How one start-up university is managing educational continuity
Blended learning is not something new; it has been around for years and is used by many universities. However, the current global health situation has pushed it into mainstream and large-scale usage. It is changing the face of the higher education landscape and has become the springboard model for educating college students worldwide. The various models and techniques of blended learning have been adopted by universities and colleges, centuries-old or brand new alike. African Development University (ADU) in Niger, a new institution starting its fourth year, is one of those who implemented a blended learning model. Like Harvard, Cambridge, or Ashesi University in Ghana, ADU has joined the ranks of schools continuing education using virtual learning technology as their core delivery method. In many ways, ADU is no different from any other university worldwide; it has embraced blended learning as a roadmap to educational continuity.
Taking the first “I” from the university’s Ilimi motto which stands for innovation, African Development University created its unique version of blended learning. It evaluated the situation on the ground in Niger, including its students’ needs, limited resources, health conditions, and the lack of robust Internet infrastructure. As a result of its assessment, the university created a solution that suited its campus and students. Once the decision was made, the university boosted infrastructure, revised the curriculum, and hired staff and faculty to meet its new plan and direction.
ADU’s version of blended learning includes in-person and synchronous teaching. All classes are taught on-campus in the classroom setting. Having students return to the physical campus was the best option for them to continue their education and to provide them with the quality education that they deserve. Virtual classes are taught by remote faculty and are supported by newly hired faculty associates (also known as teaching assistants). The faculty associates lead in-class activities, monitor live-streams, facilitate exams and provide academic support such as tutoring and make-up sessions. In-person classes continue to run as normal with a full-time faculty member. In both class formats, students can partake in engaging discussions and group work with their classmates, and interact with their faculty and faculty associates.
While the global health issue continues, ADU ensures that the classrooms are cleaned each day, and the campus community follows health and safety protocols but one might still wonder why have virtual classes on-campus?
Due to the inadequate internet infrastructure throughout the country, virtual classes are taught on campus. This also allows the university to provide increased, intentional support for the ongoing learning process. These infrastructure challenges nationwide resulted in the university boosting its internet capabilities, obtaining a learning management system (LMS), and restructuring its curriculum format so that faculty and students can take advantage of the learning process. These intentional actions placed the university in a unique position to deliver limited, interrupted education in the country. Limited because the internet goes down or becomes extremely slow periodically.
Although African Development University has taken these drastic steps to ensure the continuation of learning; it has done so at a significant cost. As a small school and growing institution with tight resources, it had to be resourceful. Creating interactive classes included the use of repurposed, refurbished, or personal laptops and the purchase of video cameras. Campuswide, it required boosting the on-campus, Internet capacity and spending lots of time encouraging and persuading students to give the new format a chance. It also helped to share the benefits of adapting and the advantages to be gained, like a student attending university in Australia, the USA, or Europe.
Like many students around the world, ADU students enjoy interpersonal experiences and interactions with their faculty. With roughly 80% of their courses being virtual, the unfamiliar setting and format posed a challenge for them, yet students completed their first months of classes. They have been open, determined, and demonstrated the willingness to adjust to pursue their education. In one word - resilience. Even under tight financial constraints, including reducing the anticipated number of incoming students, the university is achieving and providing the robust education Nigeriens deserve.
The blending learning model also allowed for the diversification of the faculty, and expansion of the class offerings and majors students can choose from as part of their degree. Since faculty no longer needed to travel to campus to teach their modules, ADU could recruit additional faculty from various places/institutions to be a part of its community. Roughly 20% of the semester's curriculum is taught in-person by mostly local faculty while the remaining 80% is virtual, and taught by both local, and international faculty from countries like Ghana, Nigeria, and the USA.
Like many developing countries, the pandemic has taken its toll financially on Niger. As a result, the university as well as its students have suffered significant, financial loss. The recovery worldwide is slow but even more so for a nation such as Niger that already has profound economic challenges. The increased capacity to provide virtual classes at the magnitude of which it is doing has taken its financial toll on the University and its community. However, it is what ADU believes is best, and serving the people of Niger in this capacity is of utmost importance.
ADU’s blended learning model fits the university’s ethos and the growing sentiment for innovation and development for Niger’s youth in their quest to raise the nation’s economic standing. ADU is grounded in liberal arts from the US models, with the French educational system of Niger and includes local, cultural context. It is the only university of its kind in Niger, and one of the few within the Sahel region, striving to provide students with the foundations of critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership, networking, essential life skills, and other critical skills for the future.
The model developed by ADU was one that required a bit of ingenuity, creativity, resources, and knowledge of one’s local context. It is not unimaginable that other universities with similar national challenges, in terms of resources and infrastructure, could not modify for other countries. Based on your location and resources, it might take some strategic planning, inventory assessment, international outreach, and grit, but the possibility to restart your educational system, even if it is only a few classes at first, exists.
If you are not familiar with Niger, let me provide context. It is a landlocked country with most of its terrain in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Most global economics statistics about the poverty and underdevelopment of Niger are from predominant sources such as The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), or the United Nations (UN). In a July 2020 article by the Global Finance Magazine, Niger was listed as the 5th poorest country out of 191 based on data from the 2019 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report. The ranking is based on Gross Domestic Product-Purchasing Power Parity (GDP-PPP). Despite the country’s extreme poverty, it has been making efforts to improve its standing. Those efforts are evident in its youth.
The ADU students are part of a growing youth section seeking to make a difference in their country’s economic standing, globally. They are a group of creative, innovative, and determined students who care about their community, their culture, and their future. Niger is a country striving to build its resources, and the students are part of that process. ADU students are involved in internships predominantly in the capital city of Niamey, developing entrepreneurship ventures to serve gaps in their society and social entrepreneurship to serve the needs around their communities.
ADU is one of only two universities in Niger that has moved to operate under the blended learning model. The decision to embrace a blended learning model provided faculty capacity worldwide to teach students in subject matters relevant to their future and the nation
The university’s administration is simultaneously pleased and challenged by its continued academic progress. However, it is resilience that keeps the university going for its students. Thus, the staff and administration are driven to create a new generation of leaders for Niger, the Sahel, and Africa, against the odds.
After reading this article and if touched by the university’s drive and efforts, please consider paying it forward in any of the following ways - become a ‘give-back’ faculty, adjunct faculty, or mentor; create a scholarship fund or offer student internships; or donate your services, goods, or money. All gifts to the institution will help grow and build a generation of leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs to serve the country and the region.
Author Karla Fraser is Vice-President of Student and Community Affairs at African Development University. The university is a start-up that embraces the liberal arts educational framework in its academic and non-academic spheres. Her goal is to help build a student-centered experiential learning model that creates a mindset shift in Nigerien students, that can ultimately be replicated in start-up or established universities on the African continent.
This article is also published on Medium.com and LinkedIn.
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-- Karla A. Fraser, Blended Learning in Higher Education – Niger, West Africa Roseapple Global, LLC
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