What happens when you pair an African academic living in the diaspora with one who is teaching and conducting research on the continent?
That’s the thinking behind the African Academic Diaspora Support to African Universities programme, which I have been involved in since November 15 last year (2015). The programme is organised by the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and African scholars in the diaspora with their counterparts at African universities. It hopes to invigorate the social sciences, which include subjects like Geography, Population Studies and Sociology, and to groom Africa’s future social scientists.
I am a Ghanaian living in the US, and an Associate Professor of Geography at Delaware State University. I’m part of a large African academic diaspora. We have much to offer our colleagues on the continent. Our institutions are doing cutting edge research and teaching, and we’re able to offer great support to scholars at Africa’s less well resourced universities. Working with us also gives postgraduates on the continent a broader world view.
But the benefits don’t just flow one way. Diaspora scholars can learn an enormous amount about research, theories and practise from those still in Africa.
My partner on the programme was Dr John Boateng of the University of Ghana’s Department of Adult Education and Human Resource Studies.
Our project investigated the role of technology in student-instructor interaction and its impact on learning outcomes. We were particularly interested in how universities can adopt new technology for teaching and learning. It was important to understand how any technology we chose could be adapted to the Ghanaian context.
We had several tasks. Firstly, we needed to introduce students to new technologies for teaching and learning. We had to get the postgraduate students he was supervising involved in research about these technologies. And we had to disseminate our findings through publication.
I travelled to Accra to launch the project, but since then Dr Boateng and I have worked electronically using WhatsApp, Skype, emails and Google Hangouts. There have been times when Ghana’s erratic power supply and internet network failures have got in the way, but these technologies have generally proved invaluable.
Giving students great opportunities
Students are central to the CODESRIA programme. The skills and knowledge I’ve acquired working in the US allowed me to help Dr Boateng set up assessment exercises for one of his courses that went beyond traditional exams and tests. He had noticed that students’ strengths and inadequacies cropped up during courses and wanted to learn how to intervene early – before the exam stage. I helped him to design interventions.
It was wonderful to work directly throughout the programme with postgraduate students.
These students were able to get involved in practically implementing a pilot research project. They learned about the different research instruments we used, how to understand the database we created and how to code data. They didn’t just help to collect data, as is often the case for student researchers. The students have also learned the difference between focus group discussion and in-depth interview skills, as well as the art of transcription.
The students helped with the meat of the project: Dr Boateng and I taught them how to identify gaps in the existing literature around our project’s central issues. For example, I told them to review previous work on technology-mediated student-faculty interactions. That included any work, qualitative and quantitative, about teaching and technology; technology and learning; social media and learning; teaching methods, technology and learning.
As they reviewed, they had to pay particular attention to the broad theoretical debates on these topics. They were looking out for variables on online course management systems and learning, online management system and teaching, types of social media platforms used for teaching, students’ perceptions and use of teaching and learning technologies, and so on.
Then they were asked to write up their review of this work with the intention of publishing it in a scholarly journal. This is still a work in progress; the students have worked hard but need more guidance to get their writing journal-ready.
The students’ involvement at every step inculcates in them a sense of ownership. They have shown a high sense of responsibility and a desire to learn. They don’t offer excuses when they make mistakes. Instead, they enthusiastically make corrections and forge ahead.
I find this attitude tremendously exciting. I know I am not wasting my time and energy, and that Africa’s potential future social scientists are gaining incredible experience.
Our collaboration has gone beyond the boundaries of the original proposal we submitted to CODESRIA. Dr Boateng and I have worked well together. We’ve encouraged each other’s interests and curiosity and developed new interests. I’m delighted to report that we’ve published one journal article based on this collaboration. More will follow.
This kind of initiative, which brings diaspora scholars and their counterparts on the African continent together, is very worthwhile. Successful interventions will undoubtedly lead to an increase in research findings and publications by scholars living on the continent.
More importantly, postgraduate students who get involved will come to understand the essence of scholarship. They’ll be able to see that becoming a scholar of repute is not beyond their reach, no matter where they live and work.