*Version française de l’article*
A ‘Kick-Off’ Meeting was held from the 3rd to the 6th of March in South Africa to launch the innovative “Digital Initiative for African Centres of Excellence” project (DIGI-FACE). This event, which brought together pedagogical, media and technical experts from DAAD’s African-German Centres of Excellence, was jointly organised by the University of Applied Sciences Kehl (lead agent) in cooperation with one of its DIGI-FACE consortium partners, namely Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
DIGI-FACE is funded by the DAAD with the support of the German Federal Foreign Office. The project aims at supporting and improving the digital skills of all members and alumni of DAAD’s African Centres of Excellence and its network via the development of e- and blended learning modules and digital tools. The participants at the Kick-Off Meeting comprised 60 delegates drawn from Centres located in South Africa, Niger, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Mali, Namibia and Germany.
Key ideas shared
Professor Cheryl Foxcroft, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Learning and Teaching at Nelson Mandela University, officially opened the meeting. She emphasised the need for all universities to prepare for student learning in digital spaces. Prof Ewald Eisenberg (University of Kehl), Prof Bernd Siebenhuener (Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg), Junes Arfaoui (Frankfurt School of Finance & Management) and Prof Paul Webb (Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth) outlined the structure, objectives and activities of the DIGI-FACE project.
Inspiring presentations and inputs from lecturers and experts with great experience in implementing professional e-learning formats on digital platforms stimulated the participants’ expectations. Prof Michael Samuel, the moderator of the event from University of KwaZulu Natal, gave a mind-expanding presentation on collaborative approaches to capacity development and digitalisation through constructive disruption.
Dr Dorothee Weyler, the DAAD programme manager of the African Excellence programme, explained the background of the project from the DAAD perspective. She noted that the DIGI-FACE programme was created to help achieve the overall goals of the African Excellence Programme more efficiently and effectively. These goals include improved teaching and learning and the creation of a better research environment for greater impact via digitalisation. She pointed out that DAAD’s interest goes far beyond the platform that is going to be established. The project has great potential to open its content and outcomes to other users, learners, researchers and projects beyond the African Excellence programme. Consequently, the DIGI-FACE project is a pilot example to show what is possible when using digital components to produce (open) short courses that will be useful for other university staff and students across Africa, beyond this project.
Alexander Knoth, Senior Expert for Digitalisation at DAAD emphasised that DAAD wants to avoid “digital islands” and instead supports the creation of digital ecosystems that bring together different skills, knowledge and experience. The aim is to give students the opportunity to get to know different cultures and languages via intercultural communication, not only through international mobility, but also through “virtual mobility”.
Prof Johan van Niekerk from the Noroff School of Technology and Digital Media in Norway gave insights and perspectives from an online focused university. He pointed out that a professional production team is not absolutely necessary for the production of technology-supported learning content. He noted however, that there is still a great need for human resources to produce appropriate content. Mike Swanepoel, who leads digital transformation at Nelson Mandela University, encouraged the delegates to address current challenges and accelerate curriculum and classroom design in the future based on mobile and digital learning technology. He emphasised that educators need new skills if digital transformation is to succeed and stressed that transformation is not only about digital technologies, but also about people and their mind-sets. Both Johan van Niekerk and Mike Swanepoel emphasised that the main challenge is to produce content in a way that the material has added value and a relevant benefit for the end user. Simply filming normal teaching activities does not make for a successful online-course – a clear script and concept that provides for meaningful online activities, support and assessment is vital.
Hands-on activities and practical sessions
Following the presentations, hands-on activities and practical sessions enabled the delegates to experience how digital content can and should be developed in an exemplary manner. They developed scripts, short videos and quizzes for an online course in small groups and, with the use of a Padcaster and sequencing tools, they discovered that producing e-learning material is not that complicated. These activities included pedagogical inputs and advice, which allowed the participants to reflect on how to use which tool and scenario to prepare and produce e-learning modules and materials in a worthwhile and proper way.
After the practical sessions, the delegates discussed their own visions and action steps, the challenges and responsibilities of digitalisation, and how DIGI-FACE and digital transformation can be implemented in the Centres and throughout the African Excellence network. Delegates from each Centre reflected together on the profile, skills and needs of their target group in order to identify centre-specific approaches. Upon having outlined the different responsibilities at each Centre for this project, they will report to their universities and create teams that will contribute to DIGI-FACE.
Project leaders and coordinators, pedagogical experts, multi-media and ICT heads of the Centres, as well as representatives of the Alumni association, worked in transdisciplinary and transnational groups. They pooled their experiences and needs to define how the project could contribute significantly towards improving higher education and research activities both within each Centre and between the African-German Centres of Excellence. The heterogeneous nature of the groups ensured that meaningful ideas and fruitful ideas on how to enhance cooperation, build networks and provide opportunities for exchanges via digital solutions.
The Centres welcomed the project’s activities and recognised many positive points and benefits. They believe that DIGI-FACE will enable the Centres to reach more students and a broader public, facilitate cross-national cooperation, enhance the skills of lecturers, staff, alumni and students and will strengthen network activities. The delegates were highly motivated in terms of contributing to the project. They indicated their willingness to integrate existing courses as e-learning material into the platform and look forward with curiosity to the announcement of training courses.
Planning for project sustainability
Following presentations on the results of the group work session, the consortium representatives from the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, Nilly Chingaté Castaño and Junes Arfaoui, sketched out ideas and the basis for the project’s activities for developing a business plan. They pointed out the imperative of implementation of DIGI-FACE in a sustainable way in order to cover the costs of operating the platform, investing in innovation and developing content by the Centres beyond the funding period.
To this end, the delegates met in groups independently of their Centre affiliation to work in-depth on various topics of the project, including digital content and skills, training and the production of generic courses, as well as how to create a specific sustainable business plan for the project. They also discussed aspects of the successful management of the project and the necessary digital infrastructure.
The final kick
During the closing session of the Kick-Off Meeting, Dr Weyler presented the upcoming DAAD “African-German Network for Research, Innovation and Knowledge Transfer” (AGRIT) programme to the delegates. This programme aims at enhancing the research capacities of the African Excellence Programme and generating synergies together with the activities and digital tools of DIGI-FACE. After a short introduction by Dr Weyler, the delegates discussed in groups how this programme could be integrated into the African Excellence programme and DIGI-FACE.
The motivated involvement of the delegates and inspiring inputs resulted in better understandings by all of the architecture of the DIGI-FACE project, and an appreciation that the development of the project is a co-determined process involving all of the African-German Centres of Excellence.
After the official closure of the Kick-Off Meeting, everyone enjoyed a joint dinner together and a pleasant excursion on the following day – both which strengthened personal relationships and enabled fruitful informal exchanges.
Workshops on developing digital and online competencies will be held in East- and West-Africa during 2020. These workshops will include project leaders, academic leaders and multimedia- and ICT staff of the Centres. The format of these workshops depends on national and international travel restrictions and health advisories.