Adapting to continue higher education support amidst a pandemic

Work to support pedagogy changes in higher education faces challenges when the universities themselves are closed due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Mai Skovgaard and Tabitha Buchner describe how upcoming work within the TESCEA partnership is being adapted for a technology-led environment.

For the past two years, INASP and a partnership of universities and supporting organisations in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya have been working together to support course redesign. The goal is to help students develop, in a gender-responsive manner, the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that they need for employment and contributing to society when they graduate.

In many universities in East Africa and elsewhere, higher education teaching can be very one-directional, with lecturers providing information that students note down, revise and then repeat in exams. The downside of this approach is that students tend not to question what they are learning, explore more deeply around the topics or see the connections beyond the classroom. Rethinking this approach paves the way for more two-way interactions between teachers and students, between students and other students, and stronger connections with the world beyond university.

The Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) partnership has been an exciting – although also often challenging – journey so far. The partners are already seeing shifts as students take more ownership of their learning. We are seeing teaching staff rethinking their approaches and seeing themselves not just as teachers but also as learners. We are seeing more engaged and effective use of workplace placements and other forms of employer engagement.

Changing plans  

Such developments are inspiring and are crucial as we look to scale this work up. But what happens when a global pandemic forces all the universities to close and prevents people from travelling or meeting together face-to-face?

This is, of course, the situation that TESCEA is now in. Just over a month ago, when the project leads met in Kampala to make plans for this year, a key theme was on strengthening the systems to support scale up of the work. A major training of trainers workshop was planned that would bring together those local members of teaching staff who had already gone through the course redesign process and begun to take on roles facilitating others in the process. The workshop would take place in Dar es Salaam in May and would bring together the “multipliers” who were both passionate about supporting course redesign and had the time to be committed to the work. It would be an opportunity for the four universities – Mzumbe University and University of Dodoma in Tanzania and Gulu and Uganda Martyrs Universities in Uganda – to share learning with each other.

Much can change in a month. Now, the workshop facilitators and participants cannot travel between countries and, even within countries, people cannot meet in large groups.

A new plan was needed.

Adapting with technology

INASP has many years of experience of delivering technology enhanced learning, including running regular massive open online courses (MOOCs) in research writing, establishing communities of practice, and using webinars and video conferencing tools in a range of ways to interact with different groups of people. We recently shared some learning from this work here.

This background provides important insight as INASP and Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (AFELT) look at how to deliver the TESCEA multipliers training of trainers workshop in a different, technology-enhanced way. The current situation and nature of this work pose some particular challenges:

  • Connectivity – In general, participants of INASP’s online courses – whether in research writing, improving journal quality or monitoring library resources – can access those courses over institutional internet connections if they want to. With universities closed, participants will be relying on home internet or mobile phone connections. We are working with the four universities to identify the extent of connectivity challenges for participants, and with the funder of this work to agree that funds previously intended for travel can instead be spent on modems or mobile data bundles. Nonetheless, with some participants likely to live in rural areas, there may be problems if inadequate infrastructure exists in their areas. In addition, some people may not own a device that is appropriate for participating in an online course.
  • Time – Worldwide, the pandemic has impacted people’s working patterns. Some may have more time available to participate in training, but others may have additional responsibilities supporting their children’s learning or helping within their communities. Some may have suspended teaching while others may have additional challenges of delivering their regular classes while battling technology issues. And, for some, the current crisis may have implications for mental or physical health. Recent and ongoing INASP online courses have seen a need to be more flexible about deadlines to cater for additional challenges as a result of the current situation. We are aware of the need to allow time for flexibility to be built into our solutions in TESCEA.
  • Uncertainty – We don’t know when restrictions will be lifted in East Africa or what impact this will have on staff and whether they will suddenly become much busier as they need to catch up on missed teaching time. This makes the need to include flexibility particularly important.
  • The need for interaction – Many successful online learning activities focus on development of individual skills towards activities that participants can then go on to do on their own or with a limited number of other people. Training people to be multipliers, on the other hand, would, in a face-to-face setting, involve a lot of group work and sitting alongside each other working together and supporting each other, in order to then play a similar role with others. And sharing learning between partners is a key part of strengthening the sustainability of this work. Successful technology alternatives will need to incorporate this.

Bearing all these challenges in mind, we have decided not to try to replicate a five-day, face-to-face workshop online all in one go. Instead, we are beginning with one element of the planned workshop, learning design. This is a topic that participants of face-to-face course redesign workshops identified as needing more support and something that we identified multipliers could help teaching staff with on more of a mentoring basis, as well as help to facilitate in future course redesign workshops.

We plan to run the learning design element of the workshop over three to four weeks, as an online course, possibly on the Moodle platform with some synchronous virtual face-to-face sessions on Zoom, starting in the last week of May. We will run this first element as a pilot and look to address the challenges noted above as we do so. On the basis of our observations, participants’ ongoing experiences and end-of course feedback, we will refine our approaches and identify the best ways to continue this support.

In addition, through this and any subsequent courses, participants will learn how to organise their own teaching online. To help ensure that this is relevant to participants’ own situations, we will use the platforms and tools (for example, Moodle, Google Classroom and Google docs) that participants have at their own universities.

Towards the future

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for remote, technical approaches to TESCEA more imminent, the work being developed now is already part of the TESCEA roadmap. The goal of TESCEA by the end of the project is to develop an East Africa model for transforming higher education for improved employability and positive social change. And an important component of that East Africa model is an online course.

As we look to respond rapidly to exceptional circumstances today, we are also looking ahead to ways to improve “normal” circumstances in the future. Big changes can always be expected and this requires us to go beyond what we are used to, both in project work itself and also at universities and in the teaching and learning of students.

It is a big challenge, but it is teaching us very important lessons about how we need to be prepared and that our “normal” is changing and will constantly evolve. The present situation is an important learning opportunity about how to be more adaptive and flexible. The more innovative and open-minded we are, the better we can handle these situations.

And we will share our experiences and learning as we go along.

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Transforming Employability for Social Change in East Africa (TESCEA) is helping young people in Tanzania and Uganda to use their skills and ideas to tackle social and economic problems. With partners in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, TESCEA supports universities, industries, communities and government to work together to create an improved learning experience for students – both women and men. This improved learning experience fosters the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and allows for practical learning beyond the classroom that improves a graduate’s employability.

The TESCEA partnership is led by INASP (UK), working with Mzumbe University (Tanzania), University of Dodoma (Tanzania), Gulu University (Uganda), Uganda Martyrs University (Uganda), Association for Faculty Enrichment in Learning and Teaching (Kenya) and Ashoka East Africa (Kenya).

TESCEA is funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) as part of DFID’s SPHEIR (Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform) programme to support higher education transformation in focus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

INASP

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