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UEF podcast: Co-designing learning solutions in Africa, for Africa, with Africans

This is the podcast text. You can find the sound file after the text.

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MM: You are listening to a podcast from the University of Eastern Finland, and I am Marianne Mustonen. What does it take to do research in Africa while being mostly based in Finland? What possibilities and challenges could there be? Fred Agbo, who’s just finished his PhD, tells us about his doctoral research, which focused on how to teach computational thinking to novice Computer Science students. Satu Järvinen, on the other hand, has just started her research. The aim of her doctoral thesis is to understand the opportunities and challenged of a skills micro certification in Africa.

Hi, Satu and Fred, it’s so nice to meet you online. So, Fred, congratulations to our new doctor. How does it feel now?

FA: Thank you very much, Marianne, for that question. Being a new doctor, it means that I’ve achieved a milestone, that I feel that I’ve accomplished something that is of course worthwhile. The experience is something that I will look back to, and then I would have a lot of refreshment, but on the contrary-wise, there is no such a difference from that stage and now because I’m still learning, I’m still developing, and I’m still also doing research. The feeling somewhat almost the same, but of course I’ve achieved something that really is worth it, and I’m thankful for that experience provided by UEF, my supervisors and other collaborators.

MM: You are a Nigerian educator and researcher and working in our Joensuu campus. Would you like to tell us about yourself and your career?

FA: Sure. Like you mentioned, I’m a Nigerian educator, and being (-) particularly Computer Science educator. Much more interested in seeing how students of Computer Science, particularly novices, who do not have experience with computing or programming from their previous education, are able to learn at higher education what programming is all about and how to comprehend concepts of programming. And I utilize state of the art technologies and also pedagogies to facilitate their learning. Largely, majority of Computer Science students in Nigeria and also in West Africa, in particular, majority have limited experience in computing, and they struggle with programming at higher education. And that is one thing I’ve tried to provide solutions utilizing different approached in educational technology in order to facilitate their understanding of programming.

MM: Why did you choose our university in the first place?

FA: Thank you very much for that question. University of Eastern Finland, particularly School of Computing, have a research group that is very well reknown and known for educational technology, development of tools and approached to facilitate learning, and particularly educational technology research in School of Computing, able to provide opportunities for graduate students and also particularly PhD students, who conduct their research that facilitates development education in development context. And that also motivated me to choose the university and particularly Computer Science to come and conduct my research in Finland and is UEF. And I’ve seen (-) is because of my supervisors who are experienced in educational technology development have really guided me in order to facilitate my study within the period that I’ve stayed, and I’ve worked with them in Finland. Thank you.

MM: It’s nice to hear that. Your doctoral research was on how to teach computational thinking to novice Computer Science students. Please, tell us more about that. What is co-designing process, first of all?

FA: Like you mentioned, my research is about co-designing smart learning environments to facilitate computational thinking in education in Nigerian context. And computational thinking is about thought processes to facilitate problem-solving. One thing that we do as computer science students, or learn, is about solving problem by writing code. And in doing this, different programming languages have been utilized or learned in the classrooms, that is somewhat difficult for anyone who do not have experience of programming, to conceive or to comprehend what programming is all about. And therefore, the students struggle with it. Now, one way to facilitate their understanding is to help them to gain computational thinking knowledge, which I mentioned is  a tough process to solving problems, and therefore, when they are able to facilitate computational thinking knowledge, gaining problem-solving skills, they could easily transfer this knowledge into the classroom where they learned programming. And it’s easier for them to address problems and not confronted by challenges and then they are unable to (-) with them. So, that is what my research is all about. And I do this by associating pedagogies, for instance game-based learning, utilizing state of the art technologies like virtual reality and also different concepts to allow students to visualize programming concepts, gain experience of problem-solving, and then they can also take it from there as novices. So, the centre of this story is about is allowing students to gain problem-solving skills utilizing game-based learning as approach and computational thinking as the foundation for the students to transfer their learning and also their skills to the programming education in the higher education institution.

MM: These minigames that you have co-designed with students, they sound interesting. Could you tell more about those?

FA: Yes, thank you very much. In my doctoral research, two things are very unique. First is that students learn how to solve problems by co-designing, and also students are able to utilize the product, the artefact that we’ve developed even to also gain problem-solving skills. So, the minigames in this sense are like ways to facilitate micro-learning, students co-design these minigames with me from the contextual point of view, and during this process of co-designing, they able to gain several skills like creative thinking, they are able to gain skills collaborative skills like working together to solve problems, and that is a way to facilitate their understanding of problem-solving. Students develop minigames, contextualize the minigames, and also develop ideas that would facilitate or motivate their learning within the context. For instance, a minigame called Mount Patti Treasure Hunts was designed by a student, and later refined to become a high-fidelity prototype minigame. The idea behind this minigame, which is one of those co-designed with a students, is that the students are able to gamify their experience in climbing a mountain that is located within the university, and what they could do on the mountain, by  trying to unravel relics or interesting sights on the mountains, they do a lot sports on the mountain, and while they try to that, they allow themselves to be engaged in solving certain puzzles in order to unravel sights. So, until you can solve the puzzles, you are unable to unravel those relics. This is an idea that students actually associated together, and they could actually present that to facilitate their learning. And that way they’ve gained some experience of critical thinking, they’ve gained some experience of problem-solving and also the product, which is one of the minigames in my prototype, facilitate learning also in the context.

MM: What kind of challenged did you have during this research process?

FA: Thank you very much. Quite a lot of challenges. Doing my research was user-centered because we wanted to facilitate student learning by developing these processes with them, and also developing the tool with them, I needed the students all the time to conceptualize, refine the concepts, even define the requirements for the process and also the tools, and also evaluate this tool with them. Now, this is a situation where I am in Finland, and the students are in Nigeria, so one challenge that we actually faces was we needed to approach the students regularly, physically, but first we couldn’t do that because there was limitations in terms of resources; second is that we were confronted with Covid, that even when we could travel, the opportunity to meeting students physically wasn’t available, wasn’t there, and we had to co-design this whole process online. And that makes us to be innovative in the research itself. This was somewhat a challenge, but we worked around it to overcome the challenge, and I think that that in a way provided some kind of output that could be transferred to other researchers in the future. So, the challenge is about meeting the students physically (-) was not feasible, but later on, we innovatively handled that, and students were also engaged in the prototype development. Thank you.

MM: What are your future plans?

FA: Future plans include to still make the idea that I already have iniated in this research much more integrated, which is to mainstream computational thinking education in higher education institutions. Globally, this is still a marginal field as a process to facilitate novices’ understanding of programming, particularly in the context of Africa and West Africa or Nigeria in particular, we do not have at the moment computational thinking in the curriculum. And my research hopes to facilitate that we have to integrate that in the classroom. And that is going to be one of my future research that I would also continue in this line. Also, practically I like teaching, I like also doing research that is user-centered, and I think this would all be part of my future research. Now that I’m doing the Postdoc and then very soon also going into teaching, I believe that these opportunities could be explored in my future as I hope to provide impact to West Africa and also to other educational contexts in Africa. Thank you.

MM: Thanks. It sounds really interesting. Now, let’s move to Satu. Would you be so kind and tell us about yourself and your career?

SJ: I’ve been working in educational for almost twenty years now, and my background has been in really research development and innovations in education, especially in vocational education and digital learning solutions development in that field. But due to my background, which is that I grew up in Senegal, which is the most western country in Africa - you always have to be on top of something, so that is most Western - so naturally I’ve had an interest to work and do things closer to my initial home country, which is Senegal on the continent. And due to that, I ended up in my career doing more and more work related to developing vocational education in the African continent in different countries, and then finally moving to being an entrepreneur trying to develop services to develop education there. Now I’m doing my doctoral thesis also related to the same field, which is about finding ways to develop skills and give people opportunities on the continent.

MM: Your research is just beginning. The aim of your doctoral thesis is to understand the opportunities and challenges of skills micro-certifications in Africa. What is micro-certification?

SJ: Micro-certification is sort of a global movement, if I would put it that way, in education at the moment. I think what we have come to realize in education, largely, is that what we can grasp in formal education in terms of total capacity and skills that we have as human being is only a fraction. Also, we see that with the technological advancement in the world, digitalization and so forth, we need specific skills at specific times very quickly. So, the demand and need for short programs, micro-programs, that answer and reply to specific need is growing. And that we can see the explosion of online education providers, your academies, your courses and so forth, where you can go and just very quickly, even in the matter of a few hours learn a specific topic that you need. That is part of the micro-learning and micro-certification movement. My angle within that framework is looking into how can we validate existing skills, not just learning, but especially when we were dealing with people who are part of working life, how can we come in and somehow bring to light the experiences and knowledge and skills that they have retained and gained. And in the African context, 80 % of the continent’s working age population, which is - I think it’s like the worst and best number, because to take an entire continent and give an estimation, so it doesn’t apply anyways [laugh] it’s one of those numbers that won’t be true anyway - but a massive amount of population is part of the informal sector, and those are people who, it depends a bit on how they are looked at or described, but usually are part of the working life but often have less education (-) much formal education, but are working, so they have skills, they have knowledge but not necessarily too much formal education or that type of certificates to show for it. That is really the population that I am trying to understand and support and help advance.

MM: What are the next steps in your research?

SJ: Unlike my good colleague Friday, he just finished, and I’m barely getting started. For me, now, the first step in my research is really trying to understand what do we mean by the informal sector, as mentioned if you have a rough number like 80 % of working-age people in the continent, that is a lot. So, I’m focusing in two countries, Senegal, of course, and Rwanda as another country, so East and West. And then, trying to cluster the informal sector, trying to find the different demographic groups within it in order to identify the portion of the informal sector than can most benefit from digital learning solutions. We can assume that there is no one solution or service that could help everyone or interest everyone, so really trying to find those niches and people that are most prone to use digital learning services and could benefit from having their skills validated.

MM: You already have your own company. Could you tell more about that?

SJ: My company is part of my journey. I started as an entrepreneur about five years ago, because I realized that we only live once, YOLO [laugh] and I really wanted to put my work and energy where my heart is. And with Skill Safari, my company, I have worked in various projects, usually everything is related to developing either just education, like teacher training and such things in the digital domain, and then developing vocational training, naturally, more specifically. And then to understand and advance also the use of micro-certificates and validational skills on the continent. So, in a sense, this PhD is very much linked to my entrepreneurial journey and allows me to really understand this challenging topic even further.

MM: Thank you, Satu. Finally, would you both like to say some encouraging words to our young international researchers?

FA: Sure. If I may go first. Very interesting that we also have Satu working here in Finland but also to develop Africa, particularly the vocational sector. And I want to say that when you look at different perspectives that we try to address problems within the context, whether it’s formal settings or informal settings, one thing is common: that developing Africa with research is that actually would, we should encourage our young researchers to do, and also to engage the users in the development or in their research. Because it isn’t until you engage them, like Satu said, clustering these vocational workers and all that, you understand what the need are. You would also be able to provide solutions that could address the needs of the people. In my case, I try to do that with students, and I would also expand to other stakeholders. And this I encourage younger researchers that are coming up, working from different perspectives internationally, to also relate. And I think that would bring more value to the research we conduct. Thank you.

SJ: I couldn’t agree more with what Friday said. It’s very easy to be smart knowledgeable from a distance and have the solutions, but the closer you get to the users and the practicalities, the clearer you see the challenge. And that’s how you can really create something meaningful. I think another thing I would also say is that we need to have conversations and dialogue, and with many people. I think what drew me to the University of Eastern Finland was the fact that I knew that I could work with researchers coming from the continent, because for that’s the most crucial element if I want to do good research and be successful, I need to be working with researchers coming from that side, Friday and his colleagues, to have value. Otherwise, you know, how could Finnish researcher solve any problems that they don’t even understand the context of. But these exchanges, these conversations, where you end up tackling with some, you always find that you have some viewpoints where you’re looking at things a bit differently, and solving those moments, like okay, so this is the truth or the reality there, and this is the idea, and how can we make this work together, how do we cross these bridges. Those are always very interesting conversations, and those are the moments that really take us forward. That would be my recommendation in addition to everything that Friday said.

MM: Many thanks to you, Satu and Fred. It’s been a pleasure to listen to your ideas and thoughts. I wish you all the best in the future.

SJ: Thank you.

FA: Thank you very much.

MM: You were listening to a podcast from the University of Eastern Finland. I am Marianne Mustonen and our guests were Satu Järvinen and Fred Agbo. Thank you for listening and please, join us again.