Rethinking higher education in Africa

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Gordon Adomdza, Associate Professor at Ashesi University in Ghana, explains why we need to educate the next generation to be ethical and entrepreneurial leaders.

Aisha Schnellmann: How has higher education evolved over the years in Ghana and comparable African countries, and what are the key roles of universities today?

Gordon Adomdza: In the sixties, many higher education institutions were built in Africa to train people for the civil service. Their curriculums focused on rote learning, which meant that students often learned concepts without understanding how to apply them in practice. Unfortunately, for most universities in Africa, not much has changed since.

Sub-Saharan Africa has been touted as the region that will power the next phase of global population growth. But its rate of graduate unemployment continues to be high, which is an indication that to future-proof the careers of graduates, the universities have to train them differently.

I believe that the role of universities in today’s society is to equip our youth with the skills, knowledge, and mindset they need to solve complex systemic problems such as poverty and inequitable access to healthcare. They should also help students develop the courage to effect necessary change. This cannot be achieved through rote learning.

“The role of universities in today’s society is to equip our youth with the skills, knowledge, and mindset they need to solve complex systemic problems.”

AS: What are the qualities that members of the next generation need to develop so that they can confront these problems effectively?

GA: Systemic problems are inherently complex, involve multiple stakeholders, and often lack a single clear solution. So universities must foster critical and holistic thinkers who are able to approach problems and issues with empathy and emotional intelligence. In other words, the goal is to produce young leaders with entrepreneurial and ethical mindsets.

AS: What do you mean by an entrepreneurial mindset?

 GA: People who have an entrepreneurial mindset are not afraid to question the status quo and are motivated to solve problems innovatively, creating value from limited resources and improving existing systems – whether by venturing out on their own and starting their own businesses, or by driving change from within a company or organization.

Teaching students to think like entrepreneurs could make a significant impact on the problem of unemployment in the region, by enabling more graduates to start businesses and eventually hire their peers as employees.

“The goal is to produce young leaders with entrepreneurial and ethical mindsets.”

AS: How can universities design curriculums to educate ethical and entrepreneurial leaders?

GA: They need to find the right balance between imparting the technical knowledge and skills students will need for their careers and promoting critical thinking. At Ashesi University, for example, our curriculum is based on Kolb’s model of experiential learning and involves plenty of project work, with students expected to “do, learn, do” while functioning as a team.

They are then assessed with the help of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which focuses on grading learners on their ability to apply core concepts and create new ones. We also teach our students how to use a variety of approaches to solve problems, such as design thinking.

AS: Could you share an example of how design thinking is taught in the curriculum?

GA: Design thinking takes on the perspective of the person whose problem you are trying to solve. We teach students to prioritize analyzing the problem from multiple perspectives – including that of the “user” – before fixing on a solution. We deliberately slow down the problem-solving process and help students understand how to conduct user research, to ideate and to create prototypes before proposing a solution.

As part of the class, we regularly organize an exhibition aptly named the “Problem Festival” where students present their analysis of the problem (e.g. stakeholders, cause and effect) but are not allowed to talk about a solution. The tagline of the exhibition is “Where problems are analyzed, and solutions are penalized.” By slowing down the problem-solving process, we find that the solutions that students derive at the end are more comprehensive and well thought-out.

“The future of education is hybrid learning. This means that schools will have to find the most effective ways to blend online learning with in-person teaching.”

AS: In the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to rethink education. Will the pandemic have long-term implications for higher education in Africa?

GA: When lessons went completely online, students were left on their own. As a result, pedagogies had to be updated, which has been challenging but also an opportunity. We’ve had to move towards a heutagogy model, in which the curriculum is learner-centered rather than content-centered. As a result, we’ve had to think about how to create a curriculum that is interesting and engaging enough to encourage self-directed learning, while still achieving our core teaching goals.

I think the future of education is hybrid learning. This means that schools will have to find the most effective ways to blend online learning with in-person teaching. For example, how can universities leverage digital technology to facilitate project work and experiential learning?

One thing is clear: COVID-19 has affected education so profoundly that there is no going back to a previous norm. So it is important to take everything we are learning now, during the pandemic, and incorporate it into how we educate in the future.

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