30 Mar, 2023

Building Resilience: Strengthening African Higher Education Institutions in Times of Disruption

In this blog, Krista Cecille Samson, Research and Communications Officer at Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) and Edwin Rwigi, Programme Officer (Higher Education Programme), PASGR, share highlights from a recently held webinar.

Faculty in SSA

On 16th March 2023, the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) and Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA) hosted a webinar as part of their ongoing series on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.

The webinar focused on 'Institutional Support and Capacity Strengthening for African Higher Education Institutions in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic'. The webinar provided insights and discussion on ways to support and strengthen the capacity of African higher education institutions during the pandemic. 

With the onset of the COVID pandemic, African Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) had to reconsider their approach to distance learning, with some suspending teaching and learning altogether. According to a survey by the International Association of Universities (IAU), 77% of African HEIs closed their campuses for most of 2020 and into 2021 (Marinoni et al., 2020). 

In the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, many HEIs in the Global North started exploring and adopting online learning due to its benefits, such as increased learning efficiency, reduced costs, and greater flexibility (Farahat, 2012). However, there was little investment in online learning in HEIs in sub-Saharan Africa, except for South Africa. As a result, most African universities were not adequately prepared for the sudden shift to online teaching and learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Only 29% of these universities were able to make a successful transition, according to Marinoni et al. (2020). The authors further note that one out of every three African HEIs lacked the ICT infrastructure required for this transition. 

Due to the sudden shift from in-person teaching and learning to e-learning for many African HEIs, it is not surprising that there were several challenges. Some of these included high rates of ICT illiteracy, limited capacity for interactive online tools for teaching and learning, and limited internet access. Another survey by the IAU highlighted some significant developments in 2021, with up to 82% of African universities offering remote teaching. However, the survey also revealed that 26% of students could not access these classes, highlighting existing inequalities in higher education (Jensen & Marinoni, 2022). 

To address the challenges faced by African HEIs, PASGR developed and implemented ‘Partnership for Pedagogical Leadership in Africa’ (PedaL) in June 2020. This programme, which leverages PASGR’s extensive experience in capacity training for higher education pedagogy and technology-based learning, aims to equip educators with the knowledge and skills necessary for effective online teaching and learning to better cope with future disruptions. From June 2020 to December 2021, 1,879 lecturers from 62 universities and 37 technical and vocational institutions across eight African countries benefited from the programme. 

Professor Eunice Kamaara of Moi University, a PedaL Champion, shared her experience. She was introduced to PedaL where she learned about course design, facilitation, and innovation assessment. Before enrolling in PedaL, she had been an untrained teacher for 30 years. Professor Kamaara described her experience with PedaL as 'awesome' and explained that it transformed her approach to university teaching, empowering her and instilling confidence in her abilities. When the pandemic hit in 2020, she drew on the knowledge she had gained through PedaL. Through an online advertisement, she brought together 15 teachers and taught them how to develop gender-aligned courses, consider the intersections of identity, and prioritise inclusivity and diversity. Professor Kamaara concluded that PedaL had a transformative impact on many people through this community of practitioners. 

The panel discussion was moderated by Dr Pauline Essah, Director of Research and Programmes at ESSA. The panel featured esteemed scholars, including Professor Natasja Holthauzen, Professor in the School of Public Management and Administration at the University of Pretoria; Professor Samuel Amponsah, Associate Professor and Head of Distance Education at the University of Ghana; and Professor Wanjira Kinuthia, Professor of Learning Design and Technology.  

Professor Kinuthia acknowledged that some universities adjusted to the pandemic quickly, demonstrating immense resilience and motivation. She emphasised the importance of these institutions continuing what they started while taking a step back to assess and rectify any issues that may have arisen from eLearning. Professor Kinuthia believes this will help African HEIs strengthen their online and blended learning strategies and ensure they are better equipped to face future challenges. 

Instead of reinventing the wheel, African HEIs should actively participate in the invention process. We can learn from institutions in other places and borrow and implement their successful practices in our own spaces. We should use existing resources and tools, such as Padlet, and explore how to integrate them to identify what works best for our institutions. African HEIs should take the time to explore and experiment with these tools to strengthen their online and blended learning strategies to mitigate future challenges. 

Professor Amponsah shared his experience with the University of Ghana's Department of Distance Education. The department had piloted a fully online model a semester before the outbreak of COVID-19 in Ghana. It enabled them to have a seamless transition when schools shut down. Although most people have returned to conducting in-person classes, questions about sustaining remote teaching and learning have arisen. The solution lies in establishing institutional policies and adopting digital approaches. 

Similarly, Professor Amponsah investigated the challenges and experiences of students with visual impairments during the transition to online teaching and learning. His work has given a voice to the often ignored ‘silent minority,’ as these students refer to themselves. Before the pandemic, it was assumed that students with disabilities had adequate access to education. Despite the University of Ghana's specialised infrastructure and support through the Office of Students with Special Needs, the pandemic revealed limited access to online learning for students with visual impairments. Professor Amponsah's research sheds light on the issue and emphasises the need for increased accessibility in online education. 

During school shutdowns, the Ghanaian government introduced televised teaching to support students. However, visually impaired students who could not benefit from the visual interventions were limited to audio teaching programmes on their mobile phones or radio. Unfortunately, some students could not access either due to their socio-economic backgrounds, which left them disconnected from the learning tools available to their peers who had access to TVs, radios, and mobile phones. 

Professor Holthauzen acknowledged that the University of Pretoria was well-resourced and prepared to deal with pandemic-related disruptions in learning. However, that did not mean they could rest on their laurels; they needed to continue learning and adapting. They built on the lessons they had learned from previous disruptions. After 2015, the University of Pretoria went into full-blown training mode for online teaching and learning. They required at least 25% of the content to be online, including one assessment. It meant that students and faculty needed to become fully conversant with the technicalities of eLearning. 

Providing online teaching and learning is not enough. Ensuring quality across the board is equally important. Professor Holthauzen stressed that HEIs must communicate with their students and adhere to certain principles, such as independent evaluators, to ensure quality. As a community, we should consider and share notes on what is happening. How can we ensure inclusivity? What does our virtual environment look like? Does it resemble the classroom? We must assess these questions and create a culture where we maintain integrity. 

Regular training in online learning is essential for faculty and students. This will ensure everyone is well-equipped for future disruptions. To mitigate disruptions in the future, we need to establish structures and policies. African HEIs should be agile and ready to adapt to changing circumstances. 


About text formats

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.