Zambian Open University rises to the occasion of Covid challenge

By Dr Munyonzwe Hamalengwa

Zambian Open University (ZAOU) has risen to the challenge thrown up by Covid-19 by quickly going back to its roots and vision of being a “University Without Walls”. It needs no regurgitating that Covid forced everything to close down, including all educational institutions world-wide. ZAOU management quickly met and after brainstorming concluded that their original vision of being the university without walls, meaning long distance education supplemented by the use of module technological platorms, initially fronted by postal services, should be reinforced, this time with the use of ZOOM platform of which I wrote about a few weeks ago in this space. When Covid struck, ZAOU was just about to conduct its traditional 2-week residential university. Should the Residential be cancelled? Should Law School Student Mooting Competitions be cancelled? Should the scheduled May 2020 graduation ceremony bad cancelled? Should the scheduled exams of May/June 2020 be cancelled? Those were the questions that were being asked and the ICT Department was central in the discussion with Management as to how to meet the unprecedented challenge thrown up by the pandemic we call Covid-19.It was resolved that ZAOU had the capacity and capability to immediately transition to online teaching. Thus the Residential was not cancelled but fully held during the last two weeks of April tipping into May. For the first time in the history of Zambia, Law School  Student Mooting Competitions were held using the ZOOM platform. The May graduation ceremony will go ahead without personal attendance of the Graduands. The May/June examinations will go ahead using modern technology and living up to the vision of “University Without Walls”. The Beat of ZAOU matches on.

My assessment of the success or lack thereof of holding a Residential for two weeks without personal attendance, or the Mooting Competitions et al will not be herein objective because I was part of Management that resolved to use this technology and because I am currently and for the short time-being, acting as Dean of the School of Law that initiated the Mooting via ZOOM. But I am not prohibited from offering my assessment. The Residential without actual residence and the Mooting long distance were highly successful. I taught Law of Evidence and it felt as if I was in the same room with the students. I asked questions and could click for a student to respond and students responded and asked questions as well. I could see the students and the students confirmed they could see me. It was a highly positive experience. A questionnaire or actual interviews with students by any researcher will ultimately answer the question of whether this new forced experience was positive or worthwhile. What improvements could be made will be part of the exercise. 

Of course as a new educational format in Zambia, teething problems and weak internet signals were and are unavoidable. One occasionally got disconnected but could reconnect shortly thereafter. Students were very indulgent about the inevitable glitches. Poverty and lack of resources forced some students away from participating but all lectures were taped for future viewing and reviewing. All notes and power point presentations have been preserved and transferred to Moodle platform of the university to be made available and accessible to all students.I was thrilled that the Law School Student Mooting Competitions went on perhaps more vigorous than ever before. I personally gave students more time to argue and the questioning of them went on as intense as ever. There was no break from the experience because of the distance. Again all students who participated can speak for themselves if polled or interviewed.My assessment is that teaching via ZOOM or other new formats will be to use an overused phrase, the “new normal”. If ZAOU did not along the way, introduce full-time and part-time studies in response to demand, it would have developed into a leading institution in technologically based education. It is still leading despite the ” dilution”  of the founding vision.ZAOU has been a true innovator in the area of long distance university education.

The Founding Vice Chancellor Professor Dickson Mwansa has written a book that chronicles the history of ZAOU for those who are interested in finding out from whence we came. ZAOU was frowned upon at its inception. People doubted the potency of long distance education in the modern era. Covid-19 was way in the future and not  in the picture. Traditional education formats were the favoured old normal. This was in the early years of this Century. But ZAOU immediately started asserting itself nationally and internationally. It recruited experienced and qualified faculty from UNZA and elsewhere. At the moment in time, there are a number of ministers, prominent lawyers, administrators and so on who are graduates of ZAOU. When the Alumni Association gets going this year, the full power and impact of ZAOU products, will be felt. ZAOU Alumni will get calls or contacts soon. ZAOU law school students at the beginning were not even allowed by Law to be called to the Bar. The Law only allowed and recognized only UNZA Law graduates. ZAOU law students took the matter to court and secured victory. The LAZ Act was amended, opening the door to all private law school graduates to be admitted to the Bar of Zambia. Ironically among the very first graduates of ZAOU to attend ZIALE was a student named Maxwell Mainsa. He topped his ZIALE class on first attempt. Never underestimate ZAOU and long distance education. Over the years, ZAOU law graduates have at intervals, topped the ZIALE call to the Bar pass rate. ZIALE that was initially lukewarm to ZAOU’s method of instruction, has now also succumbed to using long distance teaching methods. We are now on all fours. The issue of whether long distance education, technologically or otherwise, assisted, is effective, will now be recast because ZIALE is now a participant in this “new normal”.The continuing challenges for ZAOU will be to stay ahead of the competition, to continue receiving qualified students, to continue to produce competent students to join the labour force to contribute to Zambia’s economic, political, legal and social-cultural development. Given the contribution so far by ZAOU graduates, it is inexplicable that students attending ZAOU and other private universities are not yet beneficiaries of Government scholarships or loans. We may unleash ZAOU law  students to slap the government with a class action law suit using the ZIALE law suit success case as a precedent. It is a case no court would rule against. The Constitution and other laws prohibit discrimination against Zambians who then end up benefitting the whole country as ZAOU graduates have continued to do from the first graduating group to the present. With its leading edge in technologically-based teaching format, ZAOU continues to march on.

Dr Munyonzwe Hamalengwa is Acting Dean of the Zambian Open University School of Law.

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