Digital learning opportunities to Ghana: universities from Tampere, Tallinn and Accra collaborate on Erasmus+ project to tackle teaching challenges

Experiences Higher education Global Cooperation Erasmus+ Erasmus+ for higher education Internationalisation
When a group of universities decides to apply for Erasmus+ funding, it’s essential to have a clear idea for the project, says Jussi Okkonen from Tampere University. Collaborating with partners you already know makes dividing the work and trusting each other easier.
Cape Coast University students in Ghana
Students of project partner University of Cape Coast

When university lecture halls and campuses were closed because of COVID-19, the West African country of Ghana wasn’t prepared for the situation. Digital learning methods and strategies had not been considered much before the pandemic, internet connectivity beyond the campus area was sometimes inadequate, and the digital literacy of teachers and students could have been stronger.

At the same time, the digital leap required by the pandemic presented an opportunity. Similar to Finland, Ghana’s university system is steered by the state. With the help of digital services, more people could be reached, even in the more remote regions where the education sector suffers from a labour shortage.

When the European Commission’s Erasmus+ programme launched its call for proposals for capacity building projects, Tampere University, Tallinn University and the Ghanaian universities – the University of Education, Winneba, and the University of Cape Coast – took the opportunity to participate.

‘Our unit and I have extensive experience with Erasmus+ projects,’ says Jussi Okkonen, Senior Research Fellow from Tampere University. Tampere University had previous experience in collaborating with the Estonians and Ghanaians on joint projects, and the university had come to know the digital learning challenges in Ghana. Joining forces with familiar partners to tackle the challenge felt like an obvious choice, Okkonen says. The proposal was successful, and the three-year project, Building Capacity for Online Tuition in Ghana, has now commenced.

Solutions to the teacher shortage

Ghana is a rectangular country in coastal West Africa. Most of the country’s activities are concentrated on the southern coast, with the rural regions in the north being less developed.

One of the two local universities involved in the project – University of Education, Winneba – trains teachers for the entire country. The study programme includes an internship somewhere in Ghana, after which the students return to the capital, Accra, to complete their studies.

‘Leaving the city for a smaller town in the countryside doesn’t seem attractive after that,’ Okkonen says. ‘A local colleague told me that there are a lot of highly educated taxi drivers and cleaners in the capital because the income level in blue-collar jobs is reasonable compared to the standard of living in rural areas.’

One of the project’s hypotheses is that if teachers or teacher trainees throughout the country, particularly in the north, could be supported with digital solutions, it could help teachers build roots there. If students weren’t required to return to the campus after completing their internship, they could build their lives in places that are experiencing a serious shortage of teachers.

The project will research the potential of e-learning in Ghana, Okkonen says. ‘We succeeded in planning a project that allows us to conduct academic research which aims to achieve tangible impacts. We have a great pool of experts whose expertise we can utilise.’

Research cooperation and skills for teachers

The Ghanaians are hoping to deepen the collaboration in research. ‘We want to build long-term relationships with Tampere University and Tallinn University in the research of digital learning,’ says Research Fellow Christopher Yarkwah from the University of Cape Coast. ‘Through research, we can improve our ICT practices and develop teaching strategies for active interaction-based teaching and learning.’

‘We can also share what we learn with other universities in Ghana and Africa,’ says Benjamin Ghansah, an Assistant Professor at the University of Education, Winneba. The project also provides an opportunity for professional development as a teacher, says Junior Researcher Kadri Mettis from Tallinn University. ‘Seeing how people in different universities work allows me to develop my skills as a teacher as well as my courses. For personal development, this is a wonderful and easy way to get perspectives.’

Breaking down silos

Although the partners had prior experience in international collaboration, the proposal process still provided some new ideas and viewpoints, says Benjamin Ghansah. ‘The information will help us in applying for future projects.’ As for Yarkwah, preparing the proposal with international colleagues was a great experience. ‘The competition for Erasmus+ funding is quite high, so it was a pleasure to exchange ideas and expertise and learn from each other during the process.’

In the evaluation of the project proposal, the fact that all universities contribute to all work packages, despite each package having a specific partner with the main responsibility, was praised. According to Jussi Okkonen, this ‘cross-pollination’ was appreciated as it makes the project more coherent. It has also proven to be a good solution.

‘Of course, we are in the early stages and implementing the first work package, but the work has proceeded very well. There is no need to wait for someone to complete a certain task before you can move on to the next package. Everything is done together.’ The traditional way of everyone working in silos on their own packages now seems bureaucratic and difficult to him. ‘The more we work together, the easier the work is.’

According to Okkonen, the partners knew each other so well that dividing the work was easy and straightforward. He believes that knowing at least some of your partners beforehand is an advantage. Kadri Mettis agrees. ‘It is important to identify the value that a specific partner brings to the project and determine the role of each institution. In that sense, it is essential to know your partners and contacts and choose partners you can trust.’

If you do not have contacts yet, the website of the capacity building programme also offers the possibility of looking for potential partners. Mettis points out that an Erasmus+ project is also a great way to build trust. ‘As you become acquainted with your partners, you identify the ones you trust and with whom you could apply for the next, potentially bigger project.’

Not too difficult

Funding for Erasmus+ projects is applied directly from the European Commission. EU funding has a reputation for being bureaucratic and complicated. However, in Jussi Okkonen’s opinion, the application process wasn’t difficult but rather straightforward. ‘Naturally, the background and reasoning should be well thought out, and the idea for the project should be clear,’ he says. ‘But I think the Commission's maligned portal is, in fact, great. It is automated and guides the user on what to write in each section.’

Benjamin Ghansah thinks the application process is transparent and thorough. ‘You should complete the proposal carefully and pay attention to the details. When the team has a shared vision and purpose, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t receive Erasmus+ or some other funding.’

Christopher Yarkwah emphasises that the proposal should be creative and innovative. ‘You need to have a clear vision about how the project is going to make a positive impact on the world.’


Text: Esa Salminen