Training for engineering sciences

Dr. Elija Omwenga

ANSTI, the African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions, is an organ of cooperation that embraces African institutions engaged in university-level training and research in the fields of science and technology. Founded in January 1980 through the financial support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Government of Germany, the network has grown over the years to become an effective institution for the development of human resource capacity in the fields of Basic and Engineering Sciences. To date it has 99 member institutions in 33 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

eLA: Could you explain the main focus of the UNESCO / ANSTI ICT project?

Dr Elija Omwenga: The central activity of the African Network for Scientific and Technological Institutions is to train university staff to enable them to convert lecture notes to eLearning format and hence improve on the quality of science and engineering education. In this connection, UNESCO has adopted a multi-stage approach in which a needs assessment covering five East African universities was done and areas that needed attention were identified – chief of these being training in e-content development.

Various e-content training programme approaches have been mounted. First, a detailed e-content training curriculum was developed and used during training-of- trainers workshops. Other activities include assisting the trained staff to organise national training programmes and providing some of them with grants to develop eLearning materials in various subjects in science and engineering.

The original aim of ANSTI, which has remained unchanged over the years, is to develop active collaboration among African scientific institutions to promote research and development in areas of relevance to the development of the region. ANSTI emphasizes the pooling of resources available in the region to provide quality training and research in various scientific disciplines. In order to achieve this objective, ANSTI is engaged in numerous activities that can be grouped into four programme areas: training, seminars, and workshops; publications; the promotion of research and the dissemination of information on issues relating to capacity building in science and technology.

eLA: Is there a special need for teacher training in the engineering and science education sector or is this a rather general problem?

Elija Omwenga: There is a scarcity of engineering and science books in our higher learning institutions, and it is imperative that we address this problem with supplementary instructional materials. There is also a dearth of qualified science and engineering lecturers, and the few who are available should be complemented with technology-mediated methods such as eLearning . In this connection, UNESCO, working through its project (The African Network African Network of Scientific and Technological Institutions– ANSTI) embarked on a project to promote the use of ICT in science and engineering courses.

eLA: Can you give some figures or practical examples on the outcome of the UNESCO / ANSTI ICT project until now?

Elija Omwenga: In order to address the problems of scarcity of books and skilled manpower in the area of science and engineering fields, the UNESCO office in Nairobi, which has regional responsibility for science in Africa, has been pursuing a project to promote the use of ICT in teaching and learning of science and engineering courses. The main activity of this project is the training of university staff to enable them to convert lecture notes into an interactive eLearning format. In this connection, a multi-stage approach was adopted. First, a self-learning course entitled “How to develop e-content” was developed and distributed on CD to staff members from several universities in the region. This CD served as a catalyst to sensitize science and engineering academics in the region to engage in the process of e-content development. A regional e-content training and development workshop was then conducted in Kigali, Rwanda, where 22 participants from twelve African universities from eleven countries were trained and mandated to organise national e-content development workshops in their respective countries.

Three such workshops have been held, and seventy participants drawn from universities in the host countries Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zambia have been trained, with over thirty quality interactive course modules developed. Other major outputs of this project have been the engagement of other trained participants in developing more eLearning modules on CDs; the development and deployment of tools and Internet-based resources to assist in the e-content development process; dissemination of the e-content products through the ANSTI Virtual Learning Center; and the promotion of the of use self-learning courses in getting acclimatized to the process of e-content development. To date over 700 copies of the CD have been distributed to staff from several African countries. Many more staff members have received copies from friends.

eLA: The workshop is designed to explain the principles of creating eLearning content for science and engineering education. Will it be applicable for other subjects of study as well?

Elija Omwenga: Yes! The general principles of e-content development and structuring are the same irrespective of the subject area.

eLA: What do you personally think are the main benefits of technology-enhanced learning and teaching for Africa? What are the critical points?

Elija Omwenga: There are many challenges facing Africa in terms of the quality provision of courseware besides qualified manpower to teach and conduct research. Technology-enhanced learning not only enables scarce staff to teach large numbers, but it also provides an enabling environment for sharing experiences, expertise and possibly expensive equipment and resources through e-laboratories, which otherwise are not within the reach of many universities.

Technology for its own sake is not meaningful for educational use; it must be tailored and be as all-inclusive as possible. In this respect, Africa must be ready to embrace ICTs by developing strategic plans that are realisable. It is feared that with low budgetary allocations for science, technology and related disciplines, the benefits that are likely to occur will not be obvious. The critical issue, therefore, is the need for policy makers and decision makers to awaken to the call for greater emphasis on technology-enhanced education. They then have to improve budgetary allocations for it, enhance the skills of the staff through training and increase access to the computing resources for both staff and students.

eLA: Mr Omwenga, Thank you very much for your time.

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