Sunday, 28 February 2016

Participants’ Reflections after the AURA Programme’s Research One (R1) Learning Intervention

There has been an increasing stream of feedback since October 2015 that indicates the potential benefits of AURA programme impacting individual participants at different levels.  What follows is a short summary of the key moments.

Application of critical skills in information literacy

One of these concerns application of critical skills in information literacy. One participant, a young scholar, began reading more widely on the topic of her PhD concept note and made an effort to contact the author of a paper she felt contained content that was core to the concepts of her research. She received positive feedback from the author and was motivated to keep working on the paper and has since gone on to present a poster at the GKEN4Africa 5th International Multidisciplinary Conference 2015 .

Opening up research opportunities to undergraduate students

The other area is the effort to open up research opportunities to undergraduate students, especially using approaches that impact society. One of the participants has demonstrated how the learning obtained in the AURA programme’s R1 face to face learning intervention has encouraged him to involve his students in research activities that have an impact in their communities. One of the student teams went on to present a poster on this initiative at an internal research event at Strathmore.
 These developments indicate the potential impact of the AURA intervention in promoting research amongst Strathmore students. Therefore,  it is becoming clearer how learning interventions can be beneficial in supporting young scholars in fostering confidence, in developing skills to develop their work and to take up opportunities to communicate about this both internally and externally.

Application of critical thinking skills

Another area is the application of critical thinking skills. One of the participants has been conceptualising a difficult research topic concerning the need for research outputs to contribute to the transformation of the society. In the local setting, most research findings remain on the shelves as scholarly outputs that do not influence policy or practice in the industry or within the communities.
The participant benefited from the R1 learning intervention and became more confident that the chosen topic was researchable and could be actualised, especially following detailed feedback from scholars in the AURA network.  It will be interesting to see how this student’s work progresses.

Concluding remarks

These developments indicate the potential impact of the AURA intervention in promoting research amongst Strathmore students. Therefore, it is becoming clearer how learning interventions can be beneficial in supporting young scholars in fostering confidence, in developing skills to develop their work and to take up opportunities to communicate about this both internally and externally.

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Experiences Beyond the Aura Programme’s Research One (R1) Learning Intervention

The implementation of the AURA progamme at Strathmore has become a reality. By September, 2015, the participants had already engaged in various online activities such as: the diagnostic and pre-online learning session undertaken in preparation for face to face learning (The face to face learning took place at Strathmore from 30 September to 2nd October 2015.)  What follows are reflections on the approaches, processes and methodologies encountered in the learning interventions.

Blended learning approaches

The implementation of the AURA programme has involved a blended learning approach complementing face to face interactions with online experience. The main benefit of this blended learning approach is that the participants have the possibility of internalizing, and practicing, specific skills from the interactions between themselves and the facilitators. Non-mediated human interaction has a special element that cannot be bridged effectively by technology hence combining face to face with the online learning. This approach could be one of the key factors contributing to the effectiveness of the AURA programme in transforming participants’ research practices.

Benefits of a diagnostic process to customize content

In the process of the face to face delivery, it emerged that there was a difficulty in maintaining the consistent participation by senior researchers, who were of the opinion that the sessions did not address their specific capacity building concerns but were more focused on the needs of young scholars.

An attempt had been made to ensure that the content would appeal to a mixed audience, but it was difficult in practice to achieve this objective without a deliberate content re-design prior to running the intervention. This highlights the benefit of the diagnostic process in customizing content and demonstrates that poor participation in this process may have contributed to the problem of the undifferentiated content arising in the first place.

Using an experiential learning facilitation methodology

The experiential learning facilitation methodology that was employed by the AURA team is the enduring strength of the face to face intervention. This methodology is learner-centred and successfully engaged the faculty, who themselves are teachers in their own disciplines and can be highly critical of traditional teacher-centred approaches.. The assessment of learning at the end each day, using the reflective journal, is a best practice tool that helped participants internalize and document their personal learning. The R1 face to face learning is a valuable precursor to, and has raised expectations for, the forthcoming teaching intervention which will be rolled out in 2016.

The other appealing, and motivating, aspect of the AURA programme learning interventions is the practical assistance the participants received through detailed feedback on their assignments from enthusiastic professors in the AURA network. An opportunity presented by the GKEN4Africa 5th International Multidisciplinary Conference 2015  for two participants from Strathmore to showcase their “work in progress” – this opportunity has further fuelled the excitement of other participants.

Future considerations

Looking to the future, it is anticipated that individualised attention to the participants will be critical in achieving the anticipated programme results, such as publications. This is a strong learning point that Strathmore University would like to carry into its internal capacity building programmes for teaching and research.

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Benefit of Flexibility in Keeping the AURA Programme Vibrant

There are two levels at which flexibility has contributed to making the African Universities' Research Approaches(AURA) programme become vibrant: the level of participants’ engagement; and the level of institutional collaboration - and this vibrancy has developed in spite of a number of challenges encountered in the initial programme conception as experienced at Strathmore University (which we have written about in a previous blog post). 

Participants’ engagement

Participants who have showed an interest in this programme have been encouraged to retain their interest, and engagement, in the activities through flexible arrangements. For example, as Project Cordinators (PCs) for AURA, we negotiated new deadlines for completing the diagnostics, and made sure that polite reminders to participants went out regularly.

The management of email communication has also been a key challenge, and an important point of learning for us as programme coordinators. A significant number of participants suffered from email overload and started to drop out of the programme on account of repetitive communication from different contacts in the programme.   As PCs, we took a proactive approach to ensure that the issues experienced with email overload were communicated within the programme, and we then agreed a communication strategy which was more appropriate to the needs arising within our institution.  This is now working adequately for us.  

Institutional collaboration

At the level of institutional collaboration, the true spirit of co-creation around content, and the authenticity in which inputs from implementing institutions are accepted, has helped to build trust within the partnership – an essential part of the process. This is demonstrated by the on-going consultation between us as Project Coordinators (PCs), and champions, for the AURA programme at Strathmore University and the lead contacts within the AURA consortium and this on-going consultation makes it much easier to resolve issues and maintain momentum within the programme.

Lessons learned

The benefit drawn from these experiences is that it is critical to be sensitive to the varying needs and interests of participants and try to accommodate this in programme implementation and management. This can mean changing procedures so that these meet institutional needs, or negotiating a deadline where this is necessary.

The AURA programme is developing good flexibility to accommodate a participant-centred approach in meeting challenges as they arise.  It is this approach that enables us as PCs to maintain momentum for the programme internally.  This approach also supports programme responsiveness at both the AURA consortium level and institutionally at Strathmore University.

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Early Experiences in Engagements around the AURA Programme

Strathmore University, a member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), accepted an invitation to participate in their Structured Training for African Researchers (STARS)programme. This took place in August 2015 when Strathmore was already in advanced engagements with the Consortium to implement AURA programme.

Structured Training for African Researchers (STARS) programme

The STARS project is an online professional skills course implemented collaboratively with African universities to develop and refine professional development for academic staff early in their careers. The project aims to institutionalize and embed early career support and build the skills and confidence of early career academics. The resources in the programme are collaboratively developed and are openly licensed under a creative commons license so that universities can adapt and embed the material within their own professional development offerings.

The programme was designed in a three year cycle. The first year involved the design of online content for training early career researchers. The second year involved piloting the online course in twelve universities. The third year involved implementation of the course with additional universities. This is the point at which Strathmore joined into the programme.

Similarities and differences between STARS and AURA programmes

The major similarities are that both programmes are focused on research capacity building among a more or less similar target group. The key differences are that STARS is already at an advanced stage of implementation while the African Universities' Research Approaches (AURA) programme is still in its first year. The key distinction in design and outcome between the two programmes is evident in the implementation.

At the point of recruitment, faculty were presented with details concerning the objectives and the implementation format of the two programmes. It appeared that the majority of the young scholars and early career researchers opted into the STARS programme, partly due to the perception that the amount of commitment was shorter and less intense than the AURA. However, early feedback shows that those in the AURA are making significant and demonstrable transformation in their research undertakings.

This experience highlights the importance of taking a strategic institutional view and developing a strong implementing capacity when taking on board similar programmes to avoid failure or collapse.
This experience provides an opportunity to learn and to better scrutinise future engagements against institutional capacity and goals

Engaging in both AURA and STARS provided Strathmore with an opportunity to explore how to position both programmes in the context of institutional goals.  We also had an opportunity to provide staff with a choice to enrol in either programme. The model of co-creation in the AURA Programme required creativity on the part of the champions in order to persuade staff to sign up for AURA especially because the STARS programme presented a perception of lighter work load commitment as compared to the AURA programme. 

Final reflections

Whilst it may appear that competition between the two programmes could pose challenges in maximising the benefits, this was not the view we took at Strathmore. Since there is an intended end in both programmes to empower the institutions involved to deliver and implement internally driven and sustainable capacity building programmes that will bring research outputs to a new level, having the two programmes provides our institution with an opportunity to complement the lessons learned from both programmes. Furthermore, Strathmore has taken an active step to harmonise the benefits by concentrating the programme management under a collaborative approach between the Research and Teaching departments to avoid scattering and duplicating efforts.  This would be a key recommendation for other institutions that when an institution is involved in two programmes that are addressing similar areas, or include synergies, then it is very important that the programme management is shared collaboratively between departments in order to avoid a silo mentality, to ensure that the programmes complement each other, and to prevent duplication.   

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

When E-learning is Not Like a Duck to Water

The advancements of information and communication technologies have enhanced teaching and learning practices across the globe including Africa. Through the African Universities' Research Approaches (AURA) programme, Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS) is also now using these technologies to deliver its teaching and research intervention training programmes to faculty members and students. However, the main question remains whether MUHAS researchers and students are prepared to fully embrace these technologies to enhance their teaching and learning and research practices amidst the multiple challenges they face?

Research One (R1) Learning Intervention

Through the AURA programme from September to October 2015, MUHAS rolled out AURA's Research One (R1) learning intervention.  This involved a pre-online session, a face to face session and a post-online session.  Research One (R1) was followed by an online regional event on the “Future of research in the 21st Century” organized from 2-4th November 2015.  

A high participant attrition rate was observed during the online training sessions mainly because participants were instructed to join the training individually in their offices. Most participants did not know how to use the e-learning platform due to lack of skills and also due to their mind-set towards online e-learning systems.

This observation may not be so surprising as many African universities, including MUHAS, face a number of challenges related to use of e-learning platforms including: frequent power outages,  the lack of the online learning culture, the mind-set of teacher-centred  (versus student-centred) on the part of many of the senior faculty, as well as lack of ICT skills, unreliable internet services and many other challenges. 

The low level of attendance of participants to the online training sessions at MUHAS calls for a need to build the capacity of faculty members and to cultivate a culture of online learning  within our institutions. However, as short term measure, this experience forced the MUHAS project coordinators and ALIRT teams to find a temporary solution to avert this situation. This short term measure included facilitating the online learning sessions collectively in a single room until participants were comfortable with attending online training individually in their offices.  

This solution however had cost implications in that MUHAS would need to have some equipment to conduct online learning to researchers collectively - headphones with speakers for each participant, - in order for them to fully participate in the AURA programme online activities.


The key lesson learnt from this experience is that before one adopts new technologies and strategies,   you will need to prepare and assess end users in terms of  their  competence or attitudes. Mitigate these deficiencies early on to ensure achievement of project objectives.

Dr. Doreen Mloka is a Medical Microbiologist/Molecular biologist. She is a Medical Education Fellow and the Director of Continuing Education and Professional Development at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS), Tanzania and co-coordinates the African Universities' Research Approaches (AURA) programme at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS).

Professor Lwoga holds a PhD in information studies from the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. She teaches and supervises both undergraduate and postgraduate students. She has facilitated a number of workshops and short courses.  She has published widely and has presented over 30 research papers in both international and local conferences.  Professor Lwoga currently co-coordinates the African Universities' Research Approaches (AURA) programme at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS), Tanzania, together with an additional four projects working with international partners in Sweden, South Africa and USA.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Experience in Enlisting Participants

The findings of the AURA background study in southern African universities, "Building Research Capacity: EnablingCritical Thinking Through Information Literacy in Higher Education in Africa" (Hepworth, Mark; Duvigneau, S. IDS. 2012), documented the realities of a burdened faculty with heavy teaching loads and little practical time to undertake any research activities. The findings of the study are applicable at Strathmore University, especially in bringing staff into the African Universities' Research Approaches (AURA)programme, as it can be difficult to get commitments from staff who already feel over-burdened.  As the project coordinators (PCs) for AURA at Strathmore, we had two options for enlisting participants:  a formal process and a targeted approach.

Formal process: pros and cons

In the formal process, the management direct the faculty to participate in the programme and are required to brief the appointing authority on their progress. The advantage of the formal process is that the recruitment of participants is simplified and there are usually a good number of participants in the specific programme. However, the downside of this formal approach is that it does not tap into the intrinsic motivation of the participants, hence the personal commitment of the participants may be lacking. Occasionally, the organizers of the programme events may have to keep appealing to authority for participant mobilisation.

Targeted approach:  pros and cons

In the targeted approach, faculty are offered the opportunity to participate in the programme on their own volition. This is done by arranging open fora where faculty are inducted into the programme and those interested then sign up. The advantage of this approach is that those who sign up are usually self-motivated and are more intensively engaged in the project. The downside is that the number of participants may be lower than anticipated.

Targeted approach at Strathmore

We opted for the targeted approach having carefully considered the deep level of commitment in time and involvement from the faculty demanded by the AURA programme.

The targeted approach requires a continuous level of personal engagement with the individual faculty to retain enthusiasm among the participants and to grow the number of participants to a critical level. Personal engagement implies: managing the different levels challenges that create barriers to effective participation of busy faculty. For example, scheduling events properly, effective time management, clear actionable communications amongst other factors.  In effect, as the PCs for the AURA programme at Strathmore, this targeted approach required both of us to take on the role of champions of AURA to encourage and foster the personal engagement and enthusiasm of faculty and to enlist participants.  For us, this approach was the better of the two options as it meant free to respond to the programme needs as required without involving an authority unnecessarily.

Lessons learned

The lessons from the Strathmore approach to enlisting participants as outlined above highlights the benefit of the role of champions who can keep the interests of participants alive without necessarily appealing to an authority.  The role of champions is a critical role because it is a key way of engaging individuals’ interest once an intervention has passed in the on-going programme and for building a critical mass of support within an institution.

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.

Managing Internal Bureaucracy to Facilitate Project Inception

Strathmore University, like all corporate entities, is structured in a manner to facilitate the achievement of its objectives. Usually, and over time, institutions develop a culture informed by experience and new knowledge. In the case of external engagements, the partnerships in Strathmore University have grown rapidly and this growth has come with new management procedures and regulations both to govern and to ensure value addition. These procedures can sometimes slow down project conceptualisation and inception.

In the case of the African Universities' Research Approaches (AURA) programme, this process was further complicated because the programme has a design that is co-creative, hence aspects of programme design are left open to be developed in collaboration with participating partners. This more open approach in the programme design made it challenging to sell as an idea to university management, and potential beneficiaries, who were not so familiar with a co-creative approach.  This led them to perceive the co-creative approach as ‘lack of clarity’ in the design at the onset which was likely to pose a greater risk.

Establishing internal collaboration

The first step in taking the AURA collaboration forward internally was to establish, in June 2015, a bridge by having the Strathmore Learning Teaching Services Department (LTS) and the Research Office as the key drivers of the programme.

LTS has a mandate on faculty development and this was a key pillar in the AURA application process. The Research Office has a mandate on research management and therefore plays a key role in contributing to the achievement of the strategic goals of the University in the area of Research.
The AURA programme provided an opportunity to establish an internal collaborative venture between the two departments and, in effect, to situate the programme at the confluence of teaching and research objectives.

The concept of the ALIRT team is a collaborative one, bringing on board the academia as well as critical service departments of the Library and IT. This collaborative platform between Strathmore project coordinators and the ALIRT team added credibility to the inception efforts for implementing the AURA programme. The visit by the AURA team for the institutional assessment also provided an opportunity for advocacy with the high level university management team.


The university management and the participants in the AURA programme developed high expectations from a collaboration that has the prospect to break new grounds in teaching and research at Strathmore. The potential benefits of the AURA programme are reflected in these internal collaborations as well as through cordial external engagement with the consortium partners for the programme.

Stephen Ng’ang’a and Cavin Opiyo are based at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya.