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Internationally Recognized Expert Weighs In On Rwanda’s Future Education

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Amed Demirhan is an internationally recognized librarian and an expert in high education. He has worked in the United States, Iraq, and Nigeria. Demirhan has received numerous awards and prizes for his contribution to e-learning and developing robust digital libraries for universities. He travelled to Rwanda to meet friends including Dr. David Macrea, the Chancellor of University of Kigali. They had a conversation on how he can use his expertise to help begin a journey of transforming the University of Kigali into a fully fledged digital learning space. He spoke to Taarifa on what it takes to transform a university from an analog setting to an e-learning center. Is the University of Kigali ready for the transformation? Where will the content come from? What are the advantages and challenges he might face? Should Rwanda continue teaching in English? All that and more in the interview below. 

Winds of digital transformation are blowing in every direction today, in tourism, infrastructure and others. How best can you define high and lower learning in regard with technology and digitalization. Can developing nations transform from old-fashioned learning approaches? 

Demirhan: This e-learning, e-development, is the equalizer between developing countries and developed countries. Right now there are thousands of open access textbook, open access academic journal, open access video in teaching/learning and laboratories. And they are up to date, anyone is free to use them. If a developing country like Rwanda, which has been aspiring to become a developed country in a short time; (every decent human being is proud of Rwanda’s accomplishments), can achieve that goal in a short time. It is doable, it is easy, all you need is a strong visionary leadership committed to transformation, to change, to development and progress!

What about the players in the education sector?

Demirhan: Have met a number of leaders, promoters, founders of University of Kigali, Chancellors and lecturers. They are very positive, aspiring to be leaders of transformation and it makes me very happy. You see that their aspiration to change, transform and improve the country, improving their institution. 

Wasn’t it just lip service? 

Demirhan: I hope not! I felt their strong commitment and desire to be number one in technological and educational development, to reach out and serve more people in the community. That is the impression I got.

What does it take for an institution to transform to e-learning? 

Demirhan: I shared with the leadership of University of Kigali, a vision, an opportunity to apply the concepts of e-learning, mobile applications, a realistic approach from administration, to curriculum, to logistic sources, and equipment and software, like open source software, and teaching and learning, staff development, staff recruiting. When you apply this e-learning opportunity, to replace physical space, you become much more efficient, you provide much more resources to your students, your staff, everything is under your fingertips, to do it, you need a strong will of  leadership. That is the number one issue, desired strong leadership, commitment to vision, commitment to change and transformation, because when you apply this to your organization, to your physical space like a classroom, a certain organizational classroom, classroom furniture for example, if you are using an expensive tablet produced in China or elsewhere, if you are using a primary tablet you don’t need a table, you save space, physical space in the room and you save money.What does it take to adjust the people? 

Demirhan: Motivation is very important. How you frame the issue, for example, in the American University in Nigeria, many faculty members were initially reluctant. We told them, “if you are a physical traditional school, your access to resources for your students as faculty is 0.01% compared to what is available online. Now, which decent professor will force students to limit them to reach 0.01 vs 99.9%.

Quality of content and quality of teaching? 

Demirhan: We can make Rwandan students be on the same level as most universities in America and Japan. For example, a work page for a famous university in Berkline, tells you how to evaluate resources, professors and students. If you have 14,015 free journals, you don’t need all of them. You select the best one, for example, you are teaching economics, maybe there is at least 1,000 journals in economics, you don’t need all of them. You can select 10-20 best economic journals and add to you class, so you keep up to date, whatever the journal article published, you will access it the same day, same time as anybody in Japan or America.

How about creating local content?

Demirhan: When you have all the resources, freely available, you can benefit from that, but on the other hand, any physics or biology problem is the same here and in Japan or China, but if you come to epidemiology, certain diseases that exist here don’t exist there, and people do research on the two, here is my solution to that, simple, you tell me the professor, whoever it is, in this case that is the role of the government more than private universities, say “You are writing this book about the Rwanda history, somebody else can’t write it, you have to write it, or you write about traditional life in Rwanda, and it should be taught in the classroom instead of printing that work, which is going to cost a fortune getting those papers, and then you have to deliver, to process them, to register them, and transport them. You instead buy a soft copy from the author with copyright, even if you pay a quarter of the print cost to the author, he will be more than happy, and you have copyright, you can deliver PDF to every school in Rwanda. You can save tons of money from there, if for example, you are going to produce a book for elementary school, and you have 50,000 students there, how much would it cost you to print 50,000 versus sending 50,000 copies by email.There is a debate about teaching in one’s mother language vs foreign languages, what is your view? 

Demirhan: You know, teaching is a habitual thing, it is not automatic. Speaking four languages doesn’t make you more intelligent. For example, I used to live in Sweden before I migrated to the United States. Sweden is a country of nearly 10 million people, and has been an independent state for a very long time, and one of the earliest countries with universal education. But Swedish students can not study in university if they are not fluent in English, yet their language is very well developed, but why? I asked this question to a Swedish academic, and he said, “we can’t afford to transform all scientific books in English, 78% science and culture are produced in English, into the mother language, it costs a fortune. Instead of translating, teach our people to learn English, so we can learn directly from the source. In this context, it is extremely beneficial that Rwanda teaches in English. Students can access much more academic resources globally, than the other way around.  Teaching in your mother language gives you comfort and identity, it is very important in who you are, the people who are successful should have self confidence and identity of who they are, but at the same time, you can’t teach sciences, medicine, biology, which are constantly updated, in your mother language. You don’t have the economic power to change every science book to your native language. Those things are not for me to decide, am just giving you examples. 

What are the best practices when it comes to e-learning? 

Demirhan: We still have fundamental challenges. E-leaning doesn’t mean everyone seated at home and learning by themselves, people need motivation, you have to apply the same discipline to e-learning that you apply to physical learning to be successful. Don’t assume that because you give a bunch of books in front of students, you put them in the best library in the universe, they won’t succeed.  Yes 2-3% will do it, but the majority will get tired, in any country in the world, not just Rwanda. People need constant motivation, positive reinforcement and constant encouragement to be educated and led! In my opinion, that is the main thing to learn. 

Main obstacles?

Demirhan: First, is understanding how simple it is. Most people think it is very complex. It is not. It is quite simple. Secondly, most teachers and faculty, for them to change their way of learning or teaching, it will initially create extra work for you. For example, you are a professor teaching economics, you have been teaching this class, the same edition of the same book, for the last five years, you have all your classes laid out when you start, now you have to teach a new book that is slightly different from what you have been teaching. It is the same content, you just have to reorganize your classes, lectures, exams, tests, and everything. It may cost you say two months to readjust. Most people are resistant to change, they will ask why spend two months doing this. That is human nature.

The other challenge is misconceptions, which is very dangerous, for example some people say, we have some professors who don’t know how to use computers, smartphones. It is doable. We understand that, most teenagers, most college students know how to use it very well, hire a college student as a professor’s assistant, give him little money, and he will do it for him, it is good for students, if professors want to be independent learners, he will learn quickly, if not, the student will get more money, you can solve those problems. We have to always learn everyday.

Advantages of universities that have mastered e-learning?

Demirhan: It is very efficient. You can access them 24/7, you can have as many resources as you possibly could handle. We go back to 99.9% vs 0.01%, if you are an e-University, you have access to 99.9% resources available. If you are physical, you are 0.01%, so the target is to get more resources, and less expensive, on top of that, and less time consuming. For example, you are a professor, you are ordering books, students have to bring a book, register a book, take it to the library, process it, how much more time and money is being spent on just a book? All that disappears with e-learning. The benefit is, if I give you something physical, to me it is gone. If I send something through email, everyone will have it in one minute, and I will still have it.

Does e-learning guarantee good quality of graduates? 

Demirhan: It depends on the quality of instructions. If a Rwandan student is accessing the same content as a Japanese, an American or Chinese student, he or she can benefit more than they do. It depends on the quality of instructors. 

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