Sunday, May 1, 2016

Raising the Bar in Africa’s Higher Education: Ten Principles to Improve Higher Education in Africa

In a first posting “Africa’s Higher Education Deficit is Threatening its EconomicDevelopment”, I analyzed both the quantity and quality gap between Africa’s Higher Education and the rest of the world.
In this second posting I would like to suggest ten simple and basic principles that could impact the quality of higher education. These principles do not require significant investments. That does not mean however that they will not require significant efforts from all stakeholders to be implemented.

First I suggest three ideas to improve the quality of course content and teaching methodology.
1)    Move up from rote learning

The Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives [1] defines six hierarchical cognitive levels of thinking complexity.


In many African universities, education only addresses the first two levels: remembering and understanding. Often all that is required from students is to be able to remember the content that was taught by the instructor and repeat it to show understanding of what it means.

Faculty need to lead their students into the next levels: applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. This is particularly important for engineering studies where one expects them to come up with new inventions and innovation leveraging their creativity. It implies to get students more involved in creative work in their assignments, projects, and tests. Instead of getting them to simply repeat (remember) what they learned in the course, instructors must ask them to come up with their own ideas on how to address a problem by putting the theory into practice, using knowledge in response to real circumstances. For example in the “Business Strategy” course that I’m teaching, after understanding the theory, students are required to apply it to a real business. In collaboration with the business executive team of that enterprise, they analyze their market collecting and organizing data from different sources. Then from that analysis they evaluate the different strategic options and judging their relative potential, they finally create a business strategy to be submitted to the executive team of that enterprise. In doing so, the students acquire a much better understanding of the theory by implementing it in a real world situation.
Another valuable exercise is to ask students to present their ideas in front of their fellow students, engaging in interactive discussions about the ideas presented calling upon their critical and logical thinking.
While there is no financial cost in applying the Bloom’s model in class, it will require significant work from the professors both by adapting their teaching method and their evaluation process. It is more difficult to evaluate a creative work from a student than grading answers to questions about existing content.
The implementation of the Bloom model requires equipping the students with the tools needed to succeed, i.e. non-technical soft skills like communication skills including presentation and writing skills, teamwork and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving. This training needs to be added to the curriculum to provide the students with the appropriate tools. To do so professors must move away from reliance on knowledge transmission only and accept to integrate these in their teaching.

2)    Use MOOCs to improve course content

While Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have enrolled students from developing countries pretty much from the start, there have not yet been many attempts to systematically include MOOCs as part of targeted education efforts in low income countries. The quality of their content could be used by African professors to improve content of their courses and achieve a better implementation of the Bloom’s cognitive levels. This is particularly promising because teachers then pass what they learn on to their own students: when they make use of MOOCs resources in their classrooms, they multiply the effect.

3)    Get students feedback on courses

Aside from measuring students, universities should develop mechanisms to measure the quality of the courses taught by their faculty. Several websites exist that allow students to rate their instructors, such as “rate my professor”. Here we need to be cautious as it is difficult for those websites to identify sincere from fake ratings. The last thing you want is for a student to vindicate her/his (maybe rightfully) low grade by trashing the grading professor on those sites.
Instead, we recommend for each university to introduce their own private rating systems such that students registered for a course are automatically given the opportunity to rate that course after its completion. What is important here is that the result be used not to penalize professors but rather to help them improve the quality of their teaching and learning through student feedback. After several consecutive surveys, instructors can reflect on the feedback and use it for performance and development reviews to make changes to their course content and teaching method.
These surveys can also be used by academic committees to promote outstanding professors and encourage others to improve their teaching quality, potentially inviting them to “teaching excellence” seminars.

Next I suggest encouraging hard work and providing benefits to those students who are willing to make the extra effort.

4)    Increase the passing grade level

In most African universities, students can get their degree with 50% of the grades. We suggest increasing that to a minimum of 60%. At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), you must have a 75% average of the grades (B grade) to get your master degree. The objective here is to change the “good enough” mentality that often permeates students. Obviously one would hope that professors don’t change their grading schema accordingly to allow students to pass. Robust standard grading methodologies need to be implemented.

5)    Develop a Dean’s List program for the best students

Based on their results after the first year of their bachelor degree, the best students are invited to join the Dean’s List program on a voluntary basis. They are personally introduced to the Dean of the School upon their selection. For the remaining three years of their bachelor degree and if they continue performing at a top level, the following benefits are offered to Dean’s List students:

1.     Smaller classes and better instructors.
Classes have a much lower student/instructor ratio with smaller class size which makes discussion easier and allows for more group work, class presentations, and other high impact pedagogical practices. Inspiring faculty are selected for Dean’s List classes where they can develop more innovative teaching practices in these courses which they can then bring into their regular sections. Being in a Dean’s List class does not imply that it will be easier for students, at the contrary. The pace is faster and more challenging, since students are surrounded by other students of the same caliber and, often, the same interests. Students are offered with deeper opportunities to explore and understand the material. It is the quality of intellectual work that those students seek out.
2.     Paid internships.
Getting paid for internship is another benefit for Dean’s List students. These better students are probably those that should be recommended for paid internships, another principle discussed later (principle 9).
3.     Better dorms.
Dean’s List students are lodging together in usually better dorms integrating more space where they can interact and continue the group learning process.

While some will criticize the Dean’s List as an elitist approach, we see it rather as a way to encourage hard working students. It is the student’s decision to work hard to be a Dean’s List student and to accept being in the Dean’s List section when their performance gives them that opportunity.

In order to address the common complaint that there is a profound mismatch between the degrees offered and the skills required by the labor market in Africa, I suggest three principles involving closer relationship between industries and the university.



6)    Establish a board of industry advisors

University departments usually have a curriculum review committee who determines course offerings (the Curriculum) for any given academic program. These review committees are comprised of professors and department heads who usually review program and course criteria from a solely academic perspective.
The objective of this principle is to get the private sector involved in university curriculum overview by establishing a “board of industry advisors” comprising business people selected by the university department and working in industry areas related to the department’s curriculum. For example a computer science department could invite representatives from the IT industry: IT vendors, software vendors, telecommunication companies, internet service providers, etc. This board meets with the department faculty once a year during a one day meeting to discuss the curriculum content. The only cost to the department is the organization of that meeting. Usually board members pay for their own travel expenses, and are proud adding their board membership to their resume.
There are several benefits to such a board:
1) Its members (usually industry senior executives or middle management) have a good understanding of their industry and can advise the department about industry trends they see and the resulting skills that will be needed by the industry. This can help the department adapting the curriculum accordingly;
2) The board members are the people who ultimately would recruit the students. Getting them to participate in the department’s curriculum definition will give them more confidence that the department will deliver the right skills.

It is worth noting here, however, the ongoing discussion on whether higher education institutions (both in the developed and developing world) is beholden to meet the needs of industry, or should remain above the marketplace and perpetuate the quest of knowledge and pure academics for "the greater good". We will refrain from engaging that discussion and instead explore ways in which tertiary education in Africa may sustain market-driven growth.

7)    Offer visiting professor positions to industry professionals

A common complaint from students is that their professors do not have practical experience about what they are teaching. The university should make it easy for departments to provide visiting professor positions for people from the industry with experience in the field. Industry people like sharing their passion and experience with young people by teaching at universities. They rarely do it for pure financial reasons, some may even teach for free. Therefore, the cost of a visiting professor is usually lower than the regular professor. But the experience they will bring and share with students can be invaluable.
Another alternative to a visiting professor teaching an entire course is to invite industry guest speakers in the course to share practical experience with the students.
We have to ensure that these visiting lectures aren’t supplementary to the ‘usual’ teaching but complementary and become an established part of course delivery e.g. 1 in every 4 lectures.

8)    Invite enterprises to submit industry problems

Traditionally graduate programs allow students to choose their own final thesis subject (sometimes not related with real industry problems) or have them to choose from a list submitted by professors with little industry experience. Instead thesis subjects could be selected from a list of industry problems submitted by local or regional enterprises. Students then work in teams of two-three students to solve these problems under the supervision of the enterprise itself. The work of the students to solve the submitted industry problem is free for the submitting business but results are usually not guaranteed as it is considered as an academic exercise. Nevertheless enterprises are interested by this free labor that often provides them with interesting outside views for solution to their problems. This may take some time to develop as the university needs to break the distrust from the industry for them to submit their problems. But as soon as students can show good performance, the word will spread. At CMU-Rwanda we receive three times more problems submitted by industry than we can actually handle.

9)    Get paid internships from local and regional enterprises

In Africa (and in some European countries) the tradition is that students’ internships are not paid for. As a result, those internships are often useless as there is no real commitment from the hosting company to mentor and provide the student with a meaningful work experience during the internship. That is completely different when they pay for the internship. Again this requires the business to believe that the students will be able to perform the job proposed. This is also a way for the private sector to contribute to improving Higher Education by financing internships for the best students who can be potential future employees.
Here I recommend this option for Dean’s List students only (see principle 5). The university could grant academic credits for the students who do well during their internship.

When implementing principles 7, 8, and 9 for graduate programs, it will offer students the possibility to spend at least 30-40% of their graduate program in direct contact with industry. This should reduce the gap identified earlier and guarantee better employment of the graduating students.

Finally I suggest using alumni network to monitor students’ employment.

10) Organize and mobilize alumni networks

Alumni organizations are well developed at American universities. They serve many purposes: develop a network of alumni that can be tapped into by graduating students for employment support, by the university for fund raising, and for other purposes.
Alumni organizations were not possible in Africa in the past due to the high cost of communication but free e-mail and social networks have now reduced that cost to almost zero.
Africa cannot afford to continue investing in universities that deliver students that are unprepared to work in the country or regional economy. Alumni networks can be used to track the employment of students after they graduate. Statistical data can then easily be collected showing the percentage of students finding  jobs over the years after graduation, the level of income they earn, and the types of jobs they are hired for. This, in turn, can be made publicly available in an anonymous statistical form granting some monitoring of the data to prevent fraud. That data will indicate how successful a university is measured by the career data of their students, allowing students and their families to select the best universities and encouraging the other universities to improve their quality of education if they want to survive.
Student alumni should also be used as University Ambassadors in their communities to help with student’s recruitment.

Each principle described here and applied by university departments can be monitored for progress. For principles one and two, the department can monitor the number of faculty applying the full Bloom model in their courses and using MOOCs content to improve their course content. For principle 3, survey results can be monitored over time and be used as a quality indicator of courses in the department. Principle 4 can be implemented at the department level (and better at the university level). The number of students engaged in the Dean’s List program is another quality indicator that should progress over time. The number of industry visiting professors, the number of problems submitted by industry and the number of paid internships offered are all indicators of a better integration with the regional industry that will surely attract more students to the department. Careful monitoring of those indicators should be used for setting goals for the department and encourage all stakeholders to contribute to the general improvement of the quality of education delivered.

These principles are not magic bullets, but the advantage of these ideas is that they have no or small cost associated with them. They “only” require sustained efforts by the department faculty motivated to improve the quality of the education they deliver.


[1] Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

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intlprof said...

Sailing too close to possible lurid privatization advice, and if not, the standard academic mettle in this blog may help somewhat today ... but there is nothing new added to the old conventions of standard university models.