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Reform institutions of higher learning

Above the butchery hang a signpost for a university branch. One of many scattered throughout the country in small towns.

In some places you have different universities advertised in ramshackle facilities. The concept of a university campus is dying and universities are spreading themselves thin yet even within the campus human resource capacity is still a challenge.

This need not be the case since globally there are better ways of getting to far flung students without necessarily creating micro campuses in filthy places that do not fit the status of a university.

I am well aware that most universities are underfunded and must bridge the funding gap with evening programmes.

In virtually all universities globally, such programmes are held within the campus with additional distance learning using modern technologies such as video conferencing, Skype, Google Hangout and more recently Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs).

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In the next few years, Moocs will re-define learning in universities and colleges. It is likely to be a boost for African universities that have scarce human resources especially in highly technical programmes.

Universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology are partnering with other Universities such as Harvard and Boston College to create free Moocs. The traditional teaching methods will change.

Course materials in especially top universities globally are delivered on open online platforms. Educators are supplementing their materials with videos, reading and problem sets.

In addition they provide interactive user forums to enhance the learning environment. Moocs will get the best professor deliver the given content while those who ordinarily teach the subject will supplement the teaching.

Whilst some lecturers simply have the talent to deliver content in the best understandable way, others are great in putting together the best knowledge.

These collaborations will bring out the best of education that we have never experienced before. It will also weed out those who have been riding on other’s backs without making tangible contribution to the learners.

Proponents of these new learning initiatives say it will benefit institutions from especially developing countries that need to modernise their degree programmes.

Moocs for example will enable us build expensive engineering degree programmes leveraging on top global institutions.

There is virtually no doctoral holders to teach modern cyber security programmes yet moocs will help resolve such a problem much faster and more effectively. Crowded lecture rooms will be minimised as lecturers will be forced to improve lectures.

Moocs lectures are short and focused, usually an hour at the most, addressing a single topic, this in itself will redirect lectures to examine every bit of material as well as their teaching methods.

Further, there is a compelling case of changing learning styles in Africa (where students at an early age go through rote learning then in college they compete to be the best relative to other students) where collaborative learning is nonexistent.

Learning should be simplified and students collaborate with others to enhance learning. Research has shown that learners are different from each other.

These differences affect the way learners comprehend and lecturers should take these differences into consideration. Cognitive scientists as well as educators recognise these differences.

While many of the scientists seek to discover general principles of learning, we all must acknowledge that there are differences among students. Understanding these differences and applying that understanding in the classroom can improve everyone’s learning experience.

Unlike the traditional style of teaching, Moocs cover a number of teaching styles, thus making it the most relevant mode of teaching in the 21st century.

Leveraging on technology will therefore help consolidate resources, offer quality education and improve efficiency. For maximum efficiency, we need to consolidate all new public universities into one institution, say State University of Kenya with campuses in all county headquarters.

Each campus will be mission oriented. For example, the State University of Kenya (SUK) at Egerton will focus on agriculture and agricultural value addition creating industries that will support their research.

SUK at Coast could focus on marine and tourism – deepening the production of marine products for export and so on. Since SUK will become the umbrella institution, lecturers can be transferred to different colleges to enable our country to de-tribalise institutions of higher learning.

We can kill two birds (inefficiency and tribalism) with one stone (a single policy statement).

As former US President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.” This is what thinking out of the box is all about.

The writer is a senior lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former permanent secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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