By Rahma Abdul-Rahman
University of Ghana, Legon
To halt education till the pandemic is over, or to continue while observing the pandemic protocols? Should lessons be held virtually? Should examinations be postponed or canceled? These and many other issues confront education, legal education inclusive, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Education in Ghana is mostly through direct interface between professors and students. However, the year 2020 and the early months of 2021 have been different. The pandemic has impacted the education of students of the legal profession.
Legal education in Ghana
Legal education trains us to understand and apply the law, its principles, theories, and skills needed to be a lawyer or a judge. It provides a wide scope of knowledge beneficial to other professions. Legal education in Ghana is organized and overseen by the General Legal Council.
Legal education is usually dependent on the peculiar nature of a particular legal system within the jurisdiction and can take various forms. In Ghana, legal education begins with the primary degree in law, commonly known as the bachelor of laws or LL.B, acquired either as an undergraduate or a postgraduate degree. Students may also obtain an advanced academic degree in law, such as a masters in law (LLM). Finally, there is the professional law course, where a qualifying law degree is obtained to practice as a lawyer.
There are four types of students in Ghana undergoing legal education. An undergraduate law student pursuing a four-year LLB programme, a graduate student pursuing an LLB programme for either two or three years, a graduate student reading a two-year LLM program, or a student pursuing the two-year professional law course at the law school after obtaining an LLB from a faculty of law in an accredited university.
Impact of the Pandemic on the Student
To this generation, the COVID-19 pandemic marks the first time we are experiencing a pandemic which has impacted almost every aspect of our lives, be it positive or negative. From the perspective of a student, the impacts of the pandemic are economic, social, academic, and psychological in nature.
A Shift to Online Teaching
The immediate impact of the pandemic on Ghanaian students under legal education is the move from the face-to-face form of tutoring to a virtual instruction method. The shift to the online medium is difficult since students are used to the traditional in-person means of learning. Initially, students immediately welcomed the idea of having lectures in the comfort of their homes. However, this approach has its associated challenges, from financial or economic to technical issues involved with the use of the internet.
Although legal education is somewhat centralized in the southern part of the country, people from all parts of the country can pursue legal education. Hence online classes that require the support of the internet come at a cost. Financially, this puts a strain on the student, or the parent if the student is an undergraduate, as he or she has to financially provide the internet which comes at a high cost. Although some law faculties have provided some amount of internet connection through internet data allocation to some students, it is, however, not enough.
Technical issues with the internet is another challenge. Although internet access is available in almost every part of the country, the quality of the connection varies. Students in rural areas, even after crossing the hurdle of financing, may face the issue of poor connectivity to the internet. Postgraduate students of older age also have issues navigating the technical aspects of the internet. As such, while some may have access to online classes, others may lose out and would have to put in extra effort into catching up with the rest of the class. More importantly, some lecturers have had challenges adapting to the online platform for lectures; for example, some University of Ghana lecturers face challenges using the Sakai Platform. The technical use of the internet and the unconventional means of not physically interacting with students posed several challenges at the initial stages of the virtual lessons.
Conversely, some students appreciate the fact that online studying avails them enough time for other activities, be it taking up a job or taking up other online courses. Others also value the chance to save money commuting to and from school.
Unfortunately, law students are unable to observe court proceedings because of the limited number of persons allowed in the courts. The importance of observing court proceedings to a law student cannot be over-emphasized, especially to students of the professional law course at the law school. For women, a virtual approach to legal education is even more challenging due to the constant interference during online lectures. The domestic setting in Ghana isn’t friendly to women in regards to studying. Women are generally more likely to be distracted by domestic responsibilities and care-work. The attention required for virtual lessons is lost and extra efforts are required to catch up with lost sessions.
In addition to the economic burden of providing internet access, students are further financially burdened to provide for themselves personal protective equipment when schools resumed in-person classes in 2021. Students without personal means of transportation are further burdened with the extra cost of opting for uber services and taxis when going for lectures and to the library. These forms of transportation pose a lower risk of being exposed to the virus as opposed to the regular public transport commonly known as "trotro," which is less expensive but always crowded with no regard for the pandemic protocols. Due to the pay gap between men and women, independent women students are required to source extra income to sort out their economic needs in the wake of this pandemic.
Another economic burden concerning tuition fees was the absence of any arrangement to refund some portion of fees paid before the move to online teaching for the semester. There was also no reduction in fees for classes that were virtual.
Altering of the academic calendar
Law students in Ghana are predominantly mature students, especially those pursuing the master's program and the professional law course. As such, the academic calendar is often factored in when deciding to pursue a particular law course. Almost all the law faculties and the professional law school have had to re-adjust the academic calendar to meet the change in circumstances due to the pandemic. The initial two-week lockdown order in March 2020 was the first time that required an adjustment of the academic calendar. This period saw a change in the mode of teaching. However, it took quite some time to settle and adjust financially and technically.
In my LLM program, for instance, the lockdown started in our second semester. The online medium was adopted to complete lectures and examinations for that semester. Unfortunately, instead of resuming for the new academic year in September, 2020, school resumed in the last week of January 2021, keeping students out of school for almost four months. Hence, instead of being in our last semester preparing to graduate, we are now in the first semester. Students now have to adjust to the new academic calendar.
Fortunately, in the name of observing the protocols, schools resumed with the traditional means of tutoring in January 2021. Because efforts are being made to reschedule the academic calendar to meet its initial schedule, the regular twelve to thirteen-week calendar has been cramped into a seven or eight-week calendar, and programs at the professional level that cover eight months are reduced to six months. These condensed schedules put extreme pressure on students to read and understand topics within a shorter period, as well as prepare for examinations.
Students share a classroom with little to no form of physical distancing due to the lack of adequate infrastructure. At the professional school, for instance, students are made to share about four or fewer microphones to express themselves either by asking or answering questions, or making suggestions. This poses a threat to students as it is one such means of contracting the virus.
Although the greater part of what would have been complete school closure awaiting the pandemic to end has greatly been averred by online instruction, the pandemic is quite impactful on students because such a situation was never envisaged. Proactivity in addressing issues regarding traditional in-person teaching in legal education is imperative. On-the-job training for lecturers on innovative means of teaching is essential to keep them abreast with technological developments. Collaboration between the General Legal Council, Ministry of Education-Tertiary Sector, and the Ministry of Communications to develop a student-friendly internet service for students regarding online learning will go a long way in addressing some of these challenges faced by law students in Ghana. Policies to ensure the equal pay between men and women would help to reduce the financial burden on women. Similarly, advocacy on men equally taking up care duties at home can help reduce the constant distraction of women during online classes.