Can a new curriculum save secondary education?

The announcement by the Federal Government that it would launch a new senior secondary school curriculum effective from September this year has sparked debates about what the curriculum is expected to achieve. There are also questions about the value of a new curriculum at a time when the existing curriculum has not even been implemented to a satisfactory level. And yet there are people who argue that a new secondary school curriculum does not hold the key to Nigeria's social and economic transformation.

The Vanguard edition of Monday, 14 March 2011 reported that one objective of the new curriculum is to generate secondary school graduates who are sufficiently equipped for tertiary education. The students are expected to possess, at the end of their studies, practical knowledge and professional skills that could be usefully applied to the socioeconomic development of the nation. For example, the skills could lead to the graduates engaging in jobs that help to reduce poverty, create employment opportunities and therefore generate national wealth.

The executive secretary of the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC), Professor Godswill Obioma, said students would be required to study five compulsory courses including English language, general mathematics, computer studies and information and communication technologies, as well as one trade or professional subject from a list of 34 official trade subjects. He also said the introduction of 34 vocational subjects marked a radical departure from the subsisting curriculum in which accent was not placed on professional skills acquisition. He said: "... by June 2014, graduates from the new SSEC are expected to possess relevant ICT skills and enterprise culture and become well prepared for their world of work or for higher education as may be applicable."

The idea that secondary school graduates would be equipped with relevant skills in communication technologies deserves national support. The goal is long overdue. In the new electronic environment, a secondary education curriculum that includes practical mechanisms for training students so they can familiarise themselves with the new technologies would be hugely relevant to the 21st century needs of Nigeria. However, in light of the paucity of computers and other technological infrastructure in Nigerian secondary schools and even in the universities, the question arises: how do we get secondary school students to learn communication technology skills when they have no access to the technologies or when they lack exposure to basic technologies.

To achieve the lofty objectives set out in the new curriculum, it is important to make the technologies widely accessible to secondary school students and teachers. Secondary school students must be exposed to the new technologies if they have to learn how to use the technologies after graduation. Teachers must also be trained in order to equip them with the skills necessary to train the students. A major obstacle is how to remove institutional and structural barriers that prevent students and teachers from accessing new technologies.

In Nigeria, there are serious barricades to communication technology use in educational and socioeconomic contexts. These obstacles reflect problems associated with lack of infrastructure support, lack of access to technologies, lack of training opportunities and skills development, and the overall perception of technologies as status symbols. Can we really equip secondary schools with computers, for example, when we cannot repair or service the computers, and when we cannot guarantee stable electricity supply? The assumption seems to be that if government acquires a couple of desktops and laptops and distributes these in schools, we could be right on the way to technological transformation.

A study of the impact of new technologies on the educational and socioeconomic development of Africa and the Asia Pacific showed that basic education, equipping schools with enough texts and reducing the teacher-student ratio appeared to be the key concerns of the respondents. Even though these might appear to be valid concerns, the exclusion of technological skills acquisition suggests ignorance about the importance of communication technologies in a developing country such as Nigeria. New technologies are central to human activities. A nation that ignores the acquisition of technological skills by secondary school students does so at its peril.

Some people have argued that there is no need to change the existing secondary education curriculum. They believe that significant improvements should be made to the level of funding and infrastructure support provided to schools -- both of which should help to advance teaching and learning in secondary schools.

Other critics of the new curriculum also point to factors that could undermine the objectives of the new curriculum such as poor salaries and allowances that are paid to teachers, disruptions in the academic calendar owing to incessant industrial strikes by teachers, and constant changes of education ministers which do not provide sufficient time for planning and implementation of new programmes. Lack of clear implementation mechanism has also been cited as another factor that could undermine the new secondary education curriculum.

If the essence of the new curriculum is to get students to learn specific trades and professional skills that would contribute to national economic development, then there are good grounds to support the construction of a new secondary education curriculum. Educational curriculum at any level must be deemed to be relevant if it undergoes revisions that are designed to identify solutions to a nation's problems.

I have heard people say that the politics of Nigeria is not fully developed for the kind of grassroots-based technological revolution that our education planners have carved out for secondary school students. I disagree. This is not about the level of the politics we play in Nigeria – regardless of whether it is developed or undeveloped. The new secondary education curriculum should prepare Nigerian school children for current and future challenges.

Secondary school education in Nigeria should be driven by a curriculum that makes it compulsory that primary and secondary schools must offer some basic courses in computer appreciation. Getting school students exposed to new technologies, getting them to appreciate the basic applications of new technologies should engage the attention of education planners. Many students at primary and secondary school level of education do not know how to use computers because they don't have them in their schools and at home.

On a research assignment in Nigeria in the late 1990s, I was stunned when I was informed, during an interview with a university academic in Lagos (name of university suppressed for privacy) that the academic was compelled to use the blackboard to sketch to her students how the electronic mail (e-mail) system worked simply because the department did not have a computer (laptop or desktop), not to mention Internet connectivity. This might sound a bit funny but I thought it was outrageous that a department in a leading university in Nigeria which is required to teach the fundamentals of communication to students did not have the basic infrastructure to advance knowledge in that discipline.

Nigeria is a part of the global community. We cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Communication technologies are now the basic tools for survival in this century and beyond. Secondary schools can start by teaching students basic computer appreciation courses. It should be an accelerated computer education programme that targets the young ones. Secondary schools and the government can do more. Computer appreciation clubs could be formed in schools. The primary role of the clubs will be to teach students the essential elements of computer awareness and understanding. The public needs a lot of education and enlightenment about the values of communication technologies.

The key to technological transformation of our society lies in grassroots education – primary and secondary school education. At these leves, every student needs to be educated about communication technologies. It is appropriate that we should have policies geared towards people acquiring basic knowledge of communication technologies. One problem we have in the use of technologies has to do with maintenance or servicing – that is, keeping the technologies in good, working condition.

Perhaps it is time Nigeria reconsidered the restoration of the good old trade schools that have since disappeared from our education system. Government should consider reviving technical education, the technical schools and the trade schools that used to serve as a veritable source of the much needed artisans. We no longer have many qualified artisans in Nigeria. It is a dying trade. In the past, we could boast a professional pool of tradespeople -- professional bricklayers, professional carpenters, plumbers, and others. Not anymore. Everybody wants to receive a university degree because we believe that a university degree is more likely to open more doors to better jobs than a trade certificate would.