The Engineering Education Research landscape in Sub-Saharan Africa: Some insights

Photo of Mt Kilimanjaro by Casey Allen on Unsplash

Introduction

The insights that I am sharing in this blog piece are the unintended outcome of a purely pedagogic exercise – to diversify the reading list of the MSc Engineering and Education at University College London (UCL). This MSc is designed for engineers, teachers of engineering and engineering policy makers who wish to develop innovative strategies to improve engineering education.

Over the course of the academic year, we introduce our MSc students to a diverse range of academic papers covering key topics in Engineering Education Research (EER). For instance, throughout the year students on the MSc get to engage with current thoughts and ideas in EER areas such as:

  • Entrepreneurship in engineering education,
  • Sustainability Education for Engineering,
  • Curriculum reform/transformation in engineering education
  • Ethics, equality, diversity and inclusion in engineering education
  • Innovative/transformative teaching in engineering education
  • Problem/project/challenge based learning in engineering
  • Active/Collaborative learning
  • Engineering Design
  • Internships/industrial experience,
  • Open and online teaching and learning

Background to this exercise

Most of the items on our reading list are from the West, for the simple reason that these are more readily available. Unfortunately, this tends to reinforce a primarily Western/Anglo Saxon view of current topics in EER. Engineering Education is a highly social activity, and we would like our students to explore various aspects of Engineering Education from a diversity of perspectives. We are especially keen for our students to explore through these readings, the various nuanced adaptations of standard methodologies like problem based learning across different regions of the world.

Moreover, our MSc is truly international, with students coming in from a range of countries all over the world. We want our students to bring along their own experiences and to critically evaluate these experiences in informed discussions with their colleagues who are from entirely different nationalities. Difference breeds creativity and innovation, and in designing the MSc we have specifically sought to make it a melting cauldron of diversities of opinions and thoughts, all fuelled by scholarly research from every corner of the globe. We are therefore compiling journal and conference papers on any topic in EER from regions and countries that are underrepresented in our reading list. This includes most countries in Sub Saharan Africa.

How we carried out the exercise

We carried out a search of EER articles emanating from Sub Saharan Africa. This includes countries like Nigeria, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa and Namibia. We used the following databases – African Journals OnLine (AJOL), International African Bibliography Online, African Education Research Database, JSTOR, Web of Science, and Google Scholar. Searches were limited to English language articles focussing on EER topics such as engineering education transformation, engineering curriculum reform, Conceive Design Implement Operate (CDIO), active and collaborative learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, and internships. We limited our search to articles from 2010 and onwards as our focus was primarily on current articles.

The emerging picture of EER in Sub Sahara Africa

The picture emerging from this exercise is not flattering. Most of the EER papers that we discovered were predominantly from two countries only – South Africa and Nigeria. In fact, these two countries contributed over 80% of all the papers that we identified. Some countries were not represented at all, with only single digit numbers of publications from countries such as Ghana, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Just to be sure, we visited the web profiles of academics at various engineering institutions across Sub Sahara Africa, and our results seemed to confirm our database search – very few engineering academics in Sub Saharan Africa write and publish EER articles. Invariably, engineering academics up and down the region, when they do publish, they tend to focus on hardcore engineering and science research.

We also sifted through the papers that we had identified. A significant proportion of these papers were from individual academics writing on their own reforms of the course modules that they teach. Papers on programme-wide and institution-wide EER issues, for example, curriculum reform, appeared only in a couple of South African papers.

Take-home lessons

EER is virtually non-existent in Sub Saharan Africa, except in Nigeria and South Africa. In addition, most EER papers are single-authored, ostensibly from engineering education enthusiasts. Indeed, EER in Sub Saharan Africa appears only to be a hobbyist activity, with no discernible institutional or national strategy driving it.

What does this mean for Engineering Education in Sub Saharan Africa? This gives rise to several possibilities – the most pessimistic being that there is a dearth of national and institutional strategies aimed at improving the quality of Engineering Education in Africa. This would be sad, given the thousands of engineering graduates in Sub Saharan Africa who emerge every year from engineering institutions without the skills required by industry, and who are therefore destined to a life of joblessness or underemployment [See Mohamedbhai (2015): Improving Engineering Education in Sub-Saharan Africa]. A less pessimistic possibility is that engineering institutions in Sub Saharan Africa do care about the quality of Engineering Education, and do carry out periodic curriculum reviews and reforms, but they do not always write about their activities. This would then raise several other questions: To what extent are Engineering Education reforms in Sub Saharan Africa research-based? Do reforming engineering institutions in Sub Saharan Africa share best practice, and if so, how do they do so, and with whom do they share the information?

Agreed, this exercise that we carried out is akin to an aircraft passenger looking out of the window at 38 000 feet and trying to identify landscape features far down below. But even then, this would suggest that there are currently no Mount Kilimanjaros in the EER landscape of Sub Saharan Africa. Hopefully, however, there are emerging hills and mole hills of EER activity taking place in Sub Saharan Africa, although they are still too small to make an imprint on the international EER radar.

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