Syracuse University Magazine


Sammy Luvonga, who lost his sight as a child, uses a computer with a built-in function called VoiceOver to listen to notes or electronic documents being read to him.

Connecting with Kenya

When Sammy Luvonga, a student who is visually impaired, was studying to be a secondary school teacher at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya, he had to cart around a heavy Braille machine to take notes in class. That is until summer 2012, when, as part of a partnership between the schools of education at Syracuse University and Kenyatta University, he and three other students with visual impairments were given lightweight mobile digital devices with built-in screen readers. “A few years ago, Kenya was 50 years or more behind the United States in providing support for persons with disabilities,” says Joanna Masingila, interim dean of the School of Education and professor of mathematics and mathematics education. “Today, 20 of the 50 students with visual impairments at Kenyatta University have iPad mini assistive devices and keyboards.”

Providing access to assistive technology is just one of the many collaborative projects between the two universities that began informally in 1995 when Masingila and her husband were visiting his family in Kenya. While there, she met with colleagues at Kenyatta University (KU) to discuss what was happening in the field of mathematics education in their country. In 1998, Masingila returned to Kenyatta University as a Fulbright Scholar, and in 2000, helped formalize a partnership between the two institutions to improve KU’s teacher education program and provide Syracuse faculty and students with exchange and research opportunities. “In 2009, we received a $50,000 planning grant from the United States Agency for International Development,” Masingila says. “From 2011 to 2014, we supported our partnership activities with a $1.08 million grant from the agency.”

For more than a decade, Syracuse faculty members and doctoral students have gone to Kenya to conduct research and present professional development workshops focusing on three key areas: integrating technology into teaching; improving support for all learners; and developing strategies for teaching large classes. According to Masingila, an introductory class at KU can have up to 1,000 students. “Even a methods class—which we limit to 20 to 30 students—has 400 to 500 students at KU,” she says. “Imagine trying to teach that many students how to write lesson plans.” In return, Kenyatta faculty members come to SU to observe classes and work on joint research projects, and KU students have received assistantships to study here. And every other year, the two institutions co-sponsor a conference that attracts educators from all over the world.

School of Education faculty members participating in the Syracuse-KU partnership represent expertise in all three focus areas. For example, Professor Alan Foley, who conducts interdisciplinary research at the intersection of disability, technology, and design, was instrumental in bringing assistive mobile technology to students with visual impairments at Kenyatta University. “Mobile devices are changing the nature of how assistive technology is produced, distributed, and used,” Foley says. “Even an iPad, which is expensive in Kenya, is a fraction of the cost of specialized assistive technology tools. And because there hasn’t been consistent access to emerging technology in Kenya, the issue isn’t just access to the technology itself, but also the need to foster a community of practice around the technology so that its use—and the local knowledge and expertise required to support its use—grows.”

According to Marguerite Khakasa Miheso-O’Connor, a mathematics education lecturer at Kenyatta University, the ongoing partnership with the School of Education has had a direct and positive impact on the quality of their teacher education program. “We are now providing important take-away skills needed by today’s preservice teachers,” she says. “We’ve also learned how to create space for sharing education-related research findings through hosting and attending educational conferences, gained skills in writing journal articles, and increased the quality of teaching practice supervision by integrating the mentoring approach.”         —Christine Yackel


School of Education graduate student Katie Nichiporuk works with a Kenyatta student.

Photos courtesy of cuseinkenya blog