African Governments Should Leverage On Technology In The Education Sector

By Wallace Mawire

An educational expert, Zach Mbasu has implored African governments to leverage on technology in the education sector.

Zach Mbasu is the Africa Lead at PhET Interactive Simulations.Supported by the Yidan Prize project funds,he leads PhET Interactive Simulations Africa’s strategy and regional activities.

He has experience implementing innovative student-centered educational programmes and learning technologies that turn today’s classrooms into active learning environments.

Mbasu has assisted over 3 000 teachers in improving the math teaching and learning standards in Africa.He is passionate about every leaner’s potential to engage in STEM subjects in exciting and satisfying ways.His research interests include innovating and understanding teaching and learning in technology-enhanced learning environments to facilitate meaningful learning and engagement.

Experts say that African governments should leverage on technology in the education sector especially now that most countries are amending their curriculums with countries like Kenya on  initiating a Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) to deliver learning and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of leaners.CBC is kenya’s new education system introduced in December 2017.

Kenya is reported to be  rapidly advancing its education sector and  just recently,  became the first African nation to implement Coding  as a subject from the primary school level.

However, it is reported that  there is an urgent need to rethink and reform teacher quality in developing Kenya, including improving teacher recruitment, deployment, career progression, professional development, and empowerment.

It is also added that it  will be critical to innovate teacher pedagogical practices, simplify curriculum, and target lagging students, including the use of adaptive learning informed by research and evidence.

Teachers all over the world are now reported to be using PhET interactive simulations  to spark active learning and encourage Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) students to question, explore, and experiment.

“To put it another way: to think like a scientist,” an expert said.

Mbasu has outlined     what he has learned from using the platform and  why it’s critical to support teachers in STEM.He has also outlined  on how virtual workshops and the PhET Fellowship help teachers advance in their STEM subjects and increase the use of high-quality, locally relevant simulations.

He has also shared examples of what works with the PhET Fellowship and what works with professional development to improve teacher practice and student experiences.

How would you explain PHET’s approach to education in Africa and what is the idea behind simulation-based learning? How is this model different from the other learning models out there?

Zach Mbasu :-Founded in 2002 by Nobel Laureate and 2020 Yidan Prize for Education Research Laureate, Carl Wieman, the PhET Interactive Simulations project at the University of Colorado Boulder creates free interactive math and science simulations. PhET simulations are based on extensive education research and engage students through an intuitive, game-like environment where students learn through exploration and discovery.

Simulations provide visual models that make the invisible visible, enabling scientist-like exploration and emphasizing the connections between real-life phenomena and the underlying science to support student learning and inquiry.For example, a teacher might challenge students to use the Circuit Construction Kit simulation to connect batteries, wires, and light bulbs to determine what conditions are necessary to light up a light bulb. A teacher might also challenge students to modify the circuit to make the bulb brighter or light up more than one bulb simultaneously. These activities can then help students to understand the motion of electrons throughout a circuit, a phenomenon that is invisible to the human eye but easy to visualize in the simulation. Through this process, students can learn the principles of electricity and develop scientific thinking skills. Through the use of simulations, PhET also advocates for active learning pedagogies such as interactive demonstrations, concept questions, and guided inquiry, all of which are specific to and appropriate for STEM subjects.

Through the PhET Virtual Workshop, we develop teachers’ skills and knowledge in planning, organizing, and carrying out lessons while integrating the PhET simulations and other resources. PhET simulations are unique from many other tools and particularly appropriate for the African context in a number of ways. When used carefully, PhET simulations help reach learners marginalized by poverty, distance learning, language, and diverse learning needs.First, PhET simulations are freely downloadable from the PhET simulation webpage, and can be used fully offline. They are easy to incorporate into any teaching environment or style. They are suitable for situations where a teacher has only a single device and a projector or for circumstances where students have multiple shared devices, such as computers, tablets, or smartphones. Second, the simulations are available in multiple native African languages. The PhET Translator Network includes a group of more than 40 translators committed to translating PhET resources into native languages, including Amharic, Afan Oromo, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Chichewa, Sesotho, Xhosa, Hausa, Twi, and Akan. Simulations are also fully available in French and Portuguese.Third, simulations incorporate inclusive features to support learners with diverse learning needs and physical differences. These include (1) alternative input that enables learners to engage with sims using a diverse range of inputs, including keyboards and switch devices, (2) interactive description to help learners with vision impairments to engage alongside peers in a fully described interactive experience, (3) sounds and sonification to create a meaningful and immersive soundscape, (4) pan and zoom to enable everyone to get a closer look, and (5) voicing, which provides description delivered via Web Speech to voice simulation information.

  How do you presume this approach will impact STEM education and the future of learning and create inclusivity around STEM learning in the continent especially as we try to demystify the notion that STEM subjects are only for boys?

Zach Mbasu :–In the case of a large classroom with a projector, with the PhET simulation projected on-screen, every student can follow along with shared visuals, which helps students and teachers communicate ideas. Teachers often observe students in their classrooms pointing to the projected simulation during discussions, using it as a common reference to clarify their thoughts. Students usually follow up their observations by asking spontaneous “what if?” questions and suggesting new experiments they want the teacher to test with the simulation. When students  have their own or shared computers or mobile devices, they have substantially more agency to explore math and science on their own. PhET simulations can also be paired with benchtop demonstrations, as they offer complementary features not available with physical equipment.

A key part of addressing gender equity in math and science is ensuring equitable access to learning opportunities while helping all students (especially girls) feel that they are part of the inquiry process. When paired with active learning strategies, boys and girls have a greater opportunity and invitation to apply their curiosity to explore questions and feel empowered to answer them through inquiry.

In Africa, most countries still lag in terms of technology and the infrastructure of proper schooling including electricity, proper classrooms, and student to teacher ratio, with such challenges how positive are you that this innovative idea from PHET will be picked up by various education stakeholders and governments?

Zach Mbasu :–These challenges provide a unique opportunity and a fertile ground for educational innovation. PhET attempts to eliminate these barriers by offering simulations as an open education resource, closing the gaps for access and opportunity to learn about math and science. PhET simulations allow students to have unique, powerful learning experiences that many learners would not have had before, especially in scenarios where physical manipulatives or lab equipment are absent. Simulations also support learning even in well-resourced contexts, as learners can see things that would be invisible in real life – like atoms, electrons, molecules, or vectors – to help understand the underlying causes behind an experimental observation.

In addition, mobile devices are becoming more prevalent, not just in schools but also in families, making them a powerful resource for at-home or distance learning. While PhET simulations are best used with the support of a teacher, PhET simulations are carefully designed to provide implicit guidance so that students follow productive paths of exploration without feeling guided. This is accomplished through careful choice of simulation scope, objects, interactivity, feedback, and sequencing of concepts through screen–elements that are all part of the PhET research and development process.

What are some of the limitations of leveraging on technology as we strive to shift and change the state of the education sector in Africa?

 Zach Mbasu :–Although schools may have access to a few projectors or computers, and some students may come to class with a family mobile device, the reality is that systemic access to devices in education is rare in the continent. Practical, affordable, and sustainable use of technology in education requires planning and a supportive enabling environment backed by political vision, leadership, and commitment from governments and other education stakeholders. Countries that are committed to leveraging technology must improve infrastructure, provide students and teachers with devices, and subsidize internet access or mobile data.

Beyond infrastructure, however, investments must also be made in teacher capacity-building in the use of these new technologies in their specific teaching context (as the kinds of technologies and the processes involved may look different in different fields). Educational leaders must introduce evidence-based teaching techniques and approaches, familiarize teachers with new tools and prepare them to try these approaches. Adapting to new technological tools requires ongoing capacity-building like in-school coaching, communities of practice, and remote support that helps ensure teachers use the technologies appropriately. To this end, supported by the Yidan Prize project funds, PhET launched its inaugural PhET Fellowship program in Africa to nurture a pool of local talent to advocate for a scientific approach to teaching maths and science.

If this tech evolves significantly, is there a possibility that teachers could be obsolete?

Zach Mbasu :-Technology will never replace teachers because the relationships between teachers and their students are essential to educational success. Instead, technology empowers teachers with tools for more effective teaching. While PhET’s simulations are learner-centered, PhET’s African programs are inherently teacher-centered.

Where in Africa has this model of learning been tried and tested and how has the results been like?

Zach Mbasu :–STEM is often perceived as scary because there are widespread beliefs that technical fields are entirely exact, objective, and removed from the human experience. This misunderstanding about the nature of STEM often makes people feel that it is antithetical to the humanities, which people believe to be more creative, expressive, and relevant to everyday life.

PhET simulations help students to see that STEM understanding is driven by curiosity and exploration. PhET simulations generate a playful and enjoyable learning environment and motivate learners to want to know more. The simulations also allow students to explore and investigate independently or in collaborative working groups. They can design experiments, manipulate variables, and collect and analyze data.  By teaching science this way, students realize that, like the humanities, STEM is also an opportunity for creativity and expression and is relevant to their everyday lives.

What do you presume the education sector will look like in Africa in the next 20 years especially now that most governments are working towards amending their curriculum and leveraging on technology?

Zach Mbasu :–With the arrival of artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT, asking the right questions will become more important than knowing the correct answers. At least in the past century, education in Africa has been about remembering the right answers, facts, and figures for many years. With AI tools today that can provide intelligent-sounding solutions, Africa will have to redesign teaching and learning to reward the asking of good questions instead of rote learning. To support this need, PhET is working to support curiosity-driven, inquiry-based learning that aims for deeper questioning and reasoning in math and science.



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