How Ghana’s universities are trying to open the doors of learning

Distance learning is one way for Ghanaian entrepreneurs like Sena Ahadji to earn degrees without giving up their work. Francis Kokoroko/Reuters

Thirty years ago, there was really only one way to be a university student in Ghana: finish school, enrol as a full-time candidate and dedicate yourself entirely to your studies.

There were barely any opportunities for those who were already working and wanted to study part time. Pregnant women, elderly people, those with disabilities and others who were ill and could not easily reach a physical campus stood little chance of ever going to university.

But over the past decade the West African country’s universities have rolled out a number of initiatives to improve access for full time students and those who were traditionally shut out. In 2006 and 2007, there were only about 88,000 students at the country’s public universities.

By 2013 and 2014, despite a few dips along the way, that figure had climbed to just about 128,000. The World Bank estimates total tertiary enrolment at about 14% of the population. There are no collated figures for distance learners, but my own institution, the University of Ghana, currently has about 6000 enrolled.

There have been major gains in university access. But research I have conducted shows that challenges remain, particularly when it comes to how accessible distance courses and related technology are to part time learners.

Why it matters

A World Bank report from 2002 identified distance education as a crucial player in Ghana’s higher education sector. It is key to access in a country whose universities have struggled with poor infrastructure and limited resources in the decades since independence.

It was also identified as being important for Ghana’s development. Research has shown how valuable distance and open learning is to the economies of developing countries. It allows for skills development without removing people from the labour force.

Then there’s the benefit to individual learners, which has been well documented all over the world.

What universities are doing

Both Ghana’s public and its private universities have responded to people’s calls for less rigid, campus-bound, full-time structures. Their major interventions involve e-learning, traditional distance education or evening and weekend classes.

Sandwich courses are also becoming popular. These are generally year-long courses during which students work in their chosen industry. In this way they gain practical experience, then attend classes during long vacations. The University of Ghana, for instance, offers a “sandwich diploma”.

These methods are an important way for universities to address Ghana’s skills gaps. Ghana Technology University College realised that artisanship was being supplanted in some fields by academic training. Its Centre for Technical Education and Training was set up in response to this. The centre offers three-month accelerated certificate programmes in multimedia, information technology and engineering.

These programs seek to equip students with practical skills that relate to current technological trends and advancements. This makes them quickly employable.

The universities of Ghana and Cape Coast, as well as Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, are among those that have rolled out distance education programmes. Any lectures involved in these courses are available in the universities’ learning centres and campuses, which are scattered across the country.

Programmes including commerce, accounting, management and education are offered on the weekends and in the evenings at these learning centres for working Ghanaians. This allows people who are juggling busy work schedules with family and community commitments to study towards a degree. Generally, students are given modules to read in their own time and then have weekly face-to-face sessions with tutors at the learning centres.

The technological edge

E-learning is becoming ubiquitous worldwide. Ghana is no exception. All of its major universities have put in place technology based distance education measures so they can meet prospective students’ demands.

Some of these demands were outlined in a study I conducted with potential adult learners. They wanted to earn an online degree with a properly accredited and recognised university. But they struggled to find such degrees at affordable rates and found that most online learning programmes weren’t as interactive as they would have liked.

Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology is involved in an interesting public-private partnership with Vodafone in Ghana that could provide a template for others. The university has set up the Kumasi Virtual Centre for Information Technology, which is responsible for converting printed materials into electronic mode. These are then sent out to distance learners on the institution’s e-learning platform.

The institution anticipated that students might struggle with connectivity. So it negotiated with Vodafone to provide mobile modems at regional centres that don’t have broadband access or wireless connections. The project has been very successful.

Technology has also been used to take Ghanaian institutions beyond the country’s borders. Ghana Technology University College has set up e-learning centres in Togo and Gabon.

Challenges remain

Ghana’s universities have made great strides with distance and open learning in the past decade. But having spent some time in the US, I can confidently say that there is much more to be done, particularly in terms of accessibility.

When it comes to e-learning, both the content and the technology must be user friendly. Universities will need to do some work on this front so that their distance learners are given all the opportunities they need to learn new skills, master new technology – and be supported throughout the process.

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