Covid-19 shows schools and universities have been left behind

Monday May 18 2020

Whereas kindergarteners in Europe and North

Whereas kindergarteners in Europe and North America are working on small class projects that build creativity and problem-solving skills, our primary-school age children in Africa are memorizing science questions and answers. Net photo 

By Charles Sendegeya

A visitor to Makerere University’s website in the last couple of weeks will have seen a front and centre banner leading to an uncharacteristically well-done and colourful page with Covid-19 information and updates. In these days when all our schools and universities have been closed, one would expect to see a prominent link to e-learning resources for students. There’s a link to what appears to be an e-learning portal at the bottom of the university’s home page, but it is a dead-end link! The landing page of a large university in neighbouring Kenya (University of Nairobi) also leads with Covid-19 updates but also includes a functional link to some kind of e-learning resources for students.
Other issues
Why do I single out Makerere University, my alma mater? If our educational system is to be prepared for an already rolling industrial revolution, higher institutions of learning would set the pace. In these days of massive disruption of the traditional class or lecture room, we find that our universities and even top city schools where parents pay millions for day school appear to run like they did 10 years ago.
Although there are on-going challenges with broadband internet access in Africa, there is already sufficient basic coverage to drive innovation in our institutions. Unfortunately, the expectations that we (I speak here for parents) have of our institutions of learning are unusually low. Schools into which we pay millions in tuition do not buy any computers or equip teachers with skills to prepare digital courseware. We now find ourselves receiving assignments via WhatsApp or resorting to TV for make-up instruction for our children (like we did in the 1990s).
New approaches
As a mechanical engineering student at Makerere at the start of the millennium, I had a sessional lecturer who turned up for two semesters supposedly teaching engineering drawing without ever mentioning geometric dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T). When I arrived for my first job interview abroad, the person interviewing me asked if I had any experience with GD&T. You guessed right, that had never come up in any of my engineering lectures. What on earth would one accomplish in mechanical engineering drawing without learning dimensioning techniques!
It seems to me that our schools and higher institutions of learning work tirelessly at simply maintaining status quo. New approaches to instruction are emerging that will render our schools and the qualifications our children get irrelevant. Instead of our schools looking to the future and to driving innovation and creativity, the focus is on transmission of knowledge and passing examinations to obtain certificates. Whereas kindergarteners in Europe and North America are working on small class projects that build creativity and problem-solving skills, our primary-school age children in Africa are memorizing science questions and answers. School term after another, we take our children through this drudgery only to emerge without the skills to succeed in an ever-changing world of work. There are two key areas for change in our schools: experiential learning (to integrate knowledge in real world applications) and computation, to harness the power of computers in efficient problem solving. One need not have expensive school facilities in order to engage learners in experiential learning.
Our six-year old daughter was recently asked to find a container at home into which to fit a small number of ice cubes. And working with a parent, she was required to devise a method to arrive at the correct number in order to learn about ice cube attributes (length and width). The following week, she was asked to build a replica dog kennel. As children get older, school projects become more sophisticated.
Problem-solving by learning computer programming is another area that our schools can take up to build innovative pedagogy. As a young man fresh from university in Kampala, I often saw scores of individuals come into work with a laptop computer (that was 15 years ago). However, for the majority, the computer is used for document processing and internet browsing. Our schools must empower learners to do more, to learn to write computer programmes in a variety of languages.
The electronic commerce company Jumia, touted as an African startup, has set up its development hub in Portugal because they are unable to find adequate software development expertise in Africa.
We find ourselves in such circumstances because after many years of teaching computer science, Makerere University cannot find resources to build and maintain a basic e-learning platform. Or at an even more elementary level, most secondary schools in Kampala where there is reasonable fixed broadband internet access will not take advantage of free Google Sites during the Coronavirus lockdown to upload learning resources for students!
Rise to the occasion
In order to turn our schools around, parents must wake up to realize where we are. Our schools and higher institutions of learning are still living in the past and preparing young people to enter a world where they will have no competencies to work and thrive. The coronavirus disruption that threatens continuity (even in posh schools in town) will also present a unique opportunity to rethink our education system.

Sendegeya is a product development engineer based in Canada.

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