Challenge-based learning, the future of post-pandemic digital skilling.
According to the World Economic Forum(WEF), an estimated 15 to 20 million increasingly well-educated young Africans will join the workforce every year for the next three decades. A majority of these educated young people graduate to the reality that their hard-earned advanced degrees are not enough to secure a job in the labor market. According to the African Center for Economic Transformation, about 50% of current university graduates in Africa do not secure jobs . A major cause of this predicament is a mismatch between the curriculum followed by universities and the expectations of the labor market. For the percentage who have formal degrees, the knowledge they acquire is outdated or not enough to acquire a job in the fast-paced labor market, leading to remarks in this UN article as
The lessons we used to teach in the 1990s are the same course content we are teaching today,
Education systems have been geared toward getting a qualification rather than acquiring skills and competences that will enhance successful integration into the world of work.
An increasing number of jobs are also demanding digital skills which are not included in many college curricula. IFC predicts that 230 million jobs in Africa will require some level of digital skills by 2030, translating to a potential of 650 million training opportunities and a $130 billion market.
Graduates struggle to create or acquire jobs not only because of a lack of technical and digital skills, but also lack of socio-behavioral and cognitive skills. Skills like critical thinking, creativity, effective communication, interpersonal skills, and conflict resolution are as important as technical skills in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The African Development Bank (AFDB) notes that although African countries are allocating considerable resources to improve tertiary education (about 0.78% GDP on average), “these countries continue to exhibit unsatisfactory educational outcomes and their graduates often lack the appropriate skills and qualifications required by employers in many industries and sectors”.
One of the most promising solutions is to improve the engagement between academia and the industry — enabling students to solve industry-focused problems, and in the process, acquire technical, digital, and soft skills necessary for a smooth transition into the industry. Some governments, like the Kenyan government, are introducing a “competency-Based Curriculum,” which integrates digital technologies to teach students in information and communications technologies. Companies are being encouraged to offer more internship and training opportunities to students. These strategies help to mitigate this mismatch but are inadequate to address the digital and soft skills deficiency in graduates.
2. Challenge-based learning(CBL)
What is challenge-based learning and how can it help?
The definition from Dublin City University paints a great picture of what CBL is.
It is a pedagogical approach that actively engages students in a situation that is real, relevant and related to their environment. It involves students working with stakeholders to define a challenge and collaboratively develop a solution that is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.
Let’s look at the four highlighted aspects of this definition in more detail.
- Working with stakeholders.
CBL empowers students to work directly with stakeholders in the labor market like the industry, governments, and NGOs to identify, scope, and develop solutions to pressing problems in society. This shifts the focus of problem-solving in academia to real problems faced by their potential employers. Stakeholders work to identify challenges in their sectors and students work to brainstorm and create solutions to these challenges.
2. Relevant to their environment.
Most often, challenges in textbooks, open online courses, or websites from different countries reflect the problems faced by those countries and have little relevance to the student's environment. Working with local stakeholders helps to focus problem construction on the local environment, preparing students more effectively to solve local problems.
3. Collaborative development
Most projects in colleges are individual projects. In fact, collaboration is often seen as cheating. However, challenging problems in industry and governments are solved in teams, with each person contributing their strength towards solving the problem. CBL develops projects that can only be solved by groups of students working closely with stakeholders.
4. Economic, social, and environmentally sustainable solutions
Good solutions solve a problem while excellent solutions ensure sustainability. They take long-term social, economic, environmental consequences into consideration. CBL enables students to come up with solutions that align with the sustainability goals of society.
3. Leaplug — What we are doing
Leaplug is innovating in the CBL sector, bringing new ways of enabling the collaboration of industry with academia to solve society's challenges using technology. We are looking at ways we can engage with stakeholders in the industry, governments, and non-governmental organizations to provide a smooth transition of senior college students and recent graduates (who we call Leapluggers) into the labor market. Leaplug is attempting solutions to the following two questions.
- How do we affordably improve the tech skills of Leapluggers along with their socio-behavioral and cognitive skills essential for success in the tech industry?
- What framework can enable meaningful and sustainable collaboration between industry and Leapluggers in an attempt to bridge the skills gap that is stifling innovation in the tech field?
We are using two simple approaches to answer these questions.
- Leverage open-source content.
In the last decade, we experienced an unprecedented release of propriety content into the open-source community. Tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and IBM are releasing their propriety content to open-source and top schools like MIT and Stanford are providing a myriad of free courses online. The internet is exploding with free content and it becomes confusing for anybody beginning a tech carrier to sieve through this content and get the relevant knowledge needed to excel in their area of interest. These courses do not come with any form of mentorship or follow-up, making many students quit when they are faced with challenges.
Leaplug is stepping up to organize freely accessible content into curricula that will enable Leapluggers to improve their skills in any tech sector. We sieve through the enormous free content, extract and organize it into various tracks of technology. We work with local industry to inform our choices of courses that will empower students with the skills needed to solve local problems.
Leaplug goes further to provide mentorship during the learning process, lending assistance and feedback to projects during this process.
2. Expose Leapluggers to co-create innovative solutions with stakeholders.
Leaplug works with stakeholders (startups, companies, governments, NGOs) to create projects based on real problems faced by these stakeholders. Leapluggers then work in teams (based on their skills and interest) to solve these problems within a few months. We are working with stakeholders in the following ways.
- Companies that want to experiment with new technologies to evaluate the relevance in their industry, but can’t put their workforce into it, can use the skill provided by Leaplug to affordably test their theories on projects which they help to create.
- Startups needing affordable skills to build their prototypes can leverage Leaplug’s talent to build and deploy their prototypes.
- NGOs needing solutions to challenging environmental problems can leverage Leaplug's skills to build and test these solutions.
There is an alarming skills mismatch between young graduates and the labor market in Africa. Educational systems are not changing as fast as the labor market, producing skills that are not relevant to solve the challenges of society. Close collaboration between academia and stakeholders in the industry is a promising way to make graduate skills relevant to their communities. Challenge-based learning offers a path to mitigating the skills gap by providing a framework for collaborative problem-solving with the industry. Leaplug is leveraging freely accessible online content to train students in innovative skills and using partnerships with industry to create projects reflecting local reality to help students gain industry experience.
Please let us know in the comments section some aspects you see as the challenge to implementing this approach.
 WEF, https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_EGW_FOJ_Africa.pdf
 ACET, https://acetforafrica.org/highlights/unemployment-in-africa-no-jobs-for-50-of-graduates/
 AFDB, https://www.afdb.org/sites/default/files/documents/publications/wps_no_326_youth_jobs_skill_and_educational_mismatches_in_africa_f1.pdf