Saturday, May 2, 2020
Harrisburg, PA, USA

ver since the stay at home order, occasioned by the pandemic, started, I have been following the update information from the desk of the president of my son’s college. As the stay at home continued, classes in the school were slowly migrated into the virtual realm. Professors had to quickly modify their face to face classes and turn them into virtual classes taught through the internet. This was not just peculiar to my son’s school; many other institutions of higher learning adopted the same.

So, face to face, in-class method of teaching, seems to be swept up in the long list of casualties of this deadly pandemic. A pandemic that has caused so much death, sickness, privation, overwhelming of hospitals, postponement of elective but needed surgeries, closure of businesses, cancellation of gatherings, scarcity of essential goods, stock market drops, and more.

For the avoidance of doubt, before now, virtual system of communication has proven very effective in so many disciplines. Even before the onset of the pandemic, online higher institutes of learning have been recording successes, teaching and graduating many in varied fields of education. Mega churches, all over the world, have used it to reach millions of people of faith. Webinars have been used successfully to teach varied subjects. Since the lock down, many offices have been effectively using virtual meeting arrangements, I can attest to that, to accomplish almost the same things they would do under normal situations. Power Point presentations in one end of the globe, geared towards people in another end, reach them in real time. An architect or engineer in one continent, can easily collaborate with those another continent, effectively coordinating and effectuating inter-disciplinary project coordination, something that used to almost require face to face meeting before and hence made intercontinental collaboration by design consortia difficult. Churches that have had to close because of the global lock down, now seamlessly conduct church services online, keeping and maintaining their congregation.

Part of the message from the president of my son’s college, about completely going online as a result of the pandemic, seems to be that they may have to consider continuing in that direction, even after the war on the pandemic has been won! I could be wrong in interpretation of the message but that truly caught my attention and got me thinking and in fact concerned! It is my considered opinion that there are certain types of academic learning that need face to face interaction and practice as in the dictum- “practice makes perfect”. I make this assertion because when I look back at my civil engineering and architectural school days, in the days of yore and of no internet, while I agree that many courses we took could have been successfully taught virtually, there are a series of courses that I still cannot wrap my mind around how they could have be successfully taught virtually. These were laboratory courses that required in-person, hands-on continuous practice to fully grasp and use professionally, later in life.

One of the subjects I enjoyed so much, in my college days, was soil mechanics lab and concrete mix lab. The laboratory nature of the courses, forced students to get their hands dirty in the labs, handling soil samples, molding, testing them with lab instruments, recording results, analyzing results, relating results to real life practice, etc. In the end, the student was able to develop a practical and hands-on understanding of the full characteristics of soil. Of course, soil is one of civil engineering’s most important materials. After all, most structures rely on or rest on soil – buildings, bridges, roadways, retaining walls, etc. If you fully understand soil characteristics, other structure design processes begin to fall in place. The same applies to concrete which is universally used for all types of structures. Again, in the lab, engineering students study concrete samples. They do so through hands-on mixing, molding, learning the ramifications of too much or not enough water in concrete, or too much sand, too much or not enough aggregates or cement. Using lab equipment, students break the concrete mold to record its compressive strength and analyze how different component deficiencies or glut, like water, affect the strength of concrete. An engineer with a good and practical understanding of the characteristics of and behavior of concrete, has a solid foundation for doing well in the design of many other concrete structures.

I recall that when I was in the school of architecture, I shared dorm/hostel with medical students. They spent so much time on practical(lab). The labs placed a lot of emphasis or premium on hands-on dissection of cadaver (human body). Every morning, after breakfast, they will disappear to the lab, in their white coats, doing the dissection themselves, under the guidance of a professor of medicine. Many became very proficient doing this after hundreds of hours of practice and have gone on to become very successful in the field of medicine. In fact, during the lab sessions, some of the students who initially set out to study medicine, found out that it was not their calling and so went elsewhere.

I have read about the concept of virtual labs where students, from the comfort of their homes, log into a virtual lab where you use computer simulation to do some of the things you would normally do hands -on. Now, from my point of view of not being a millennial that can navigate all aspects of computer, I see things like computer simulation as adjunct or complementary to hands-on lab, rather than a replacement of hands on lab sessions.

In conclusion, I would be the first to admit that it has been donkey years since I left college and hence it may be that my opinion is antiquated. If it is, I am hoping that a reader or readers with more recent experience can enlighten one more on how hitherto hands-on practical courses can effectively be taught virtually with nothing lost. So this article is to provoke discussions about this and learn from those who may be more up to speed on this.


Author of the books- 1. Nigeria: Contemporary Commentaries and Essays

2. Surviving in Biafra: The Story of the Nigerian Civil War