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Over the past decade I have been fortunate to have supported or led water-related research expeditions to India, Colombia, Senegal, Mozambique, and Burkina Faso. With the aid of students from Mzuzu University, the University of Denver, and Virginia Tech, I can now add Malawi to this list. Over the past week, three teams of students (consisting of students from each university) have traveled North from Mzuzu to Karonga and Chitipa, South-East to Nkhamenya and Dwangwa, and South-West to Embangweni. I supported the Embangweni team.

Team Embangweni!

In my previous post, I mentioned that only 8% of the population in Malawi have access to electricity. Staying in one of Malawi’s major cities (such as Mzuzu) can make you doubt this statistic. While power outages are common, the cities are connected to the national grid and come alive at night. This access to power changes, however, as soon as you leave the confines of a town or city. Life in rural Malawi is largely dictated by the rising and setting of the sun.

Malawi is ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world. This past week, our students came face-to-face with this reality, especially through our household surveys that include a broad range of questions on educational attainment, income, and the general health and well-being of households. While there is an energy for life and deep communal spirit in the villages we visited – which are surrounded by a raw natural beauty – families face significant livelihood and food insecurities. During the household surveys I witnessed, respondents consistently described how their families went hungry for at least one month of the year. On occasion they also spoke about the loss of children, which is all the more tragic when considering the often preventable nature of this loss. The U.S. students capturing the responses from these interviews (which were led by the Mzuzu students in one of the two local dialects – Chewa or Tumbuka) were challenged by these heart wrenching stories of loss. With the permission of a U.S. student (and with the name of the respondent changed), I have included below an excerpt from a student’s personal reflection on her exchange with a respondent who suffered an unimaginable loss.

Sitting on a dirt floor saturated in wetness and chicken feces, Ateefah’s cloudy eyes looked into mine with despair and devastation. Her eyes cast downward, suddenly she looked up for a moment and said, “every one of my five children is gone … I have no one left.” I absorbed her profound sadness. My eyes immediately welled up and tears fell heavily onto the dirt floor of her home. As I walked away, Ateefah said “I wish you would have come here to help when I was younger,” as if she meant, my children might still be alive if someone had come to help. I could not take five steps before I broke down and cried for Ateefah, wishing too that someone would have come earlier.

While it is relatively easy to train students on the technical aspects of conducting an effective interview, it is much more difficult to prepare them for the emotional aspects of engaging in real and difficult subjects with respondents. After taking a brief break to compose herself, the student above (with support from her Malawian teammate) continued the interview. The ability of our students to support one another and persevere when emotionally or physically challenged has been quite remarkable to watch.

The research we are undertaking will evaluate the effectiveness of a rural shallow-well program that has been active in Malawi for over two decades and has built some 15,000 protected shallow wells. In each treatment and comparison community, students will undertake 20 household surveys, around five interviews with key informants, a focus group with the village water committee (in treatment communities) or a village committee (in comparison communities), water quality tests of stored water in around 10% of the households interviewed, and technical assessments and water quality tests of the community’s primary water sources. The scope of the data collection is significant and all the students have been working extremely hard to ensure we meet our objectives. An important feature of the study is that our comparison communities have applied for a shallow well with the NGO, which has yet to be installed. Thus, they are comparable to the treatment communities in terms of their ability to organize and apply for a well and will benefit from a shallow well in the future.

Click to view slideshow.

Traveling to the communities in the Embangweni region has been physically challenging – which has also been the case for the teams in the other regions of the country. Our paved road ended a few hundred meters outside the town of Mzimba (where we were staying), after which we would proceed on a very uneven dirt road for more than 1.5 hours to reach our communities – many of which were located close to the Zambia border. This three- to four-hour roundtrip each day meant we had to rise early to enable the team to return before sunset. After a day of surveying, the return trip was often a time for private reflection on the activities of the day. After the first few days of this trip we decided to purchase some foam to reduce the shocks from the road, which moderately improved the ride.

It’s hard to convey the full scope of learning, skill development, and personal growth that is happening on this course – which has now morphed into a professional research expedition. The students (with varying levels of experience) are challenged to manage the implementation and logistics of a complex set of research tasks, which also includes transcribing interviews and cleaning data at night. There is then the interesting, often philosophical, conversations that begin to emerge between the Malawian and U.S. students, with questions such as “why are you really here?” and “what do you hope to accomplish with your life?” being some I have overheard.

From a personal perspective, while co-teaching such an ambitious course/research expedition is challenging on many fronts, watching the students step into the unknown and thrive reminds me of those experiences I had as an undergraduate and graduate student that put me on my personal pathway.

We will continue to survey communities around Mzuzu this week, before ending the course on Friday with a public event where we will provide some initial reflections from the fieldwork and discuss the overall experience.

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Desde el Área de Innovación de la Universidad Internacional de Andalucía (UNIA) a la que pertenezco, encargada, entre otras cuestiones, de la gestión de enseñanza-aprendizaje virtual, formación de profesorado y proyectos e iniciativas para el fomento de la Innovación en la Universidad, nos hemos reunido en el Campus Tecnológico de Málaga con Melvin J. Lezama, quien además de profesor de comunicación en la Universidad Autónoma de Nicaragua, León, se encarga actualmente de la coordinación del equipo creativo del departamento de educación virtual de la Universidad Abierta en Línea de Nicaragua (UALN), entidad conformada por una media docena de universidades del país y que está apostando por un modelo de enseñanza-aprendizaje en red en el que los vídeos tienen especial importancia. Melvin J. Lezama, que lleva unos meses de beca en el servicio Audiovisual de la UNIA, nos ha mostrado los componentes de su modelo, la estructura de sus cursos en la plataforma (también usan Moodle, como la UNIA) y su canal en Youtube donde, entre otros, pueden verse las guías visuales que incorporan al comienzo de los módulos y unidades didácticas de sus programas. Entre el equipo, hay cuatro personas, según nos ha contado, exclusivamente dedicadas a la producción audiovisual, y disponen de su propio plató de grabación, por el que pasan profesores y compañeros del propio servicio, ya que también elaboran tutoriales sobre el campus virtual en formato visual.

En la visita se le han mostrado, asimismo, las principales líneas de actividad sobre estas materias en la UNIA. En lo referente a enseñanza-aprendizaje online y formación de profesorado, les hemos comentado cuáles son las bases de nuestro modelo, y les hemos compartido modelos de plantillas, tutoriales y otros recursos en red, que según nos comentaba el profesor les serán de gran utilidad en su universidad. Además, hemos expuesto cómo la UNIA lleva años trabajando en producción de recursos educativos y actividades en abierto, y lo hemos invitado a visualizar los open courses disponibles en el repositorio institucional así como a difundir en su universidad los webinars que comenzarán el próximo octubre, abiertos a la participación, sin coste, de cualquier persona interesada, y que forman parte de nuestro programa de formación de profesorado anual. También en este sentido, al mostrarse muy interesado por la capacitación docente en materia de TICs e innovación educativa, le hemos contado cómo desde la UNIA se plantean, además de recursos de apoyo y guía en red, elaborados por el propio Área de Innovación, actividades formativas. Por un lado, sesiones presenciales de iniciación a cargo del personal del Área, en las que se aclaran dudas respecto a la organización y diseño de programas y se explica el manejo básico del campus virtual a nuevos docentes; y por otro, cursos virtuales sobre materias específicas, impartidos en este caso por expertos externos al Área.

Durante el encuentro se ha planteado además la posibilidad de efectuar actividades interuniversitarias o colaboraciones, entre la UNIA y la UALN, vinculadas a formación de profesorado o a la producción de recursos de aprendizaje en formato audiovisual.

La entrada Intercambiando experiencias sobre elearning, formación de profesorado e innovación en la UNIA con la Universidad Abierta en Línea de Nicaragua aparece primero en Cibermarikiya 3.0.

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Treasure hunting on vacation.

Day 1: I found some antique postcards at Buddhas and Beads and of course bought twelve of them.

Went back to house and enthusiastically shared with my family [Insert indifference from some and curiosity from others.] 

Discovered that 4 of the cards had notes on them from the same family. The Fox family. [Insert excitement on my part!]

Day 2: Returned to see if I could mine more postcard gold. Found five more notes from that family, and a few other gems.

(My personal fave had no writing on it - 3 Polish ladies, circa  1910.  What's not to love here?!)

Back to the Fox family:
It was fascinating to find a series of postcards from one family.  The dates started in 1908 and went through 1941.

My challenge to you [if you choose to accept it] is to write their story using the cards I found.

1908 to Mr. Harry Fox. The message just says "From, Fred." The picture is the Bowery in NYC and the postmark is Madison Square Station NY, 1908. 

1927 Postmarked Atlantic City:

(How about that picture!)

1928 (Mystery word? Name? Kessler?)



June 22, 1941

July 22, 1941

July 31, 1941

Sept 26, 1941

There's so much to think about here - locations, years, what had not yet happened (Pearl Harbor), what happened in the midst of these cards (WWI), who was who, international travel, those stamps!, what was said and not said...

Run with it - write their story!
(or some other project - it's CLMOOC!)

My reflections will be in a separate post - I did not want to clutter their story with mine.


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The image below was taken at 5am on Wednesday by Emily Zmak, a graduate student at the University of Denver. It captures a moment of reflection in the early morning on our first day in Mzuzu, Malawi. A day earlier, the vehicle carrying our luggage from Lilongwe to Mzuzu had a Mechanical failure. I arrived at Joy’s Place (where the students have been staying) in the hope that our bags had been delivered overnight. Since the bags had not arrived, I took the opportunity to watch the sun rise and absorb a waking day in Malawi, the warm heart of Africa. Emily managed to capture this moment in her wonderful picture.

Our group from Virginia Tech and the University of Denver will be here for three weeks working alongside students from Mzuzu University as part of a WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) study abroad course. Students from each university will work in teams in three different regions of Malawi to evaluate the impacts of a rural shallow well program that has been active in the country for more than two decades. The data they collect will help the NGO running the program better understand what aspects of the program need to be improved and which aspects are functioning well. I will say more about this research in a future post. We leave to start the fieldwork at 6am tomorrow.

During the first two days of the course, the students met with key staff from government agencies and national and international organizations in Lilongwe, who provided valuable overviews of the challenges and opportunities that face the country. For example, only 8% of the population have access to electric and around 11% of rural households use an unimproved water supply (such as surface water). In terms of income, Malawi falls among the poorest nations in the world.

Click to view slideshow.

We spent the second part of the first week at Mzuzu University where faculty and invited guests provided seminars on a range of topics from Malawian culture and practices to deforestation trends across the nation and changing fishing practices on in Lake Malawi. We are grateful for all the work of Dr. Rochelle Holm (Director of the Centre of Excellence in Water and Sanitation) in arranging these sessions. They provided an essential context to the research the students will be undertaking.

Click to view slideshow.

When reflecting at Joy’s Place on the days ahead, the richness of the study abroad experience for the students at all three universities was clear. For many, it is their first time in Africa and I’m keen for them to experience the beauty of the country and warmth of the people, as well as trying to navigate bustling taxi ranks and the local cuisine (which is some of the best I’ve eaten in Africa). There is then the experience of learning with an international student cohort at Malawi’s most northern public university. Finally, the students will be exposed to the challenges of undertaking a research project in three regions of the country. The fieldwork will provide a hands-on, minds-on experience where students will be responsible for undertaking household surveys, focus groups, key informant interviews, water quality testing, and technical assessments of the installed shallow wells. They will also be tasked with processing these data while in the field so we can begin to identify key findings from the research. Given the need to hold the interviews in the local languages, the Malawian students will take lead roles in this research with support provided by the US students. The students will need to work closely together, which should provide a unique opportunity for cross cultural exchange and learning.

After a busy first week, the students visited the Vwaza Wildlife Reserve and Nkhata Bay this weekend, where one or two students (and I!) learned to paddle board for the first time.

Click to view slideshow.