Undergraduate - Overview

The Kenyan university system sits between two great demands. On the one hand, a variety of institutions - such as banks, NGOs, and the civil service - demand skilled labor, especially people with functional knowledge of mathematics, statistics, and computer science. On the other hand many individuals recognize they need qualifications. The demand for skilled labor has created this demand for degrees. Everyone believes that a university degree increases the chances of getting a decent job, and so interest in degree programs has exploded. The demand for skilled labor only matches up with the demand for qualifications if the quality of the education is high.

Between these two demands sits the University system itself, which struggles to provide adequate education to an exploding student body. Last year, 80,000 students qualified for admission to the national university system, but only 20,000 were accepted — and even this acceptance rate was double that of two years previous. Across the country there are numerous extensions of the main university campus, many of which are in the process of becoming fully independent universities themselves. The university system simply lacks the number of skilled teachers required to properly teach the hordes of students: At Maseno University, lecturers are expected to teach three classes each semester, some with an enrollment of 300 students. Bondo, an extension of Maseno, is on track to become an independent University, but the math department consists of a single lecturer who obtained his Master’s degree less than two years ago from Maseno.

Another problem in Kenyan math education is that the curricula often haven’t been updated in decades, and thus fail to reflect the importance and utility of computation in modern scientific thought. Classes often focus exclusively on the acquisition of computational skills that computers can perform in milliseconds. Additionally, classes promote rote memorization over understanding or problem solving skills, which tends to produce students who are of little or no utility in dynamic working environments.

The result is that students graduate with few applicable skills. Those few who do manage to obtain proficiency in mathematics or statistics are instantly employable in business, government, or the NGO’s; there is little incentive to return to teach, and so the teacher shortage continues.

This situation requires a radical departure from the 19th-century German model of education which has dominated the Western academic system since the Industrial revolution. Recent developments in electronic teaching methods offer one possible solution: High-quality course materials are easily deployed to an arbitrarily large number of students. Meanwhile, electronic homework systems provide assessment tools which surpass traditional homework structures for computer-gradable exercises. The best content and management systems are freely available, so that the greatest part of the work is packaging together existing content and ensuring that the package is appropriate for the Kenyan context.

Additionally, cheaply available broadband Internet has become widely available across Kenya in the last few years and the price of a laptop is now less than the price of a semester of University. The number of Internet users has exploded from approximately 200k in 2000 to nearly 4 million in 2010, or about 10% of the population. As greater connectivity becomes the norm in Kenya, electronic teaching methods have become an imminently feasible solution to the problem of teacher shortages, while also providing a space for updating curricula for the needs of a developing society.

Electronic Courseware for Undergraduate Mathematics

Proposal

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We propose to improve the level of training in mathematics and statistics in the Kenyan university system by creating a sequence of ready-to-deploy electronic courses. Such courses would provide a number of benefits in the Kenyan context:

  • Updated curricula, in accordance with present-day needs for problem solving,
  • Stable curricula, providing a base-line of student knowledge,
  • Allow a small number of teachers the ability to effectively teach hundreds of students,
  • Increase computer and Internet literacy amongst the Kenyan youth, and
  • Simple deployment across multiple universities.

If successful, these courses could be easily deployed in any English speaking country, and, with further effort, translated into other languages for deployment anywhere in the world. The problems Kenya is facing are mirrored to some extent all over sub-Saharan Africa.

Tools and Strategy

We plan to utilize as much as possible existing tools and content repositories, the best of which are free and open source. The tools we expect to use include:

  • Moodle, an online course-management system which handles gradebook management, assignments, links to textbooks and external modules, and so on. Moodle will serve as a portal and coordinating entity for all of the following tools.
  • Video lectures, such as those available through MIT’s OpenCourseWare or the Khan Academy, giving a human element to presentation of course materials, directly linked to sections in the electronic textbook.
  • WebWork, which provides a system for giving scripted, randomized exercises for homework, quizzes, and tests.
  • Mathematica Player, a free version of Mathematica for which Mathematica documents can be ‘published.’ Maseno is currently investigating its use for schools.
  • Various free statistics packages such as Genstat Discovery, R and others.
  • CAST, a free electronic statistic textbook complete with interactive, randomized exercises and testing system.

Course material will, whenever possible, be adapted from existing sources such as OpenCourseWare to speed the development and deployment process. All materials developed in this project will be made freely available for adoption and adaptation anywhere in the world. Ideally for the Kenyan context we would go a step further by working with lecturers at various institutions to ensure that the materials can be adopted and that adoption of the materials reduces their workload.

While we must recognize that electronic teaching methods have weaknesses, we must also remember we are dealing with a system which currently fails to provide students with understanding, practice in collaborative problem-solving or communication skills. Part of the success of this project will be that even students who are not taught using the materials could use them knowing that they have been adapted for students in their situation.

In an ideal scenario, all students in a class would have access to materials and lecturers at host institutions would not need to replicate the online material in lectures, freeing time for discussion sessions or examples classes. So hopefully class time will thus become a time for dynamic interaction and problem solving, instead of an exercise in note-taking. For some local lecturers this might provide a unique opportunity to engage with the material and the students since at the moment the most conscientious lecturers spend the little time they have preparing notes to write on the board.

Long-Range Vision

If truly successful this project would have multiple phases, one dream scenario might be as follows:

  • Development of some materials along with their adoption somewhere in a Kenyan institution which leads to improvement of the lecturers working conditions.
  • Expansion of materials to cover a full Kenyan syllabus along with an established procedure to encourage wider contribution towards material creation and an international system for student access which would include relevant peer to peer discussion forums.
  • Identification of counterparts in other African countries to help with the adaptation to a broader set of needs, both of the materials and the access system. At this stage it could also be useful to look into accreditation by some international body such as AMS, LMS, etc.
  • Full internationalization of the project with Africa no longer the focus. This might now be an ideal forum for educators to create and share radically new and original mathematics courses and degree programs. If by this time some African universities have bought into the process we might even get my dream outcome that the radically different degree programs get tested first in Africa in such a way that everyone gains.
  • Opening up of the project to other subject areas. The essence of this idea is equally applicable to other educational areas but there are some good reasons for mathematics to lead the way.

It is recognized that most development projects work best when they start relatively small and work their way up. This suits our ideas very well since by starting small and working with individual lecturers there is the possibility of identifying good Kenyan partners and involving them in the growth process.

Principle Participants and Cooperating Institutions

  • Dr. Tom Denton (Contact: sdenton4(at)gmail(dot)com)
  • Dr. David Stern (Contact: volloholic(at)hotmail(dot)com)
  • Maseno University is a member of the Kenyan national university system, located 30 minutes drive outside of sunny Kisumu. It is a relatively new institution but there have been a number of initiatives recently which make this an obvious candidate to work with. The most interesting is its Graduate Assistant scheme which works like an MSc scholarship but with a high probability of being retained by the institution upon successful completion. Most of the staff we propose to work with are recent products of this initiative, and SSC University of Reading has recently set an interesting precedent by paying for one of the top students to be employed through this scheme.
  • And You?

Graduate Math Workshops

In 2010, three international mathematicians visited Maseno University for two weeks to work with local graduate students. The goal of this workshop was to expose the students to the current flavour of mathematics at the level of international researchers, and also to give the visiting scholars insight into the conditions within the Kenyan university system.

These workshops provide a key tool for getting international involvement in math education for the developing world, while also educating future researchers within Kenya about the expectations and rewards of mathematics on the global scale.

Following the success of the first workshops in 2010, Maseno plans to continue hosting workshops for graduate students in subsequent years.