun Ajiboye, the Registrar of Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria (TRCN) opined that Africa must develop infrastructure to seamlessly integrate technology into learning in light of the lessons learnt from the COVID-19 experience. He maintained that there were virtually no preparations on how to meaningfully sustain learning activities when the pandemic struck the African continent.
Here is his ipssisimi verba: “In Nigeria and indeed Africa, we were badly affected because we never prepared for this; we don’t have the infrastructure to be able to take care of this kind of situation. In some climes, they were able to mitigate the impact of the pandemic using technology mediated learning.” But alas, once upon a time in the State of Virtue, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola who has been considered a maverick by many, already foresaw a scenario like now when synchronous and virtual learning would be inevitable and hence advocated for the tablet known as Opon Imo, the Tablet of Knowledge. Several pundits, scholars, and commentators have weighed in on the usefulness and propriety of this tablet. In fact, one of my mentees at Northwestern University in Qatar, Muktar Sanni, a Nigerian, wrote one of his capstone papers on: “The Diffusion of Technology in Education.” The paper traced the global trend of inclusion of technology in teaching, and the ingenuity of leaders who facilitated such process. The central focus of the paper was on the power and trajectory of Opon Imo. Just like a prophet who sometimes has no honor in his hometown, many naysayers castigated and maligned this piece of educational innovation. Most of the criticisms were visceral and misguided. In these days of humble reckoning, it is incumbent on all people of goodwill to applaud the creativity and foresight of a man and his team whose thought processes and monumental risk transcended the limitations of time and means. Professor Niyi Akinnaso entitled one of his reflections on the State of Osun: “They said he was a total failure.”
This was his valedictory article on Ogbeni’s tenure as Governor of the State of Osun. It provided a comprehensive overview of the intrigues and intricacies surrounding some of the policies of his administration. In terms of the controversies engendered by the implementation of Opon Imo, he said: “There is nothing wrong in being critical of innovation. But something is wrong with not taking time to study it and identifying its advantages.” While we patiently await the verdict on the panacea for the virus, it is important to have an inventory of the tools that can concretely contribute to sustainable educational programs in Nigeria. No doubt, the creative insight that resulted in the creation of Opon Imo is here to stay. However, this innovation must realistically align with the social, economic, and infrastructural realities in Nigeria. Thankfully, the committee of learned gurus and stakeholders that was instituted by Governor Gboyega Oyetola to review the educational programs and policies in the State of Osun realized the enduring values of Opon Imo. The committee’s sagacity for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater must be highly commended. What needs to be done by advisors is to brainstorm on how to further harness the opportunity Opon Imo presents in our current global predicament in order to enhance its functionality. I authoritatively gathered that some private schools in Nigeria have already adopted Opon Imo’s platform and design. For all intents and purposes, this device remains a veritable metaphor for educational engagement and empowerment in contemporary Nigeria.
This brief reflection must not be construed as an uncritical endorsement of Opon Imo or virtual learning in Nigeria. Far from it. To a large extent, I am familiar with the contextual challenges of such a visionary initiative in a deeply challenging country such as Nigeria. Several concerns and questions do come to mind. For instance, how do you generate modules from the materials already on Opon Imo and link them to remote learning? How do you provide internet service to grassroot communities that are ravaged by the pestilence of hunger? How do you revise the materials on the device to make them relevant and match current curriculums? Are these materials suitable for preparing students for exams into universities in Nigeria and all over the world? How do you source the funding to adequately provide the tablet in a state that is constantly in financial quagmire? How do you guarantee the financial probity for this lofty venture? How do you effectively implement training programs for teachers using the device? There is also the nagging issue of how to regularly provide updates to the tablet’s software and applications. Professor Ajiboye raised some of these concerns in his interview with the New Agency of Nigeria (NAN). He said:
“According to reports, it is only one third of Africans that have access to the internet and that poses a big challenge. Even in Nigeria, just about 121 million Nigerians out of over 200 million have access, that is about 61 percent actually have access to the internet.” In spite of these relevant concerns, we should applaud the vision, courage, and tenacity of Ogbeni. Winston Churchill once remarked: “Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.” The dream and the decision surrounding the linkages between Opon Imo and virtual learning must be validated by well-meaning people that believe and uphold the undeniable right to education in spite of the situation that students and educators may find themselves in. We can all concur that technology-mediated learning is the lynchpin for educational programs in the 21st century. In the State of Osun, Opon Imo has unequivocally complimented and enhanced teaching via the state-owned radio station.
Let us continue to keep hope alive, acknowledge projects and program with a “human face,” collectively ponder creative ways to move Nigeria forward, and create paradigms that would enable us to catch glimpses of our infinite possibilities. We have to collectively think about novel ways to turn grave adversity into robust opportunity. We should understand that “however long the night, the dawn will break.” In the meantime, everyone should stay safe and well. Let us all remain vigilant and supportive of one another as we do our part to slow down the spread of COVID-19. May God Almighty heal our fractured and frightened world. May the Merciful God create in us the capacity and confidence to embrace the post-pandemic world whenever we reach that point, potentially our “new normal.”
Akinade is a Professor of Theology at Georgetown University’s Edmund E. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Qatar.