Dr. Varun Gupta: Enabling Innovators To Revolutionize Education
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.
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.
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.
Kevin Hart Visits Masibambane College in Orange Farm
Kevin Hart, comedian and Hollywood box office powerhouse, visited Masibambane College in Orange Farm as a guest of Education Africa. He was accompanied by HE Dr. Reuben E. Brigety II, Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of South Africa, and Lord Matt Scheckner, Chairman of Advertising Week and President of Education Africa Inc. They undertook an interactive tour of the school before Kevin Hart took to the stage to engage in conversation with some 2 000 school learners.
Social cohesion is a cornerstone of Education Africa, a Johannesburg-based NPO that was established in 1992 and prides itself on delivering a diverse portfolio of educational projects to disadvantaged South African communities for more than 3 decades. Education Africa’s motto is Educate • Equip • Empower and the organisation is committed to Make real change Happen. Masibambane College is one of Education Africa’s flagship projects.
James Urdang, CEO & Founder of Education Africa said, “When we heard that Kevin Hart was coming to our school, we wanted to share the experience with other schools in the Orange Farm community, as well as St John’s College with whom we partner in ensuring the maintenance of high academic standards at Masibambane College.”
The learners who braved the wet weather and participated in this social cohesion event represented the following schools: Masibambane College; St John’s College; Highlands North High School; Leshata Secondary School, Mphethi Mahlatsi High School; Jabulile Secondary School and Aha-Thuto Secondary School. They were not aware that Mr Hart would be addressing them.
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“You can imagine their surprise when we announced that Kevin Hart was our special guest,” said Urdang. “The level of excitement was off the charts!”
Kevin Hart shared the stage with 5 of the high school learners, answered their questions, and offered some heartfelt words of motivation to the enthusiastic audience. He expressed how moved he was by the people he had met at the school and told the learners that, “Knowing that you guys are part of the future; that you guys will be a part of the change; that you guys are responsible for breaking new ground is what I’m most excited about. I hope you guys truly understand how bright your future is. I am so inspired by everyone that I have met today. Dream big, love strong and take advantage of your now.”
He added that some people struggle at times with being themselves. “But things become easier once you find the happiness in you, and then everything else will fall into place. Through comedy, I found happiness in telling my story, living my story and putting that story on display for everybody to see. You must always be true to yourself. I love to put people in an environment where we can all laugh together.”
Hart also shared some advice on the important aspect of mindset. “You can choose to focus on the bad and let the bad weigh you down, or you can find new reasons to live and smile. Embrace the idea of a dream, because that’s what keeps you going. When you don’t have a dream, that’s when life gets stagnant. He also encouraged the learners to embrace the idea of work. “Always give 100% – sometimes when you give 100% you get 1 000% in return; stay grounded; life is hard but know that the sun always comes out at the end of a storm.”
And finally, he urged learners to take advantage of their education. “I challenge you guys to take advantage of your now; I challenge you to think about your future. Be a future leader; be a ground-breaker; be a changer – that’s what you’re supposed to do because you are the next generation. You are the future of South Africa. If you want change, then make change.”
Also speaking at the event, Ambassador Brigety offered this piece of advice to the students: “Your passport to your destiny and your future starts here. I hope and pray that you take advantage of every last second of your education. Because South Africa and the world needs you, and we cannot wait to see what you are going to do with your lives.”
At the closing of the event, James Urdang thanked Mr. Hart for visiting Masibambane College and interacting with the Grade 1 learners. He also thanked Kevin Hart for meeting with Education Africa’s Early Childhood Development (ECD) team and their ECD students from the Orange Farm community.
Urdang presented Kevin Hart with a gift from Education Africa – a framed plate of the late Walter Sisulu who was a great friend and supporter of Education Africa, and on whose recommendation Masibambane College was built in Orange Farm.
Kevin Hart is in South Africa for the World Premiere of his Amazon film Die Hart the Movie along with making stops in Cape Town and Johannesburg on his Reality Check world tour. Hart along with Thai Randolph (CEO of Heartbeat, Hart’s global media company) were keynote speakers at Advertising Week Africa. Hartbeat partnered with Advertising Week to bring the inaugural edition of Advertising Week Africa to Johannesburg. Advertising Week is the world’s largest annual gathering of marketing, media, and technology leaders. Its long-anticipated debut in Africa took place from 15-18 February 2023.
The Viroscape Series: Use of Technology in education during Covid-19
By Dr Masha, Dr Eze, Dr Lamont-Mbawuli
According to an article written by Bonilla-Molina, the concept of “Global Pedagogical Blackout” refers to the conversion between the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolution, for a progressive educational reality.
It is important for one to consider the complex interaction of “viral behaviors” in all spheres of life. A publication in Education Philosophy and Theory, defines the concept of “viral modernity”, as an example of “bio-informationalism”, which applies to “viral technologies, codes and ecosystems in information systems, publication, education and emerging knowledge”. There is a necessity for flexible education (teaching and learning anywhere, anytime) that promotes a more just, accessible, autonomous, and creative system.
To develop educators, one needs to employ the use of digital technologies in classrooms which is still far from generating systemic change, rather promoting “islands of innovation”, based on the work of excellent teachers who carry out innovation in their teaching practices using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) without mediating a formal process of lifelong learning. Confounding factors that can affect the use of ICT in education are the following: lack of trust within the educational centre, the role of the ICT coordinator and the management team, as well as the existence of networks for access to new information and knowledge sharing among teachers, have greater positive effect on the use of ICTs compared to traditional lifelong learning activities .Teacher training must go beyond the development of basic digital skills but rather to seek to strategize an integrative the interpretative and creative potential of ICT into their training actions.
One of the important factors needed to build good nations is education, as it is considered a backbone of most countries (Raheem & Khan, 2020). As the essence of education is to empower the lives of students, with a prerequisite of ensuring their health and well-being (Yong, 2020), Higher Education Institutes (HEI’s) are forced to reconsider what part of their educational delivery will be offered in person and what part will be offered on-line (Dennis, 2020).
Against the backdrop of uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic and therefore the length of the lockdown (Bawa, 2020), HEIs in South Africa have committed themselves to completing the 2020 academic year and one of the three possible scenarios in the uncertain terrain presented by the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic (Dell, 2020) is the use of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) in teaching and learning (Behari-leak & Ganas, 2020; Demuyakor, 2020; Mhlanga & Moloi, 2020), a platform on which lecturers’ and students’ interactions of all kinds are strictly on-line.
As a result of the massification of the higher education system in South Africa, HEIs now see that participation of students who are diverse in terms of age, gender, social background, schooling background and expectations (Crisp, Palmer, Turnbull, Nettelbeck, Ward, LeCouteur, Sarria, Strelan & Schneider, 2009) include first year students (Tinto, 1988; Brewer, 2013; Brinkworth, McCann, Matthews & Nordstrom, 2009).
These are mainly international students (Chysikos, Ahmed & Ward, 2017), indigenous students from isolated locations (Abdullah & Elia, 2009), students from rural backgrounds (Maila & Ross, 2018; Pillay, 2010), students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Hobden & Hobden, 2015), students who are first-generation students (FGS) in HEIs (Bayaga & Lekena, 2018; Heymann & Carolissen, 2011) and first time entering (FTEN) university students. FTEN undergraduate students refer to all students who are entering university for the first time and enrolled in formal undergraduate academic programmes (DHET, 2018). Most students from HEIs in South Africa are from either rural areas, farms, or townships.
Artificial Intelligence/Technology Assistance in Education
The VLE platform is now widely accepted as a system that supports learning within the HEI realm (Dunn, 2003). It comes with facilities that allow lecturers to download notes in different formats and to receive feedback from students (Adu et al., 2020). There are several other advantages as far as the use of VLEs is concerned as revealed by several authors (e.g., Erasmus, Loedolff, Mda, & Nel, 2019; Montazer, 2014; Najafi, 2014; Negash & Vilkas, 2017; Warnich, Carrell, Elbert, & Hatfield, 2018). The common advantages of VLE include three elements; namely convenience for individual paperwork, automatic traditionalism and conformity. Accordingly, learning via the VLE platform is imperceptibly becoming a learning strategy in the teaching and learning realm, as such it is utilised by HEIs in many developed economies (Negash & Vilkas, 2017).
As part of the VLE platform, HEIs have seen the use and application of information and communication technologies to improve teaching and learning processes. Seen as a unifying phrase accustomed to explaining the areas associated with the internet, web-based instruction and technologies directions (Lorrain, 2017), VLEs enable numerous students in HEIs to study synchronously; thus HEIs have grown to enjoy its popularity since this method improves students’ academic achievement (Khalkhali, Shakibayi & Andosh, 2015).
However, since most students in South African HEIs come from majorly rural and peri-urban areas that are geographically spread across the nine Provinces, the VLE platform has resulted in challenges (experienced by both lecturers and students) such as lack of on-line learning environment, accessibility to data/Wi-Fi/internet and their usage, lack of connectivity, personality traits and attitude towards the use of smartphones, laptops and iPads. HEIs draw most of their students from rural areas of the Eastern Cape Province, with some coming from low quality primary and secondary schooling. Having not settled into their first year on campus when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, most students were immensely under-prepared to undertake instructions using the VLE platform.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) development is entrenched in the idea of distance education and openness in education. It has the potential of 24 hours access to cost-effective information, which attracts many learners across the globe. This type of learning can be useful for those learners who pursue university degrees whilst working. MOOCs are different from traditional university online modules in that participation is not limited, it is free, and it has a high scale production of modules for a high number of participants.
Other advantages of MOOCs include the reality that it has the potential of expansion, hence, it provides an avenue for income generation, it also provides a wide range of students’ access to the online education programme at low cost (Jung Lee, 2018; Phan et al., 2016; Zhou, 2016), it is flexible and accommodates some short courses apart from online degree qualifications, lastly it offers high accessibility and greater autonomy in the learning process (Shah, 2018a).
MOOCs flexibility includes participation without necessary entry or prerequisite qualification. This does not mean that it is meant for novice. According to Li and Powell (2013), MOOC is not an extension of the online teaching and learning approach but offers an opportunity for the recipients to think outside the box on different modules that include fundamentals of open education. Language and information communication and technologies (ICT) skills are also requirements for MOOCs. As submitted by Lee et al. (2016), it is behavioural to engage in terms of completing a task, having feelings toward a task, and intellectual or mental efforts. Ben-Eliyahu et al. (2018) and Oga-Baldwin et al. (2017) shared similar conceptualization, that involvement is about contribution in learning activities, which has three important elements that include behavioural engagement, emotional engagement, and intellectual engagement. Hsieh (2014) report that there are three types of learner behaviours which exhibit signs of engagement namely: cognitive effort, active participation, and interactions with instructors.
Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment (MOODLE)
Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment (MOODLE) is a free web application that promotes effective online learning sites. It can be in the form of a course management system (Course Management System – CMS) through the Internet, also known as a Learning Management System (LMS) or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). One of its main advantages is that it allows any user with knowledge of programming to adapt and modify it according to their needs because it is open source. MOODLE can be installed at no cost at all and there is no cost for upgrading. Making any update is not by force, neither can one be forced to buy tools that they do not want. The teacher is expected to manage the platform per their needs (Adu et al., 2020).
In conclusion, the use of artificial intelligence/technologies in education already has a strong and affirmative influence on higher education delivery as educational resources (all human, material, non-material audio-visual, school environment and community) from around the world have become more freely accessible and more interactive medium for learning are employed. COVID 19 has perpetuated the use of artificial intelligence/technology in education in three major ways.
Firstly, a new educational and classroom tools that enable new techniques of offering the course; secondly, a change in pedagogy in teaching and learning and thirdly new educational systems to enrich and enhance the conventional teaching pattern. Examples of these new educational and classroom tools are Google Apps, Basecamp, Slack, Trello, Red Pen, BeeCanvas, Yammer and Wrike. These tools facilitate interactions between instructors and students to share documents online. Electronic readers are portable devices for reading digital books and periodicals, such as the Amazon Kindle, Apple ipad, Barnes & Noble Nook, Bookeen Cybook Opus, the Kobo Reader, Sony Reader, the Samsung Galaxy, and the likes. These assist instructors and students to communicate through diagrams, drawings, and text.
Dr Maribanyana Lebeko who is part of the advisory for Simanye Clinic for his assistance in terms of compilation, editing and proofreading of this article. Dr Eric Makoni for his initial thoughts and contributions to the Viroscape series.
Calvin University Appoints Adejoke Ayoola Founding Dean of its School of Health
Calvin professor of nursing Adejoke Ayoola, PhD, RN, FAAN (Image & Article: Calvin)
Calvin University has appointed Adejoke Bolanle Ayoola as the founding dean of its School of Health. Ayoola stood out among the high caliber candidates reviewed by the search committee – a team which included Provost Noah Toly and representatives from each department and program in the School of Health.
Ayoola is nationally and globally recognized as an experienced practitioner, educator, researcher, and administrator. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, and earned her PhD from Michigan State University. Ayoola has been a member of Calvin’s faculty since 2007, contributing to both the nursing and public health programs and most recently chairing the nursing department.
“Dr. Ayoola not only met but also clearly excelled in the critical leadership requirements established by the committee,” said Toly. “She has a vibrant Christian faith, possesses a deep understanding of the Reformed tradition, models a prayerful life, and demonstrates a commitment to joyful integration of faith and learning.”
Accomplished thought leader and scholar
Ayoola’s academic influence runs deep, as she has contributed to her field with research in the areas of community based nursing, and maternal and infant health. Since completing her PhD, Ayoola has earned several awards and distinctions recognizing her accomplishments in the health field.
Notably, from 2012–2015, Ayoola served as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar. The program, involving intensive leadership training, was created to inspire the next generation of national leaders in academic nursing. Five years later, Ayoola was inducted into the 2020 Class of Fellows of the American Academy of Nursing.
Ayoola is a member of the American Association of Nurses, the Honors Society of Nursing, Sigma International, and the Midwest Nursing Research Society; and she currently serves as a reviewer, associate editor or on the editorial board of 12 scholarly publications.
Guided by God
For Ayoola, the field of health has always been a passion, and it is a passion that is rooted in her faith.
“I am motivated to act when I see people or members of my community hurting —physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and when the vulnerable population experience health challenges,” she said. “I see health as an important part of what God wants for us.”
Ayoola believes that it is God who equipped her with the skills needed for this position, not only through her academic experiences, but also through her community work such as leading the African Ladies Fellowship of the African Resource Center in Grand Rapids and serving as an elder in her home church, Brookside CRC.
Carrying on Calvin’s mission
“Dr. Ayoola is deeply committed to the mission and vision of Calvin University,” said Kerrie Berends, kinesiology department co-chair and professor, and member of the search committee.
Ayoola has demonstrated this commitment by playing an integral role at Calvin, participating herself in a search committee for the dean of the School of Business, founding H.E.A.L.T.H. Camp at the university, and serving on the task force that articulated a vision for Calvin’s university structure – to name just a few contributions during her 15 years of service. Former advisees, research assistants, and research fellows recognize Ayoola for her commitment to their learning and post-graduate success.
For Ayoola, this next vocational step was confirmed by God’s guidance through prayer. She believes her vocation also includes preparing others well for work in the field.
“My vision is also for the experience in the School of Health to be transformative and for our future health professionals to be well-prepared in their calling to serve as great advocates for their patients,” she said.
Building on collaboration and partnerships
Beginning July 1 Ayoola will lead the School, serving approximately 600 undergraduate and over 75 graduate students studying directly in health-related programs, and dozens of other students in pre-professional tracks.
While the School is already involved in many community partnerships and collaborative scholarship, with Ayoola at the helm, colleagues say it is poised to broaden its impact.
“Dr. Ayoola has prioritized interprofessional collaboration among our departments, West Michigan communities, and globally,” said Berends. “It’s exciting and energizing to anticipate the impact that faculty and students will have as we expand our reach.”
Ayoola is ready for the challenge.
“I love creatively designing new programs in collaboration with people and in response to identified needs,” she said. “The idea of serving as a founding dean of the School of Health is exciting because it will provide me with opportunities to work with stakeholders to shape the School of Health’s programs.”