Towards a different ICT pedagogy for Africa

By Vincent Kizza, Uganda

Many years back at university, we were extremely excited about the various instructional pedagogies such as lectures, discussion, discovery, etc. However, when many of us went to the field, we soon realised that there was a big trade-off between adapting some of these methodologies and the pressure to complete the extensive syllabus. We were left with no alternative than to resort to the lecture method, which – in our view – allowed one to move at a fairly high speed. Worse still, we were judged by the number of students in our classes who passed the national examinations with a grade of “1”, the highest possible.

School children at Gayaza High School

These were also the times when Piaget’s theories of child centeredness were gaining ground, at least in my country. Personally, I didn’t believe in the need for it and was at ease with the status quo that effectively portrayed the teacher as the impeccable subject expert on the one hand and the student as an “empty” recipient on the other. I believed that there was absolutely no need to do things differently.

Several years later, though, the public seriously began to question the delivery of the curriculum amidst issues like the occurrence of high failure rates, a lack of standards, the low relevancy of the school products to industry, extremely low student and teacher morale, among others. On the other hand, we, the teachers, took refuge in explaining away our “poor performance” solely as the result of poor remuneration, and it made perfect sense in many quarters.

Nevertheless, deep in my mind, I strongly believed that the way I was teaching was terribly faulty and that I urgently needed to get to the crux of the problem. Could it be a result of the way I was taught myself?

Personally, I was constantly saddened by the fact that even with a BSc degree in physics under my arm, I was not able to fix a bulb, socket or radio. So the internal questioner in me kept giving me sleepless nights. Did I get the right education?

Then, more by God’s grace than design, several ICT initiatives came to the country and we were introduced to the “magic machines”. Sooner rather than later, terms such as word processing, spreadsheets, Internet and networks became buzzwords, and some of us – the most enthusiastic – started on things such as HTML, JavaScript, CSS and computer simulations.

However, with the reality of the basic literacy gap closing in, a new wave of curriculum–technology integration has also set in. At present, skills and tools are more emphasised, but studies continue to reveal that there are still very few teachers who use ICT in their teaching. It is this group of early-adopters that needs urgent attention since what they do impacts directly on the motivation of the other laggards to take up technology.

Furthermore, it is apparent that, because of the need for a completely new skill set commonly referred to as “the 21st century skills”, which has been imposed by a globalised world, the teachers and the students – working together – not only have to be in control of the content but also of how students learn.

All this calls for a radical examination of how best to deliver a curriculum using technology.

The African classroom, as opposed to its American and European counterparts where the dissemination of Web 2.0 technology and e-science grid infrastructures have already taken off, is generally characterised by large student numbers (over 50 in my school), high student-to-computer ratios (typically 10:1) and physical architectures not initially meant for technology use. Other negative features include frequent power cuts and the lack of key tools such as LCD projectors.

All this calls for a different but probably similar approach that takes into consideration the realities of the African context. What do you do when power goes off, for instance? Do you start with a simulation or hands-on with real materials? Is hands-on necessary in an ICT-enhanced lesson? How can it possibly be done? How do we factor in the high student-computer ratios?

Several years of helping teachers integrate technology, observing others and using it myself have enabled me to come up with a few best practices, at least some that are tailored to my class. First and foremost, the teacher should be able to discern situations where it does not add value to use technology and avoid using technology for its own sake.

Furthermore, whatever approaches are chosen, the ICT designs need to take account of the different learning styles of the students and hence choose multimedia and digital resources that match a wide range of these styles.

My pedagogical approach is more inclined toward science, the field with which I am most familiar. My hope is that my colleagues will suggest other areas for ICT use, including the arts. I hasten to emphasise that in no way am I recommending or suggesting that my view be taken as a panacea for every situation.

During the first part of the lesson, students work in collaborative groups to explore the lesson concept hands-on. As the teacher, you guide the groups in their exploration of the lesson concept by asking guiding questions to encourage observations and interactions with the actual phenomena being studied. For example, if your class is studying the physics topic of machines, divide the students into groups and give each group a set of pulleys, masses and a spring balance.

Then ask them if they can set up the system to lift masses. How many ways can they make this happen? Next, have them make drawings of ways that do and ways that don’t work. Have them explore the possibility of using a combination of pulleys and to record what happens. This kind of exploration offers the advantages of hands-on interaction with objects and systems. Students work with and get the feel for real materials and a sense for how they can interact in the face of guiding questions from the teacher and peer discussion. Such experience is fundamental to concept development, especially for secondary-school-level learners.

Concept explanation is the second part of a technology lesson, with the teacher asking the class questions about what they have observed and what it means. For example, what happens to the effort used as more masses are added to the pulley and which pulley system required the least force with given masses? Ask the students which concepts they are studying. Identify and define the concepts and list associated words, phrases and related vocabulary. At this point, your first computer-enhanced part of the lesson can come into play as you show students images of other pulleys, many of which can be found on the Internet. You can for instance, show them that pulleys come in many configurations and serve many purposes. The LCD projector can come in handy as the teacher leads the rest of the class and harmonises the different viewpoints for the large class.

Concept extension is the final part of the lesson. Here, students show they can extend their understanding of the lesson concept to a variety of applications and in a more abstract form. This part of the lesson can be used as both additional student practice and for assessment. The concept extension is where you can really leverage the power of computers and the Internet as learning tools. In particular, I like to have student groups use concept simulations to extend and test their understanding of the lesson concept.

A search of the Internet will yield a number of interactive circuit simulations, ranging from simple to complex. Some of them may require that Java, Java VM, flash player, or other tools be enabled, so the teacher should check this beforehand and have these tools ready offline; otherwise students may require lots of time downloading them from the unreliable Internet. The real power of simulations as learning tools comes from the fact that variables in a system can be changed quickly and predictions or hypotheses can be immediately tested. Students can determine if they do or do not understand a concept very quickly.

Whenever I teach with such an approach, the students respond positively to the combination of hands-on investigations and simulations. They comment that the hands-on “exploration” gives them a real context for the simulation “extension” part of the lesson, while the simulations gives them a chance to quickly build and test many different kinds of models.

Vincent Kizza (left)

Vincent Kizza will take part in a discussion on ICT in schools at eLearning Africa. We would like to encourage you to comment on this article.

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