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Dr. Varun Gupta: Enabling Innovators To Revolutionize Education

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Dr. Varun Gupta is an Educationist and the Education Advisor to the State of African Diaspora. Apart from being Peace Ambassador for UN SUSTAINABLE GOALS, he is the Executive Director at VQENA (an NGO working on the 4th principle of the UNITED NATIONS – Quality Education). Being an Educator and the Vice president OSG, Dr. Varun offers Scholarships with a belief in educating everyone everywhere. In this interview with Alaba Ayinuola, he shares more insight on his impacts in the educational ecosystem in Africa. Excerpts.

Alaba: Could you briefly tell us about yourself?

Dr. Varun: I am the Education Advisor to the State of African Diaspora, well known for being humble, dedicated, and God-fearing. Committed to encouraging the global movement that inspires to turn consciousness into action at the Earth Charter Center for Education for Sustainable Development is a few of my objectives. A belief to treat all living beings with respect and consideration prevail to promote the transition to sustainable ways of living is what I preach.

Apart from being Indian Peace Ambassador for United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, I serve on the board of one dozen global firms in the academic sector and have collaborated for years with many international educational organizations to develop specialized programs being run for the uplifting of the African people. I have marked milestones with the pedestals of rich academic and professional experience and a young budding intellectual scholar in the education service industry. Also, Swadeshi’s business and products are what I support falling in nexus with the thought process of our Honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi Ji.

Alaba: What attracted you to Africa and her educational system? 

Dr. Varun: Africa! Feels like home and I have loved the way Africa has always hosted me. The cost of living in Africa is considerably lower than developed nations. The remuneration packages are quite attractive. For a business person like me as an investor, there is a huge scope of growth as many of the African countries are rich in natural resources.

On the other hand, being an educationist, the good news on education in Africa is that out-of-school numbers have fallen dramatically over the past decade.  The elimination of school fees, increased investment in school infrastructure, and increased teacher recruitment have all contributed to the change. I want to flow with the change and become a part of development is what I would like to add. 

Alaba: In your role as an Education Advisor to the State of African Diaspora, what are your major achievements since your appointment? 

Dr. Varun: As a member and education advisor of the African Diaspora I, ministers and MP together as a part of the constitution work on initiatives of the Parliament in sectors of activities ranging from agriculture, education, healthcare, cultural and human rights, economy and social issues, etc believe towards Africa’s empowerment especially with respect to education, skill development and employment. 

While working on a project named “Cyber future academy” in Africa, I have promoted education through various programmes in the most remote and marginalized areas of Africa. We ensure and strongly believe that the benefits of the Right to Education reach the most deprived children.  

Also, we focus on the most important aspect to boost the spread of education is to spread awareness amongst the parents and the communities and every child needs education.

I also feel proud to announce the latest update (Groundbreaking initiative) – launch of New Diaspora ID on African Liberation Day by the State of the African Diaspora (SOAD) and the Economic Community of the 6th Region (ECO-6). This new ID is to create a new citizenship and common unity for the Afro-descendant members of the African Diaspora. 

With me, the real aim of education is to enable the students to learn HOW TO THINK and not just WHAT TO THINK. They are trained to focus not on the problem but on the solution.

Success of a country depends upon the success of its people and People can succeed only if they are able to get the exposure required to become competitive.

Alaba: How are you enabling innovators to revolutionize education in Africa?

Dr. Varun: First small step already taken includes changing the definition of classroom based training to online sessions and webinars. An approach towards technological innovations (traditional to smart learning environment) using digitalization technology is the path adopted. Here teachers can now engage their students in a more personalized, individual manner rather than the traditional, one-size-fits-all approach.

And to promote education and help the African youth take concrete steps towards their dreams, I, in the capacity of Vice President- On Sky Global is extremely happy to announce 100% Scholarship Scheme for 200 Students, no fee will be charged except for the registration fee and they will be given support & ample guidance to complete our courses and enhance their CV with international qualification. I also believe and am contributing to make Education should be the top development agenda.

Alaba: Mention some of your projects in Africa and its impacts?

Dr. Varun: In May 2014, I volunteered to go to Kigali, Rwanda (East Africa) leaving USA (California) to help a new University and agreed to hold the post as Director and later a year, promoted as Deputy Vice Chancellor (Administration and Finance), as the principal administrative officer of the University. When I was in Africa, I continued to manage the foundation using ICT and communicating to all stakeholders online.

I served as an independent consultant and program content developer (and mostly pro bono) and organized capacity building training programs to governments and private organizations in the area of (a) education, skills training (b) public administration (c) good governance, and (d) leadership. I traveled to many countries to provide various workshops and seminars.

Dr Varun Gupta

Have also developed the School of Postgraduate Studies Vision and Mission (Curriculum Statements, Prospectus and 2 year Strategic plan, 2014 for an university. I conducted training on “Developing Institutional Corporate and Strategic Work Plans”, Rwanda, Uganda & Nigeria, 2015-2016. Also established a presence and promoted programs under scholarship schemes to many nations in the East, West, Central and Southern African region.

I would also like to mention that I had participated and presented an ICT strategic plan in five days Quality Improvement Program of Entrepreneurship Development sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education in  Kigali, 20th – 24th July 2015. (Rwanda – ICT Plan).

Alaba:
The current global crisis is changing the face of education especially in Africa. What adaptive solution will you offer?

Dr. Varun: The world of education is threatened and is at a juncture. One path leads back to where things were before the COVID-19 crisis, a system that, by and large, has been in place for the last 200 years. The other path concentrates on much more investment in education but also on student wellness while doing whatever can be done to ensure that learning is happening not just through test scores and output but by being more closely connected to the psychological and emotional realities of learners.

Let us aim for the path of wisdom. As the ancient proverb says: the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now. It’s not too late.

Alaba: What is the future of education in Africa post Covid-19?

Dr. Varun: It is clear that technological innovations such as content management systems (CMS), learning management systems (LMS), and internet use have become a part of the DNA of higher education in Africa. These innovations, like COVID-19, have come to alter teaching and learning pedagogies.

Alaba: What advice would you give African leaders on the importance of education to Africa’s development?

Dr. Varun: The future of education must seek to amplify humanity’s greatest evolutionary advantage: its ability to collaborate flexibly in very large numbers across time and place. Both biology and history teach us that we cannot solve problems and flourish alone and in isolation. Enhancing social cohesion both at the local and global levels must become a core objective of education particularly if, as seems likely, internationalism and global collaboration end up as casualties of the current crisis.

Our education future must include active steps to bring the world together across all forms of the divide—political, cultural, social, and economic. This will require us to once again put ethics and values at the core of the education enterprise.

Also Read: Investing in Africa: Interview with Amb. Prof. Nabhit Kapur, Founder Global Chamber of Business Leaders

Alaba: What is your advice to African youths and entrepreneurs?   

Dr. Varun: A famous proverb quotes – “if the cow gives milk as a healthy food, why ask whether she is black or white”. Our skills should become our identity. We should encourage the youth to keep on learning new skills and implementing the same in their career because we will be known for our skills; the value we will be able to derive to the nation. It will not be about who we are; but it will be then what we are; I think in Africa there are a lot of young entrepreneurs who have great ideas but never get noticed or past the small-scale level.

I think one reason is that they poorly position themselves and the organization. They don’t know how to tell their story. They don’t know how to create their brand. And I think that is also very important.

Dr Varun Gupta

Alaba: Tell us about your favorite destinations in Africa? Why?

Dr. Varun: Oh Yes! With no doubt it’s Rwanda – The Land of Thousand Hills where I lived and spent 3 years. Many beautiful memories associated, I consider it as my second home. I love this country and its people to the core.  After traveling to more than 20 countries in Africa, I find this is the safest country to live and quite easy to do business. The country is very stable with good governance (inspired and touched by the good governance of the His Excellency President Paul Kagame who inherited Rwanda that had been torn apart by Genocide.

Under his leadership, the country is now very stable, prosperous, unified and in large part, reconciled. Social services, such as education, healthcare, housing and livestock are provided to the needy, with no distinction of ethnicity or region of origin. More power to the country and its people. 

There are infinite reasons to love Rwanda. I have plans to spend my retirement in presigitious Rwanda and look forward to visiting them soon. 

Dr. Varun Gupta

Education

WGI and GE aim to bring literacy to millions through launch of new education platform

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WGI CEO Chance Wilson and GE seek to expand literacy in many underserved communities around the world.

Lyra will initially teach users how to read and write in English, and will be offered for free to people in need of literacy skills the most; The app was co-developed by WGI and GE, as part of their ongoing partnership; 20-year-old WGI CEO Chance Wilson and GE seek to expand literacy in many underserved communities around the world

The WGI Worldwide Company and GE today announced the launch of Lyra, a new app-based education platform that uses innovative advanced speech recognition and touch screen analysis to teach reading and writing. It was co-developed by WGI and GE.

The app represents the start of WGI’s transition to a digital provider of literacy learning and makes learning literacy skills more accessible for both adults and children. The app’s 26 modules are based on the evidence-based synthetic phonics approach to literacy and build on the foundation of WGI’s six years of in-person education.

“We realized that while there will never be enough teachers, there are enough mobile devices, and they are already in the hands of people who can benefit from literacy training, said Chance Wilson, WGI Chairman, CEO and Founder. “We worked quickly to bring on new teachers and set up programs in new communities, we wanted to do more given the urgent need.”

Wilson, who set up WGI six years ago as a fourteen-year-old middle school student, is passionate about bringing literacy to as many people as possible. At first, he set up in-person classes in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Once established there, he set about developing plans for national and global impact, which eventually saw a partnership with GE blossom through GE’s global network of volunteers and software developers. Now, Wilson and GE are aligned that moving into the digital world could not be more important.

Nabil Habayeb, President & CEO of GE Global, is championing the partnership and says, “Looking at the impact this app has the potential to make around the world, GE is fully supportive of this effort. With so many people isolated and in need of developing new skills, Lyra can help meet a critical demand in underserved communities that have little or no access to literacy resources – a situation made even more dire in the wake of COVID-19.”

Globally, more than 700 million people cannot read or write. This limits their ability to gain employment, improve their career prospects, or pursue higher education. It also can have a far-reaching impact on mental health. Lyra now offers a solution for all of them.

The Lyra app features an engaging space-themed interface and user experience. The theme reflects the name of the app – Lyra, which is the brightest constellation in the night sky. The app teaches letters and words by presenting them on the screen, pronouncing them, and then inviting users to say the letters and words out loud. Powerful voice recognition technology then analyzes the response. The app also uses the phone’s touch screen to prompt learners to write the letters or words they are studying, then analyzes the results to tell them whether or not the writing is correct.

Also Read: Zindi recruitment platform set to connect organisations with Africa’s data science talent

WGI and GE are poised to continue their partnership by working on developing new versions of the app to provide literacy lessons in other languages. Currently, the app provides more than two years’ worth of English language literacy lessons and is designed for those who speak English, whether as a first language or as a foreign language but can’t read or write it. It is available for download now on the Apple and Android app stores as Lyra by WGI.

Issued by GE

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Education

Inclusive Education Leads to Future Opportunities

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Computer Lab for The Blind More Student (Image by: inABLE.org)

Did you know that people with disabilities (PWDs) face higher rates of multidimensional poverty, including poorer health, lower levels of employment and earnings, as well as higher poverty rates? These circumstances are worsened by the lack of or poor education. A 2018 study by the World Bank found that children with disabilities are much more likely to never enroll in school at all and only half of children with disabilities of primary school completion age can read and write. 

John Brown, a student at Kenyatta University and an alumnus and beneficiary of inABLE’s computer education program considers himself lucky to have acquired computer skills at an early age. He explains, “I can now easily learn and interact online better than most people and I am also in the process of developing my own website where I will be talking about disability issues.”  

“Every day, I am incredibly happy that despite the widely held belief that only sighted people can use technology, inABLE has opened opportunities to more blind and visually impaired youth making them employable with a 90% success rate” says Peter Okeyo, Programs Officer at inABLE. 

However, John believes that the existing accessibility limitations in higher institutions of learning restrict the potential and aspirations of PWDs.  

Brenda Kiema, Disability Inclusion Officer at Tangaza University agrees with John’s conclusion and points out that very few African universities are well prepared to accommodate people living with disabilities. She emphasizes that in Kenya, 70% of PWDs have been excluded in the higher learning setting in terms of infrastructure and online learning. 

Sylvia Mochabo, Founder, Andy Speaks 4 Special Needs Persons Africa is also working to change the inaccurate perception in most African cultures that children with neurodevelopment disabilities are somehow mentally unstable. When, in fact, they can thrive with the right support and equipment. She encourages families and caregivers to bring special needs children into the communities and advocate for their education with accommodations that address their specific learning needs. 

According to UNICEF, inclusive education is the most effective way to give all children a fair chance to go to school, learn and develop the skills they need to thrive. Inclusive education provides real learning opportunities to the groups that have been traditionally excluded. 

Also Read: Irene Mbari- Kirika- inABLE.org, Career and Impact 

In following the wisdom of Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 

Note: As inABLE plans the virtual Inclusive Africa Conference 2020 in October, inABLE thanks the media for their work to advance inclusive education and accessibility in Africa.

Written by: Esther Njeri Mwangi, Public Relations Officer inABLE.org  

Visit: inABLE.org

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African academics launch initiative to collate COVID-19 data across Africa, call for volunteers

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Dr Vukosi Marivate

Computational epidemiologist and Assistant Professor of Global Health at Boston University Dr Elaine Nsoesie and University of Pretoria Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science Dr Vukosi Marivate have launched an initiative to collate Covid-19 data across Africa and are calling for volunteers to join the project.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Africa was reported in Egypt on 14 February. The patient was a Chinese national who had recently arrived in Cairo. As of 27 March, more than 2,400 cases have been reported across Africa. South Africa, Egypt and Algeria have the highest number of cases – 927, 495, and 367 cases, respectively. Most African countries are reporting new cases every day.

Earlier this year, a group of epidemiologists led by Dr. Moritz Kraemer at Oxford University started collating data on the epidemic in China. This effort has grown to include contributions from around the world.

As part of this global effort, Dr Nsoesie and Dr Marivate have put together a team of more than twenty volunteers from across Africa to develop an open dataset of cases as they are reported.

Dr Elaine Nsoesie

The dataset includes patient demographics, date of diagnosis, location, symptoms, travel history, source of information and other necessary information. The location data is at the city, town or village level, and does not include household geographical coordinates so as to preserve individuals’ privacy.

The initiative obtains the data from official sources such as the World Health Organisation, Ministries of Health and Africa CDC, as well as unofficial sources like online news sites.

Also Read: Ensuring that Hunger does not Kill more people than COVID-19 in Africa

These data have many uses. It can help us understand the spread of the SARS-COV-2 in Africa, epidemiological characteristics of cases and how it compares to reports in other parts of the world. The data can also be used in models to study the impact of various interventions, such as social distancing and for making recommendations on resource allocation.

For example this dashboard developed by Dr Marivate and colleagues provides a picture of COVID-19 in South Africa, based on currently available data.

The data collation initiative is calling for more volunteers who can help in collating data. Data collation can be a tedious effort for a few people, but many contributors will make the task easier. Those interested in joining this effort can send an email to onelaine@bu.edu and also look at Github Repo for additional instructions.

The initiative is also looking to support data collection efforts by Ministries of Health (MoH) in Africa by connecting them with volunteers in Africa. Volunteers with technical and public health expertise can support the collection, organisation, and visualisation of relevant data on MoH websites. The rapid increase in new cases is putting a significant burden on the health ministries and impacting the reporting of data. This is understandable because MoHs are addressing multiple challenges at this time – including tracking, testing, and quarantining cases – while implementing social distancing and other public health measures to control the local epidemics.

“We want to encourage everyone to follow the advice of public health experts and clinicians who are dedicating their time and lives to fighting this pandemic in Africa. Stay safe and healthy,” said Dr Nsoesie and Dr Marivate.

About Dr Elaine Nsoesie and Dr Vukosi Marivate

Elaine Nsoesie is a Computational Epidemiologist and Assistant Professor of Global Health at Boston University. She was born and raised in Cameroon. You can contact her by email at onelaine@bu.edu or Twitter: @ensoesie.

Vukosi Marivate is the ABSA UP Chair of Data Science and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, University of Pretoria. He leads the Data Science for Social Impact research group. Vukosi is also a visiting Principal Data Scientist at Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa. You can contact him by email vukosi.marivate@cs.up.ac.za or Twitter @vukosi.

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