Technological innovations – A key to reaching students

African universities need to “run faster in innovating technologies to compete globally”, according to Professor Crispus Kiamba, former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology in Kenya and current faculty member of the School of the Built Environment, College of Architecture and Engineering at the University of Nairobi.

In his keynote address to the annual convention of the Partnership for Pedagogical Leadership in Africa (PedaL) held in Mombasa last month, Kiamba said: “In the past, slavery was based on race and colour. In the future, slavery will be based on technology … African universities need to run faster in innovating technologies to compete globally.”

Kiamba said innovations are needed to meet the needs of the modern student who expects that higher education will “mirror the information accessibility and immediacy of their connected lives”. He said students today demand that higher education meets their need for jobs and are thus considering options outside the traditional undergraduate and postgraduate studies.

The convention, that took place in Mombasa, Kenya from 24-28 June, was convened by the Nairobi-headquartered Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), which is leading several partners to roll out PedaL, a formal partnership of eight institutions that aims to promote change in teaching and learning practices and to maximise learning outcomes in graduate social science programmes. 

PedaL is one of nine partnerships supported by the Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform.

Since the launch of PedaL a year ago, several universities across Africa have joined the partnership. These include Egerton, Maseno and the University of Nairobi in Kenya, University of Ibadan in Nigeria, University of Ghana, University of Dar es Salaam and Mzumbe University in Tanzania, Uganda’s Martyrs University, University of Sierra Leone and the University of Botswana.

Technological innovations

Kiamba challenged over 200 academics from African universities attending the gathering to use technological innovations to bring systematic change to teaching and learning at their institutions. He said innovation in higher education should be anchored on problem-solving and creativity that improve the outcomes of education, and this will make universities attractive to key stakeholders: students.

Kiamba highlighted the good work being done by Kenyan hardware accelerator venture Gearbox that allows engineers and people with no formal training in engineering to innovate around hardware. The space also gives university students an opportunity to access facilities and equipment not easily found locally, to apply practically what they learn in class, and turn their ideas into products. 

Government support

However, Kiamba, who is also a former vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, challenged African governments to support universities in their research for innovation quest. “Governments have a duty to support such ideas as Gearbox that are a game-changer for startups.”

He said the government support should come in the form of favourable policy environments in which universities could work, and financial support – especially for research. Investments by African governments in research programmes at universities make those institutions sustainable, said Kiamba, citing the PASET Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund through which governments such as Kenya and Senegal have invested funds to support research in science and technology. 

Professor Tade Aina, executive director of PASGR, said that university academics, especially teaching staff unions, have a particular duty to raise awareness. “We need to make governments understand the implications of not acting to support universities financially,” said Aina.

The role of staff unions

He said staff unions should lead by drafting strong proposals and taking them to governments for funding instead of simply protesting. “University teaching staff unions are a big holdup to the transformation of higher education in Africa as they are not meeting expectations,” said Aina. 

During his tenure as the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Higher Education, Kiamba said that he took a proposal to parliamentarians and convinced them to support the increase of budgetary allocations for research to 2% of the country’s GDP. “Today, it is now a law in Kenya,” he said, commending the country for gradually increasing budgetary allocations for research, currently sitting at 0.8% of GDP, which is close to the African Union’s recommendation of 1%. 

Kiamba called for deliberate efforts to get African universities to support pedagogy, not only in social sciences but also in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Pedagogy is a systematic thing that is very important especially for lecturers to teach students,” said Beatrice Muganda, the director of higher education at PASGR.

According to Muganda, PASGR is currently working in collaboration with the Alliance for Research Universities in Africa (ARUA), the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies and five universities to develop and roll out PedaL in graduate social science programmes.

Training for teaching staff

Professor Bonaventure Rutinwa, the deputy vice-chancellor for academics at the University of Dar es Salaam, said massification of higher education should mean an increase not only in the number of students but also in qualified teaching staff.

In an interview with University World News, Rutinwa said student enrolment increases had placed pressure on the system of mentorship his university had adopted whereby senior staff could guide junior staff. “We had many people coming into academia to teach but the experienced academics available to coach and mentor were few.”

Through the PedaL-PASGR initiative, he said, his university has benefited especially with the use of e-resources and the development of curricula. “This is timely because teaching methods change all the time. When I was doing law in the 1980s at the University of Oxford, there were no lectures; it was a tutorial system, going to the office of the lecturer and getting tutored because we were few,” said Rutinwa.

This year, he said, the University of Dar es Salaam had decided that “each and every member of the teaching staff” would undergo pedagogical training. Additionally, teaching staff will be assessed and promoted on the basis of publications and their teaching would be assessed according to set criteria.

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