COVID-19 Pandemic exposes default instructional leadership in African universities

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Noel Kufaine

Dr Noel Kufaine

The Covid-19 pandemic has managed to separate us individually and limit group gatherings; however, for education in general and higher education in particular, the situation has exposed serious instructional leadership deficiency. There is fidgetiness in higher education institutions as they gradually lose the 2020 academic calendar. Nevertheless, as everybody is striving to salvage the remaining part of the academic calendar, some are passively doing nothing. The active leaders are determined to save the 2020 academic calendar by flipping to teaching and learning using ICT modes. However, whether it’s ‘averse’ attitudes on the part of students and some stakeholders or poor implementation approaches by institutions, the change to the ICT mode of learning is facing resistance from different stakeholders. Reports indicate that implementation in some institutions was initiated before checking whether students who registered on a program to be delivered on face to face are ready to switch to online learning.

Of course, there is a range of ICT applications which are well established and well informed by intensive research, for teaching and learning.  However, most of the research, tests and trials were not done in Africa. The COVID19 pandemic has forced university leadership to adopt a different mode of curriculum delivery without proper conceptualisation of the risks to institutions, lecturers, and students in African contexts. Implementing such an important change without initial planning is risky and needs to be addresses.

Technically, students enroll into a program after assessing the program and the mode of delivery; however, with institutions having to suspend physical teaching and learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic, they were forced to switch from one teaching mode to another without properly understanding the technical challenges. It’s excruciating that university leaders are being schooled by student body leaders about the student demographic discrepancies and fragmentation. The lesson here is that African educational institutions must invest in knowing more about their students – e.g. how do they access internet while at home, do they have access to learning devices, where are they domiciled – urban or rural? Unfortunately, the advice from student bodies and other stakeholders is coming while institutions have already confirmed and invested in implementing teaching and learning using ICT.

Fullan and Scot (2009), pointed that when initiating change in higher education, there is need to tap into the aspects of culture. The current dominant culture in higher education is; student engagement, rational persuasion and institutional accountability. Failure to consider dominant culture is a catalyst of frustration, hence, some students are refusing to learn using the so-called strange learning approach.

The student body leadership is a legitimate part of the university, such that in some universities, students are represented in University Councils. Therefore, ignoring them during such change of approach is not exemplary leadership. Reports from some higher education institutions indicate that lecturers were only invited to attend E-learning assessment orientations. One lecturer said; the whole two hours of online meeting was about uploading material on Moodle and designing quiz tests for students. Effective leadership requires that there be consultations, deciding together and considering the inputs of all the concerned stakeholders within an educational institution.

The growth and prevalence of information and communication technologies requires African Universities to develop strategies for effectively harnessing the emerging tools for the benefit of students, lecturers, and universities. When ICT is properly implemented it can result in improving teaching, learning and research.

Instructional leadership is required under such situation to plan how to use the available resources, while cognizant that not all learners have access to the technological facilities.  However, in some countries a great deal has been done on access to computers including buying a computer for every new student admitted into the University, while in other countries, the issue of access persists.

Learning online brings a new phenomenon of learning from home. It is worth noting that some homes are not too conducive for learning. There is also the challenge of limited power supply and internet connectivity in various homes. The Sub-Saharan region has a population distribution where more than 70% live in rural areas and more than half of the countries in the region have less than 40% of population powered by electricity, coupled with less than 25% internet connectivity.

The initiative to salvage the remaining 2020 academic calendar is commendable; however, it should not be done for recognition, approval or to be applauded, rather it should enhance achieving the purpose. It is common knowledge that closure of schools is not caused by institutions or students; but starting a teaching mode which is not inclusive is failure by institutional leadership. On the other hand, its poor leadership for universities to remain idle while waiting for government instructions about the next course of action.

Education is a fundamental human right and this is recognized by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In the same vein access to higher education still remains a priority in this region because of low enrolment rates caused by several challenges including infrastructure and other support services deficit; therefore, denying the already few students access because of challenges beyond their control is a breach of the students’ fundamental rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic and circumstances surrounding it has robbed higher education institutions of their autonomy, because they are now being instructed by governments and health authorities to close or to open schools.  One institution in Malawi was closed in the middle of the end of semester examinations. Despite some resistance, institutions are being told to implement or not to implement online delivery. The independence which allows higher education institutions to make informed decisions after systematic research and analysis has been raided.  Eventually, university leadership has ignored scholarship of teaching and learning where modes of teaching and learning are evaluated and practiced for the benefit of all students. In this case, focus is on those who can afford. A disturbing case reported is that some institutions are asking students who cannot afford online classes to de-register and register again next year. This is absurd.

It is rational to state that university leadership has permitted the rolling of unfamiliar teaching and learning methods particularly to salvage the 2020 academic calendar.  However, the pressure on leadership has been and remains great because there is no knowledge whether the current teaching and learning approach is temporary or permanent. Furthermore, E-learning is not cheap and has sustainability challenges. Simultaneously, leaders have failed to defend higher education autonomy – eventually allowed the higher education institutions’ independence and academic authority to become eroded.


Noel Kufaine PhD

Associate Professor – Namibia University of Science and Technology

This article represents the individual views of the author and does not represent the official points of view of the AAU, Namibia University of Science and Technology, or AAU development partners.