open letter to the acting Vice-Chancellor

An Open Letter to the Acting Vice-Chancellor: On this Virtual Learning

Dear Professor Ekanola,

Behind this cursor are the wails and groans of thousands of the students at the University of Ibadan; propelling it as it races across this white page that will soon be filled with muffled lamentations, timid grievances and craved interventions. They populate WhatsApp statuses that won’t pop up on your contact list and Twitter posts you won’t see. Therefore, this letter is the white dove conveying a tiny bit of these messages.

Do not mistake me for a no-respecter of protocol; I know this letter is best passed through the student leaders and the landlords of Kunle Adepeju building. Unfortunately, since the past nine weeks that academic activities have shifted to the virtual space, the Students’ Union leadership are yet to secure a space online where their presence can be felt. However, as a cultured citizen of this citadel of learning who breathes the words that rest on the crest – recte sapere fons – forward is the only direction we need to think. Like a common saying in the Nigerian parlance, even if your cheeks are drenched in tears, forward you should go still. Nonetheless, it is also important to consider what path led us here.

How We Got Here

The Union has been silent, except on occasions like when the student community was robbed in Agbowo or recently, when the school portal crashed like Sosoliso aircraft, threatening to set the already troubled pocket of the students on fire. The student populace is still searching for the activeness in their expected activism as this current docility must be making Kunle Adepeju turn in his grave. If the problem of cabmen denying Awoites rides to get to their lecture theatres no longer exists, what about now that one’s possession of Zoom links doesn’t guarantee your arrival at the meeting of your destination?

What Could Have Gone Wrong?

One of the hypotheses that can be explored for the deafening silence from the Union is the possibility of her being an estranged middleman: she dared to nurse the thoughts of a protest to object to the hike in the school and “technology” fees. They might feel they have failed the students as the promise of the protest was not delivered, yet the relationship with the management has already been ruffled. This might have ultimately made the leadership of the Union a beast of no nation – not favoured abroad and unwanted at home.

First Step Forward: Communication

There is an urgent need to listen through the awkward silence and see beyond the present fussiness, and the only way to achieve this is rebuilding the communication channels that have been broken with modifications that suit our current virtual reality. When democracy was born in Greece, dialogue was what went into labour. Even though conversations could be laborious, the offspring are usually the stitches that hold the fabric of a progressive society together. After eight weeks of academic activities, we need to know how long we need to wait before the data promised the students get delivered. It is also long overdue to make assessment and evaluation of these untested methods that have been deployed to outsmart the pandemic that is determined to ground everything to a halt. Are they efficient? What modifications need to be done? How are the students taking it? How are the lecturers taking it? These are the questions whose answers are already on the lips of the students but the school management is not asking them.

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Second Step Forward: Accountability

While attending one of Professor Wood’s chemistry lectures three years ago, he went into one of his bonus sessions aimed at boosting character after we had learnt the academics. The topic of his passionate discourse as his emphatic voice boomed through the speakers was the use of SERVICOM boxes placed at strategic locations on campus.  He made us realise that they are not meant to support the weight of the building but to be used as a way of anonymously reporting feedback about the quality of academics we are receiving. The number of those that held on to the information would have been very meagre, most likely negligible would have been the number of those that ever put it to use. It would take me further research to realise that those white boxes that have now been reduced to artefacts are actually supposed to be the icon of quality service delivery. I learnt that SERVICOM is an acronym for Service Compact with All Nigerians, an initiative started by the presidency in 2004 to address the inefficiencies and corruption that plague the public service, including public universities. According to a document obtained from the website of Nigerian Universities Commission, part of the roles of the SERVICOM in universities include “monitoring academic and non-academic activities at various service windows for efficiency in line with service charter. While physical boxes might not fit into the current reality, is it not high time a dot-com is added to the unit of the University of Ibadan’s SERVICOM? What better way to keep an eye on some of these lecturers that have been abusing the flexibility remote learning gives? While some have been indeed forced to improvise using some methods of teaching outside the school’s recommendations, there have been reports of some lecturers not releasing electronic resources for students to study, forcing them to resort to taking screenshots of the presentation. Several other reports abound of lecturers totally abandoning the LMS platform specially designated for asynchronous learning. There are also cases of lecturers who have called for physical classes, claiming that the school has not provided “internet data” for virtual learning. Generally, there is an urgent need for feedback channels aimed at assessing how well the students have been coping and how the system can be developed to achieve its true aim.

Above all, not acknowledging the complexity of the current times will be insensitive. The reality we currently live in is unprecedented, and the task of working without any verified blueprint must be daunting and called for hard decisions. It must have even been more arduous as your stay as the acting Vice-Chancellor is expected to be short, which would have definitely limited your options at exploring long-term strategies. However, there’s a saying in Yoruba that Ilé-Ifè (the origin of the Yoruba people) was created through the amalgamation of the wisdom of both the young and the old. Meanwhile, according to a survey done by the College of Medicine, UI, the mean age of students in the College is 20 years. If we should take this to be also representative of the mean age of the whole University, give or take, this will mean the institution is currently populated by individuals who have lived all of their lives within the 2000s; the period of internet revolution in Nigeria. As such, it should be expected that the students are more exposed to this virtual space that has come to house our academics. The input of the students is therefore invaluable as they are equally essential stakeholders of the institution. It can then not be overemphasised that there is an urgent need for obligatory channels of conversation as against emergency pipelines that will show we are willing to be proactive and ready to lean in towards progressive communication. It therefore goes without saying that at no point should the portal of communication be closed because it is of common knowledge that closure of such portals leads to accrued fines which may be too costly for us to pay as an institution.

I hope the next time I write to you, it will be to congratulate on a tenure spent with a landmark success. Until then, may the tide be in your favour and may your conscience be justly guided when faced with hard decisions.

Yours in straight thoughts,

Williams Owoeye

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