UDL for all in Ghana! with Elvis Agah

Lillian talks with Elvis Agah, the President of the School of Design and Technology (SDT), Accra, Ghana, and co-founder of the International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program (ITEP), Miami, FL. Hear how UDL addresses what Elvis calls the “educational national emergency” in Ghana and what steps he has taken to create a different kind of learning in Ghana. Lillian asks Elvis about the well-designed and UDL-powered “Multiple LMS” Learning Management System the SDT developed, UDL Africa and national policy, and a new initiative Elvis has started to get young Africans to work in technological fields. Find out how Elvis is growing that program in America to get American people of color, who may not have access to technology education, find employment at home. Join the global UDL conversation!

Resources

School of Design and Technology, (Accra, Ghana) is a hands-on creative technology educational institution helping people with a passion for the arts & technology to develop their talents, creativity, and skills in their area of interest.

International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program (Ghana) ITEP is a unique Technology and Entrepreneurship program designed to train young people from different African countries in the area of Software/Web Engineering, Cyber Security, Multimedia and Technology Entrepreneurship. The program focuses on technical skills that build the foundation for producing quality and globally competitive products and entrepreneurial skills that will equip and empower participants into starting their own initiatives and discoveries in the direction of job creation and development.

UDL Africa UDL informs all of our work in educational research and development, capacity building, and professional learning.

Find Elvis on Twitter @Elvisron

Follow SDT on Twitter @sdtuni

Transcript

[Lillian] Welcome to think UDL, the Universal Design for Learning podcast, where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian Nave, and I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding, and facilitating, but how you design and implement it and why it even matters.

Welcome to episode seven of the Think UDL podcast.  My guest today is Elvis Agah, the president of the School of Design and Technology or SDT in Accra, Ghana, and co-founder of the International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program (ITEP), in Miami, Florida, USA.  Today, we talk about how UDL addresses what Elvis calls the educational national emergency in Ghana, and what steps he has taken to create a different kind of learning in Ghana.  We discuss the well-designed and UDL-powered multiple LMS, learning management system he helped develop for SDT, and get to talk about UDL Africa and national policy, a new initiative Elvis has started to get young Africans trained to work in technological fields.  We also learn how Elvis is growing the program in America to help Americans who may not have access to technology education find employment at home.  Come join the global UDL conversation.  So, Elvis, welcome to the Think UDL podcast!

[00:02:00]

[Elvis]  Thank you, Lillian, for having me.  It’s a great honor to be on the Think UDL podcast.  I believe that we will be able to share and learn things together.

[Lillian]  Absolutely, thank you so much for joining us.  My first question for you is what I ask all my guests, and that is: what makes you a different kind of learner?

[00:02:22]

[Elvis]  Well, I’m glad you asked this question, Lillian.  I’ve gone through a journey of competing rather than learning, you know, competing to be at the top of–in my school, not really education.  This was how I was taught to think: competing to be in the best schools, get the best grades and also fall into a certain category of profession that, you know, society deems valuable.  In the process of competing, I felt so many times I adapted strategies to do enough memorization to make good grades and not to really learn, comprehend, and apply, you know, I had ADHD, you know, and I didn’t know about it.  There was less awareness–and there is still–less awareness about ADHD.  I was inattentive because I had difficulty in listening, troubles continuing to pay attention to class activities, difficulty organizing and, you know, completing tasks.  I was easily distracted with little possible time.  Difficulty, you know, remembering things and even keeping track of my possessions was very, very difficult.  Again, I was hyperactive in the sense that I was always on the go, I used to fidget and squirm, you know, when she kept talking excessively.  And, you know, at that time, the person who was more disciplined in class was given the power to write down the names of talkatives, and I always found my name–

[00:04:13]

[Lillian]  Whoa, so there was a little policing system there.

[Elvis]  Yeah, so I always found my name in the list.  So, it was actually very, very difficult.  Sometimes, I get up when I’m supposed to–and I think, most of the time–when I’m supposed to be seated.  And, how did I know about ADHD?  Well, I wasn’t diagnosed in school.  I just read about it now.  I read a book about ADHD and I just found my picture right in the book.

[00:04:46]

[Lillian]  Yes.

[Elvis]  So, I read about ADHD in the process of designing learning environments with UDL recently, and that was the first time I got to know about ADHD.  And, you know, Lillian, there are millions of teachers, parents, and students across the world, and I can talk about my country, Ghana, and Africa as a whole, who are not briefed about the existence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  Many students who are able to perform successfully, you know, people who are favored with the kind of educational system that, you know, the leading educational system, and these people are the best students, they are the best people we know, but people like us were average students, who, you know, the educational system couldn’t favor them.  So, it was pretty tough for me back then, and I’m not the only one.  I had a lot of people also in this same category, and up until now, there’s nothing like diagnosing, you know, ADHD in schools, nothing like that.  So, what it means is that a lot of people come out of school failing.  Now, I was fortunate, when I was introduced to the internet, when I was twelve years, and I used to visit the Internet café.  Now, the Internet café is a place where you could go and pay and use the internet as a service.  So, you go and you pay for the time you spent in there

[00:06:38]

[Lillian]  Yes.

[Elvis]  So, I used to visit the Internet café a lot.  I go cling to the internet, I wanted to know what the internet was all about.  I was fascinated by how the internet works.  You could see–you could sit somewhere and see whatever is going on in another world, you know, I used to watch the WWE, the wrestling

[00:07:01]

[Lillian]  Yes!  Yeah, we have that.

[Elvis]  Yeah, so, I already had my favorite wrestlers, and here I was looking at them on the internet.  I could click on whatever they want to say to me, and I have it.  So, the internet actually gave me a new world of learning where I could just go and search for something I want, you know, and have that thing right in front of me.  And then, I don’t have to ask any teacher,

[00:07:38]

[Lillian]  And you’re not in competition–you weren’t in competition with other students.

[Elvis]  Yes, no competition.  I could learn anytime I want, all that I have to do is pay some money, and then I’m learning.  So, I–that changed, it was a turning point for me, and I’m really grateful for anyone who invented the internet. 

[00:08:02]

[Lillian]  Aren’t we all.  I’m so glad, because we are able to speak while I’m in the United States and you are in Ghana through the internet.  So, I’m very appreciative too.  So, could you tell me, then, more about where you are at the School of Design and Technology (SDT) in Accra, and you are the president of this fantastic institution.  Could you tell us a little more about the history and what went into forming this School of Design and Technology?

[00:08:33]

[Elvis]  Thank you, so the School of Design and Technology (SDT) in the past, before the discovery of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL), was in the research stage, meaning we wanted to be sure every student has a foundation of knowledge, no one was left behind.  SDT, I would say, is still in the present time, is in the development and experimental stage after the discovery of UDL.  Now, when I mean research stage, I mean we wanted to make sure that we are giving people the right value of education.  Because, there is this form of epidemic of schools springing out everywhere, and the focus is to make money, and enlarge the number of students, but we didn’t want to go through that line.  We wanted to make sure that every student gets the value.  So, the research stage opened our eyes into what people are doing, some research people have done in the past, concerning you know, learning efficiency and all that.  Then, we came across UDL, and we thought “hey, this was the solution we are looking for.”  UDL was whatever was there in our minds.  We knew we wanted something, something that could change the lives of students, something that could make people learn efficiently, something that could capture every student, no matter their learning disability.  So, at that point, we knew that we had found the solution; and, one of our team members said we need to treat UDL as a national emergency, because many people in the country, in the continent, many children are seen as average students, dumb students, students who cannot go anywhere, who cannot make it to good schools, or students who cannot get good careers, or students who can do nothing productive in the future, just because they are left behind.  The educational system has a lot of issues, and UDL is the solution for our educational system in the country, in the continent as a whole.  So, we move from the research stage into the experimental stage and the developmental stage.  Now, when I say experimental stage or developmental stage I mean, we wanted to know how to implement the guidelines, the UDL framework that we have found.  We wanted to learn more about it, we wanted to be able to create that learning environment that really worked for everybody, so we tried our own way of implementing UDL.  We had about twenty students coming to the school, 70 [percent] of them did very well, 30 percent couldn’t get whatever they were being taught.  Well, we are making progress, we are succeeding, 70 percent is good, but we need 100 percent.  And, that is what UDL is for: make sure every student, not some students.  So, at this point, SDT, the School of Design and Technology, is still in the development and experimental stage.  I wouldn’t say we have fully implemented UDL, we are still experimenting to make sure we get the 100 percent of our target.  And, every student in SDT will not be left behind. 

[00:13:05]

[Lillian]  Wow, that is a fantastic statement, that you said UDL should be treated as a national emergency, or that that is the solution for Ghana, and you have really implemented a lot of this in SDT.  And, SDT is only, I believe, is that five years old, is that correct?

[Elvis]  Yes, five years old, but still in the experimental and developmental stage.

[00:13:35]

[Lillian]  And, how many students do you serve?

[Elvis]  We serve about twenty students at a time, and the reason is, we are still experimenting and developing.

[00:13:47]

[Lillian]  And what sort of courses are they able to take at SDT?

[Elvis]  So, we do web engineering, software engineering.  We do technology entrepreneurship.  We do multimedia, these are the four main courses that we do.

[00:14:05]

[Lillian]  OK, and you have implemented several things that I would love to talk to you about at SDT, and the first thing is something that you call your multiple LMS.  Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

[00:14:23]

[Elvis]  Yes, so I’m glad you asked about multiple LMS.  So, our educational strategy for SDT is what we call the hybrid form.  So, it means we have the physical classroom and we have the online classroom.  So, implementing the UDL means that we have to implement it in both the physical and then online classroom.  So, coming to the online classroom, we said as a team, that we wanted to make sure that the online classroom is fully a UDL classroom.  So, we redesigned our learning management system, and what we did was we came together as a team including user interface, user experience designers, the programmers, the managers, administrators, you know, and those facilitating, the facilitators, you know, we all came together for several weeks to translate the UDL guidelines into a practical design of features and functions for the LMS.  So, that is, you know, the purpose of the LMS.  So, the LMS is totally run on the UDL framework.  This meant that all the coders must be abreast with the UDL guidelines, including the developers.  So, whoever is developing any part of the software must make sure that it is not just designing any LMS, but a UDL LMS.  And, the reason why we use the name multiple is for everyone to know that there are multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression. 

[00:16:29]

[Lillian]  So, do you have some examples of how this learning management system or multiple LMS provides multiple means of engagement?

[Elvis]  Yes.  So, what we did in the weeks of gathering the data was to go through the guidelines, the multiple means of engagement, and we came out with what we need to provide in LMS that could really engage whoever is using the platform.  So, we came out with features like badges and rewards, tasks, customize themes where you could customize the way you want the software to be or the platform, the classroom to be, the color you want to choose for the classroom.  So, we did a lot of things with that.  So, we listed the features and functions that we would develop in that respect.  And, for example, when it comes to the optimizing level where we look at the relevance, value and authenticity, you look at integration of like, google docs for collaboration, live videos, a lot of things, comments and peer reviews, case studies, so there are a lot more.  We even looked at how to even minimize threads and distractions in engagement, where we looked at simplicity of the application. So, how simple the application is, make sure there are no distractions whatsoever, no matter the number of  features or the number of tools you will need on the LMS, it has to be very simple, so you have the classroom, suggested breaks for videos, these are all ideas that the team brought into light for multiple means of engagement. I can go on and on and mention about the action and expression, whatever we put together, the executive functions, how to make sure that they took this into their own hands and make sure to learn and expand themselves. So, these are features that we listed, and we have a lot of them, and we brought them all together to make sure that the multiple LMS is actually a UDL LMS.

[00:19:28]

[Lillian]  Wow, that’s fantastic.  It sounds like this is very well planned, very well thought out, very well-designed so that there’s a lot of collaboration inside class and outside of class.  All of this online work that students are doing are really focused, that they’re able to get the work done that you’ve helped with the executive functioning; and you’ve also provided a lot of ways for students to collaborate, and you mentioned gamifying and simplifying those tasks. It sounds like this is a lot of fun, too, to learn.

[00:20:11]

[Elvis]  Yes, it is.

[Lillian]  So, less competition and more learning seems to be happening at the School for Design and Technology in Accra.  So, I have a question too, how do you see the School of Design and Technology changing how learning happens in Ghana?  What hopes do you have for education in Ghana?

[00:20:40]

[Elvis]  So, the focus is not just about the School of Design and Technology.  School of Design and Technology is not the only institution that is going to have students.  We have a lot of universities admitting thousands of students every year.  So, our multiple LMS is to be extended to all schools.  Now, in terms of the UDL in other schools, we have an organization called UDL Africa.

[00:21:18]

[Lillian]  Can you tell me more about that?

[Elvis]  Now, the UDL Africa is basically an advocacy group to let our stakeholders, government know that we need UDL in all our schools.  We need all the teachers being trained in all the training colleges to learn about UDL so that when they go to class, they know that they have a framework that they are following for everything they do in that class.  So, that is the work that we want to do, not just in the School of Design and Technology, but to be able to influence every sector of education from the nursery to higher education, for people to understand that there’s a solution for every student to be successful, and that is UDL.

[00:22:16]

[Lillian]  And this is something that is happening at really the highest levels of government too, isn’t it–in Ghana?

[Elvis]  Yes, precisely.  For us to be able to influence every sector of education, we need to be able to work with the government, because the government controls every educational sector here.  So, and that is what we’re doing as UDL Africa, not just SDT, but we’re making sure that we work with the government, and its good that our governments are ready and prepared to work with anyone, any organization that wants to improve upon our educational system.

[00:23:07]

[Lillian]  So, this is something that you have been a part of–how long have you been a part of UDL Africa?

[Elvis]   UDL Africa is about a year old, and I’m one of the co-founders.

[00:23:21]

[Lillian]  Wow, you are really moving and shaking over there in Accra and helping a lot of students in Ghana, Elvis!  So, Elvis, I have another question about yet another endeavor that you have co-founded, and that is ITEP, or the International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program that you started.  And, I was hoping you could tell us a little bit more about that?

[00:23:50]

[Elvis]  Thank you for asking.  International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program was out of the School of Design and Technology, SDT.  And the purpose of this program is to provide that same quality of education to people who cannot afford it.  Getting that kind of technical skills is very expensive, its not cheap.  And, therefore, a lot of people are not able to afford such education. So we created this program for people who have the passion to join or to go into software development, to go into web application development, into mobile app development, who, even though with the passion, do not have the financial ability to embark on this education.  This is how come we brought out ITEP to help give them that same quality of education we have in SDT but could not afford.  So, the program basically is to help people get the technical skills as well as prepare them for higher education, as well as entrepreneurship.  So we admit a lot of students, passionate students of course, into the program, and then we train them, we train them, their training is based on UDL, so we train them and all of them are prepared for the next step, which is internship.  So we have partner companies who our students go and intern with them for a period of three months to six months, and after the internship, those who are prepared to go into their own business, we support them to do that.  And, those who need to go into higher education, obviously if you are a part of the program and you are from high school, you need to continue your education.  So, we help them to get into the schools, some of them we help to get a scholarship into the higher education.  And, its very important because if you have the technical skill of software development, and you are embarking on any course in the university, let’s say computer science, you will come out as a better person, rather than going through a computer science course and coming out to have to find your way out to do basic things, I won’t call it basic, but technical things like developing software, so, this is what ITEP is about.  And, the focus is to give access to people with the passion but who do not have the finances for this program.

[00:27:03]

[Lillian]  And, how is it that you are able to fund ITEP?

[Elvis]  So, ITEP is supposed to be funded by the government.  So, the government pays for their citizens.  So, that is the model we have, we experimented the idea some countries that are interested in doing that, they are some ambassadors who want to lead this to make sure that their countries sign up for this program and help train their citizens, young people who are passionate about programs like this, they sponsor them to come for the program, and then, at the end of the day, they can help reduce unemployment because many jobs will be created, and they will, in turn, employ people as well.  So, that is the original model for ITEP.  But, there are other companies who are also interested in supporting the program, sponsoring people they believe that they can even hire after the program.  So, these are all models that we are currently experimenting.

[00:28:21]

[Lillian]  Wow, it sounds like you are not only an innovator and an educator, but in working with so many different parts of the government, you are also a politician who is bringing a lot of new change in policy surrounding UDL to the educational system in Ghana, and that’s really impressive, Elvis.  Its absolutely amazing.

[Elvis]  Well, I’m not a politician.  Far from that, I’m just someone with a passion to make sure that the right things in education are done.

[00:28:59]

[Lillian]  Well, its very impressive.  What is your hope then, you are doing so many things to improve the student learning outcomes and how students learn in Ghana, it sounds like throughout the country, and in helping with UDL Africa to implement that from Pre-K or from the youngest student through higher ed and to workforce readiness.  What is your hope then for what UDL will do for the students, the people in Accra and in Ghana?

[Elvis]   Lillian, you know, every school in my country, Ghana, and other parts of the world, wants to admit brilliant students.  Every university.  So, before you apply, they ask you for your GPA, based on your GPA, they give you admission.  That is the standard for admission in every school, most schools.  Now, the problem is, no one pays attention to the students before they join these schools.  So, everyone is looking for the best students, but no one pays attention to the foundation that produces the best students.  That is what we want to do.  We want to see every students enroll in a course in the school, not because they are brilliant, but because they have the passion for the course.  So, we need to make sure that as an institution, a higher educational institution, we are solving the problem in the grassroots.  And not join the trend of schools–there are many schools in Ghana and in Africa, that everybody is looking for brilliant students.  We need to make sure that we are involved in producing the brilliant students by making sure that everyone is brilliant.  So, UDL has come as a remedy or a solution for this problem.  And the reason why we are doing all kinds of things to make sure it is possible, is that, as I said, it is a national emergency.  It is not something that we are just experimenting, it is something that works and something that needs to be done.  So, we are pioneering that to make sure that in the next two or three years, the educational system in Ghana will have UDL implemented in every school.

[00:31:59]

[Lillian]  Wow, what an incredible goal, and what a helpful goal for the learners there in Ghana.  And, it sounds like you are one of the biggest movers and most passionate advocates for UDL in Ghana and really in the world, because I certainly was impressed by your passion when I met you this past summer and what you were doing in Ghana.  I was wondering if you could answer another question.  Could you tell us of maybe a success story you have witnessed either from the School of Design and Technology or one of the UDL Africa implementations that you’ve seen?

[00:32:47]

[Elvis]  Yes, we’ve had a lot of success stories.  And now, SDT is more or less like the place where students who are educated come for the right education.  So, we have students that have gone through computer science for four years, graduated with very good grades, and they come back to SDT to learn how to develop software.  That is the success stories we have.  We have people who have gone through the schools and are entrepreneurs, they have their own businesses and they are doing very well.  One of the students who went through the school was recently invited by Ali Baba’s part of –Ali Baba is an online e-commerce system, so Jacquesma invited some Africa entrepreneurs in the e-commerce system, and one of my students was part of it.  These are success stories that we record. Now, we want to extend these success stories to everyone.  We want people to know that, no matter the school that they are in, they can still have a better education if UDL is being implemented.

[00:34:06]

[Lillian]  Wow, that is a fantastic success story.  So, you are getting your students ready for the workforce, and really setting them up for success through all of the things that you have done in implementing UDL.  So, thank you so much for telling us about everything that you’re doing at the School of Design and Technology and in starting the  International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program.

[00:34:34]

[Elvis]  Yeah, so let me mention that the International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program is now global.  When I was in the United States, I got a few people who said “hey, we need to make sure the ITEP program is in the United States.”  We’ve got passionate people who now co-found this program in Florida, Miami, and the focus is to give the same form of education to people of color, underprivileged people, people who do not have the financial capacity to go into these bootcamps that pay about $8000, $1200,

[00:35:33]

[Lillian]  Right, they’re very expensive to enroll in those bootcamps.

[Elvis]  So, we want to give them the same quality of education, and someone has to pay for it.  So, we have–we are building our support base to make sure that people sponsor people who cannot afford to pay for bootcamps to learn software development, web application development.  And one beautiful thing about the United States, is that the jobs are there.  They have the jobs.  So, and the problem is the skilled labor is little compared to other industries.  If you go to the accounting industry, the management industry, you have a lot of people there. But, when it comes to software development industry, the gap is still wide.  So, we need to make sure that these jobs are occupied by Americans, by people in America.  We don’t need to import people to occupy jobs that we could do.  So, why don’t we give the training to people who cannot afford, but are passionate to do the job, so that we can close that gap in the United States.

[00:37:04]

[Lillian]  Wow, that’s fantastic.  So, how far along is the ITEP in Miami or in the United States?  What stage of either funding or classes are you in now?

[Elvis]  So, we are in the development stage, we have very strong board members who are passionate to push the ITEP US to make sure that it is beginning from Miami. We are making sure that the vision or the purpose of ITEP US comes to pass in the next few years.  So, at this stage, we are still doing a lot of planning and developing on how to kick start.  But, so far, I will tell you that it is positive because of the energy, because of the people who want to even be a part of it.  Because everyone has identified that this is the solution to the problem in our industry.  A lot of young people need skills to work, and this is the solution.  A lot of young people need to be entrepreneurs, to start their own business.  You cannot start your own business if you do not have the skills.  So, it is positive I could say it is positive now, and then in the next few months, we will do some publications and then we will start admitting students.  

[00:38:44]

[Lillian]  Wow, so where could people learn more about the International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program?

[Elvis]  ITEPglobal.org is the official website for the International Technology and Entrepreneurship Program.  You’ll find every information about ITEP on it.

[00:39:05]

[Lillian]  Well great, we can put a link to that in our show notes and all of our listeners can then also find it when they’re listening to the podcast.  So, you might find some more passionate people who are interested in what ITEP can do for people around the world.  And, I’m so glad that you are so passionate about it and that you have spent so much of your time and energy to help others to create jobs, to go into the workforce, to learn, and really change what your experience was as a squirmy student in your elementary years and making other squirmy students not so squirmy so that they can learn. 

[00:39:58]

[Elvis]  Yes, and I’m so excited about that, and I think that the future is bright.  The future is bright for every student who has an opportunity to be part of a UDL school.

[Lillian]  I think so too, and its because of the hard work that you are doing in Accra and in the rest of Ghana, and around the world, so thank you so much, Elvis, for what you are doing, and thank you so much for talking to me and for all of our listeners to be able to hear what you’re doing, I really really appreciate it, thank you Elvis.

[00:40:32]

[Elvis]  Thank you so much for having me, Lillian, I’m so grateful, and anytime you call upon me, I will have to share my experiences and what we are doing as an institution.

[Lillian]  Wonderful, thank you so much.

You can follow the Think UDL podcast on facebook, twitter, and instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the ThinkUDL.org website.  The Think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR, the STAR stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post-secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aids based on UDL principles. If you’d like to know more, go to the CollegeSTAR.org website.  Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University, where, if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw an apple at you!  The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey Quartet, comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell, and Jose Cochez.  Our sound engineer is Tanner Jones and our social media coordinator is Ruben Watson.  And I’m your host, Lillian Nave, thank you for joining us on the Think UDL podcast.