Since 2018, higher education institutions across Sierra Leone have been working together to improve the quality of higher education in the country and better prepare graduates for the job market.
Here, Samuel Weekes, Project Director for the 'Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone' partnership, shares how the project is adapting to Covid-19.
Funded by DFID, the Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone (AQHEd-SL) partnership aims to help graduates develop vital skills required by employers - such as critical thinking, communication and ICT skills.
AQHEd-SL brings together higher education institutions across Sierra Leone and other partners to address these skills gaps on a national scale. The project is led by the University of Sierra Leone, with King’s College London providing grant management support.
The first priority for the project is to review and update curricula, with two aims in mind - to help students develop key skills required by employers, and to redress gender imbalances. The curriculum revision is being rolled out in stages starting with we call “anchor institutions” – University of Sierra Leone, Njala University and University of Makeni - and focusing on four distinct disciplines, or “clusters” - Health, Agriculture, STEM and Management and Accounting. Based on lessons learned from the curriculum review experience with the anchor universities, developments and changes will then be cascaded to four other higher education institutions in Sierra Leone.
Covid-19 - adapting to changing plans
In 2020, the plan was to continue holding face-to-face workshops in curriculum redesign and critical thinking, as well as further face-to-face meetings with wider stakeholders and career fairs. Unfortunately, however, over recent months the Covid-19 pandemic has changed plans worldwide. Universities and higher education institutions are currently closed in Sierra Leone. Consequently, AQHEd-SL’s planned face-to-face meetings and workshops could not happen.
Adapting to such a major change is a big challenge for any project, despite the recent experience that Sierra Leone has from tackling the Ebola epidemic. The AQHEd-SL partnership’s initial response was to rearrange the timing of some activities, so the team was able to focus initially on taking stock of the situation and planning to determine the most effective ways to continue work. This also enabled us to reflect on the key challenges for higher education teaching in Sierra Leone in response to the current pandemic:
- University internet and systems: Widespread closing of universities is a situation that we did not prepare for and there are still improvements that need to be made to university systems and portals.
- Technical skills of teaching staff: Providing continued teaching online depends on lecturers uploading teaching materials to the university portals but many face challenges as they may not have experience working with the online format.
- Access for students: With students now working from home, many are far away from university portals, with no or unreliable internet connections. Access is also dependent on whether students have paid their fees and registered for their courses.
Connecting via Whatsapp
The third of these challenges - access for students - is the biggest. While our universities are working hard to ensure that systems and staff develop the tools and skills for online teaching and learning, the success of this work depends on students’ capacity to access materials.
Over recent months we have been experimenting with a range of tools and have found that, for many students, the only viable option for connecting is currently WhatsApp, one of the most common communication apps in the country and also one that only requires a very low internet connection to operate.
This is now feeding into our work, and is also influencing the way we are working with lecturers and staff too. For example, with the critical thinking component of our curriculum revision, we have found that sending information to lecturers and answering questions about incorporating critical thinking skills in the classroom via WhatsApp has been effective at engaging them and stimulating discussion.
For the curriculum review process within AQHEd-SL, much of the work is usually done via workshops and other face-to-face meetings. As curriculum redesign is a major component of our project, it has been important to use alternative approaches, such as meetings over Zoom and Skype, to ensure that the work goes ahead. We are also exploring holding stakeholder engagement meetings via video links.
These discussions have helped us to understand more about what is needed in terms of technology to support learning in Sierra Leone. We hope that, through these current difficult experiences, we are also developing a more robust foundation and understanding about how to overcome challenges both now and for Sierra Leone’s higher education institutions in the future.
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The Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and is managed on behalf of DFID by a consortium led by the British Council that includes PwC and Universities UK International.