Monday, July 18, 2016

Poor quality professors producing low quality graduates


The dominant model of education is in turmoil. Students demand fewer courses, less reading and writing assignments. Employers say graduates are not work ready. Parents are staggered by the rising cost of education.

Grave concerns on the quality of college graduates abound. Employers are unanimous in their condescending view of recent graduates. In their opinion graduates can’t apply knowledge, lack critical thinking and communication skills.  Recent studies show that even after four years in college nearly 40 per cent of students in the US failed to improve test scores in critical thinking.

Indignation about higher education derives from the perception that the model of delivery – the classroom and the lecture – is antiquated. The popular view is that disruption in education is overdue. The cry everywhere is abolish lectures, abolish classrooms. Learning must not be constrained by professorial enclaves called subjects or disciplines that inhabit kingdoms called departments.

Scholars in higher education reform believe the combination lectures and classrooms stifles understanding and fails to spark creativity; the two essential ingredients for deep and enduring learning. This band of education innovators argue that technology now enables novel approaches like the flipped classroom where students can through the internet learn in the quiet of their homes and engage in more active learning by doing in the classroom.

The ranks of professors who believe that university teaching needs fundamental reform are growing. Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman of Stanford recently issued a plea to educators to stop lecturing. Meta analysis of over 200 studies reveals that lecturing increased failure rates by 55 per cent. Conversely, interactive or active learning methods resulted in a 36 per cent drop in failure rates.

But is the lecture model and the traditional classroom really the problem? The problem in my view is not the lecture. The lecturer is the problem. Most academics are horrible teachers, movingly inarticulate. Moreover, the reckless proliferation of universities, public and private, has unleashed an unrelenting gust of intellectually mediocre professors upon college students. They are super depressing to listen to or chat with even if the subject is the weather or Nairobi’s incessant traffic gridlock.

I remember as a young undergraduate saying to a professor during a lecture that I was waiting for him to lay out an argument of his own. This professor understood a lecture as event during which dictated his notes to students. As you can imagine, I paid dearly for my indiscretion.

Professors must be good teachers and public speakers period. The good news is that oratory can be learned. A combination of academic rigor, eloquence and passionate delivery endows a lecture with inalienable and remarkable power. A lecture delivered with wit motivates active learning and critical listening while modeling the sublime art of reasoned argument.

Both flipped classroom and active learning in small groups are not novel. Novelty will come through incentives for scholarship in teaching. And yes, excellent lectures can engage and inspire learners to think critically and to innovate.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Ethnic politics diminishing Kenya’s stature in the East Africa Region

Kenya is famous for picturesque landscapes, dizzying diversity of wildlife, the world’s fastest runners. Kenya is birthplace of the ancestors of the leader of the free world.

When our neighbors were embroiled in conflict former president Moi crowed about Kenya as an “island of peace”. We built schools and educated our sons and daughters as our neighbors sent their sons to war. When Idi Amin and Julius Nyerere expelled Asians, we relied on Indians to lay the foundation for a vibrant private sector a middle class.

But Kenya’s recent political and social history is depressing. Unabashed ethnic rivalry and greed define and often turn political competition into an orgy of inter-community violence. Reckless politics and ethnic discord comes at a steep price.

For example Uganda’s decision to go with Tanzania reflects Uganda’s practical and strategic concerns. Foremost are Kenya’s recent history of politically instigated ethnic violence and the complex politics over land in the Coast and the Rift Valley. With this deal, Tanzania has stamped its seriousness a regional economic player of immense significance.

The ghosts of political recklessness and catastrophic blood letting of the 2007 post-election violence still haunt us. Ethnic vitriol is alive and well. Mobilizing for electoral competition through opportunistic and fleeting ethnic coalitions diminishes hope for genuine social cohesion.

There is an old fable out west among the Luo community. It is a myth about a fierce warrior. Folklore has it that Luanda Magere possessed supernatural powers. Luanda was invincible at battle. Spears and arrows fashioned against him by Nandi warriors were bent out of shape by his rock solid torso.

The Nandi community learned at a steep cost of treasure and blood that they would never vanquish Luanda in combat. According to this myth, which is only told among the Luo community, the Nandi chose to make peace and offered a young beautiful woman to marry Luanda. But her solemn mission was to find the source of Luanda’s invincibility in battle.

The East African Institute with partners from University of Alberta, Moi University and young artists from Kisumu County is working on an initiative to take old stories and tell them for a new generation. This initiative, Old Stories in New Ways, seeks to carve out of the solid rock of the Luanda myth a grain of hope, peace and cohesion among the Nandi and Luo communities.

In the new story, the beautiful Nandi spy wife becomes pregnant and gives birth to Luanda’s only child.  In her agonizing dirge she says the rock is a monument of hatred between Nandi and the Luo. The baby symbolizes a new beginning, a future of kinship and peace.

A survey of Kenyan youth conducted by the East Institute revealed that only five percent of Kenyan youth identify by their ethnicity. A future of social cohesion and inter-community understanding is possible.

We can compete for political power as fellow citizens not as enemies. We can redeem our image among our neighbors because our youth are Kenyans first.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Elections undermine democratic processes

A survey conducted by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University showed that between 68-90 percent of East Africa’s youth held positive views about democracy and would participate in elections. However, trust in politicians was as low as 40 percent. 

One could be persuaded to suggest that East African youth fancy the idea of elections or democracy but disdain its outcomes – politicians and government. However, confidence and trust government in “Strong leader” models like Rwanda was as high as 80%. Waning trust in politicians and government is not unique to East African youth. There is an emerging and worrying trend if mistrust between citizens and government. 

According to Pew Research Center, fewer than 30 percent Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted between 2007 and 2015. Similarly, a recent World Values Survey, which polled 73,000 people in 57 countries revealed that trust in government and institutions of democracy such as political parties has reached a historical low. 

The perceptions of East Africa’s youth underscore a deep and concerning contradiction; passion and apathy for politics. Essentially, youth are enthusiastic about the political process but deeply distrusting of the outcomes of political participation. Clearly the youth appear to honor and respect elections but despise the people they elect, the politicians and the governments they form. 

There is a crippling decline in the belief that government can even deliver on services or aspirations of the youth. It is not surprising that while up to 90 percent of youth have a positive view of elections, less than 30 percent of East African youth reported that they had benefited from government initiatives. Moreover, youth trust family and religious institutions more than they trust government or politicians.

The youth are a consequential majority in every sense, political and socio-economic. About 80 percent of the estimated 146 million East Africans (excluding South Sudan), are below the age of 35 years. How youth engage in the electoral process, and their perception and confidence in the political process has strong political and socio-economic implications for the future of East Africa. 

But the magnitude of mistrust in politics and government by citizens must lead us to question or wonder if elections are the best mechanism for transforming the collective will of the people into tangible social or economic outcomes. Elections are even less believable as expressions of the collective will of citizens especially when fear mongering, misinformation and manipulation in the electioneering period inundate voters.  

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is flawed to the extent that it conceives elections as the embodiment of democracy. Elections can cause all kinds of outcomes like Brexit and the possibility of a Trump presidency. In Africa elections have been associated with violence, ethnic cleansing, political instability and economic decline.
Globally, there is a growing perception that elections are gravely antiquated tools, which could undermine democracy if they are not enhanced with more enlightened forms of public participation. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

With Brexit, Seniors just screwed up the youth

The will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered”. These were the words of David Cameron after nationalist Eurosceptic voters chose to leave the EU and brought Cameron’s premiership to an abrupt end.

The consequences of Brexit vote are rolling fast and furiously. The value of the pound tumbled and markets crashed. Half of the Labour party’s top team is set to resign in what is seen as a bid to force Jeremy Corbyn to resign as leader of the Labour party. Mr. Corbyn’s commitment to the Remain campaign as been described as a study in reluctance.

A second Scotland referendum is imminent. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish government would prepare legislation to enable another independence vote because with Brexit Scotland, where 62 percent voted to Remain would be taken out of the EU against their will. Similarly, in Northern Ireland where 56 percent voted to Remain has motivated speculation about the possibility a unity referendum to unite with the Republic of Ireland.

Two weeks ago, IMF published an analysis of the consequences of Brexit. In one scenario Britain plunges into recession in 2017, unemployment rises to seven percent by 2018 and real wages stagnate because of high inflation. But last Thursday, June 23, UK voters chose to leave the EU. Cameron had drafted in Obama to help the Stronger In campaign. In April Obama warned that the United States would be more interested in doing trade deals with a "big bloc" like the EU than a single nation like the United Kingdom. But even Obama’s exhortation to remain failed to persuade voters.

Brexit is a catastrophic blow to the process of European integration. Voters in France, Italy and Netherlands are demanding their own votes on EU membership. Mindful of mass exodus from the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned that the other 27 members of the EU should “not draw hasty and simplified conclusions from the British vote that would only divide Europe further”.

Two people think Brexit is an inevitable fortune. Vladimir Putin is gloating. He thinks Brexit was a comprehensible consequence of “arrogance and a superficial approach from the British leadership to issues that are vital to the UK”. Speaking in Scotland a day after the referendum, Republican presidential flag bearer Donald Trump said Brexit made total sense because the vote mirrored the anger and despondency smoldering among Americans about the economy, jobs, immigration and border control.

Brexit is a vote against UK’s future. Youth strongly favored Remain, with 75 percent of citizens aged below 24 voting to stay in the EU. Young people will face the consequences of Brexit for longer. They must feel screwed over by their parents’ votes.

Britain is stronger in the EU and Leave voters must regret June 23. Brexit underlines a cataclysmic failure of leadership by UK’s political class. Why was such an incredibly complex decision left with the citizens, most of whom have no clue what the EU is about?

Use urbanization to drive prosperity

Our epoch has been characterized as the Athropocene. Our species, Homo sapiens is capable of the same disruptive and devastating effect on our planet just like volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunami. We are virulent. Look at what we have done to our climate and our environment.

But the virulent disruption of our kind, especially through our industrial and technological prowess has been uniquely associated with the migration of over half of human kind from the fields into cities. Hence, a fundamental characteristic of the Anthropocene is the age of urbanism. I would like to think about our kind to today as Homo sapiens urbanus.

In Africa the phenomenon of urbanization has been late in onset. Somehow Africans, especially in Eastern and Southern Africa lingered too long in the farms. But today at 3.5 percent, Africa is fastest urbanizing landmass on the planet. In Kenya for example, the rate of urbanization outpaces the rate of annual population growth by 60 percent. A recent UN-Habitat report projects that by 2025 Africa’s urban population will outstrip that of South America and Europe combined.

By 2040 African cities are expected to have to accommodate 79 Million additional inhabitants. Between 2040 and 2050 the figure will rise to an astonishing 84 Million. The potential consequence – challenges and opportunities – of these bewildering growth rates are relevant for all us, whether we live in urban or rural areas. As we all know, the Africa rising saga and the surge of an African middle classes is underlies the triumph of the African urbanization.

The scale and pace of Africa’s urbanization is unprecedented. But something else is happening in Africa. Circa 80 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan is aged below 35 years old. Moreover, the median age on the content is below 20 years and is projected to reach a youthful age of 25 by 2050. I dare say that Africa is on the warm threshold of a youthful urban moment. This changes everything.

For the academy, the African urban moment raises scholarly and policy relevant issues. What does sedentary lives and changing diets mean? The prospect of the convergence of communicable and non-communicable diseases has far-reaching consequence on health and morbidity. Will urbanization hinder or aid efforts to reduce poverty and deal with growing chasm of inequality that has attended the Africa rising saga? How will urbanization affect the quality of African lives? Cities across Africa are bursting at the seams, engulfed by mountains of garbage and squalor, immobilized by wretched traffic gridlock, and paralyzed by scarcity of decent, affordable housing for new immigrants. Will the urban moment come with better prospects for employment youth Africa’s youth? And will urbanization change the character of politics in countries like Kenya, where ethnic bigotry looms large?

Urbanization is perhaps the most powerful game changer in our lifetime. It is full of promise but peppered with peril. The good fortune is that we have the power to harness this unprecedented boon. Lets seize it for our common good. 


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