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  • Kathleen Bortolin

10 days in Kenya: Building a Teaching and Learning Centre in Kisii County, Kenya

Updated: Jun 21


They had told me that the Kisumu airport in Western Kenya would remind me of Nanaimo. I sort of didn’t believe them. But stepping off the plane early one morning, a half day ahead of my body and 35 hours after I had left the Nanaimo airport, I sort of did believe them. Down the stairs, out onto the tarmac, surrounded by low-lying hills, green-green everywhere and into a cozy airport with one baggage carousel. I suppose this could be YCD, if you squinted a little to delete from your line of sight the guards in camo with automatic weapons. Shortly thereafter, I was met by John and Caroline, two colleagues from Kisii National Polytechnic (KNP). They whisked me away in the college truck onto the main highway heading to Kisii. It was on the main highway that I realized I wasn’t in Nanaimo anymore. I was full-on, solidly, no turning back, in Africa.


That moment I love. A moment that I used to chase long before I had children and a grown up job. That moment you walk out of an airport or get off a train, and are assaulted with wonder in a world where everything appears completely different. Except it isn’t. It’s just the way it is, and you’ve simply wondered in. The sudden and joyful interruption of discovery. Like falling in love. Countless motorcycles carrying three (three!) passengers. The mutatu mini-buses with cheery evangelical message painted loudly on the back windows. Jesus is our saviour! The chaotic dance of traffic disorder. Near misses and horns. Ladies carrying water and wood piled high on their heads. Babies strapped to their backs, their little calves dangling with ease as their mamas sway along. Children in school uniforms, wool socks near the equator, skipping along, stopping at times to discovery you. Roadside shanty shacks selling nuts and bolts and sim cards. Pineapples and jungles. Cows.


I would be spending the next two weeks facilitating training and strategic planning at KNP. As an educational developer at my university’s teaching and learning centre, I had been asked to support part of the Kenya Employment for Education Project (KEFEP) that my institution had been supporting for the previous four years. As part of this project, key members from VIU had been participating in a variety of training and development initiatives with KNP. And key members from KNP had visited our campus. Most of the training and development had up until this point focused on vocational training and program development. But born from this work and these exchanges, KNP had articulated a desire to start a teaching and learning centre (TLC). Enter me.


KNP’s intention to start a TLC was inspired in part by a 2017 trip to VIU under the KEFEP program. At that time, John, a key stakeholder behind the creation of KNP’s TLC, met with VIU’s CIEL team. That's my team! It was during that meeting that John decided that a TLC at KNP could support the broad methodological shift taking place across Kenya: Competency Based Education Training (CBET). Hearing about this opportunity, I decided to apply for a Global Engagement Grant to create and deliver a training program to support KNP’s TLC team. I was awarded the grant, and used my VIUFA PD time to take 10 days to travel to Kisii and engage the team in training. What follows is an overview of the training, followed by a more detailed description and reflection of the ten days.


Dialogue and Community Building

My work at KNP started a few months before I arrived in Kenya, and began with dialogue and relationship building. A key part of the initial phase of any of the work that I do involves dialogue and relationship building. Unlike at VIU, where I could swing by the Starbucks, pick up two lattes, and head to a faculty member’s office for a deep chat and white board session, the Kenya team and I were separated by time and space, and at the whim of spotty wifi. So we coupled our troubled virtual sessions with emails and WhatsApp messages. WhatsApp was new for me, but suddenly I was connected to a team of people miles and miles away, all friendly and responsive. I sent them a picture of our snowy campus, and they sent back their astonishment and pictures of lush, green Kisii. They sent pictures of the emerging work they were doing, and links to key articles, and I sent them questions. We muddled together a sense of community through all of this, and I learned that obscure apps that I had never used before worked well in lieu of a Starbucks and a whiteboard, and could be counted on to help cobble together a needs analysis.


Needs Analysis

Although KNP knew they wanted, or perhaps needed, a TLC, such centres are rare in Kenya. In fact, only one other institution in Kenya has a TLC (Kenyatta University), along with one international school (K-12). Having little experience with a TLC, and only one national counterpart, KNP was looking to VIU to help support its TLC’s design and delivery. In order to this, however, I needed to conduct a needs analysis.

To support the needs analysis, I collected evidence from key stakeholders including John (KNP), Darrell (VIU), Sally and Jessie (and Raphael!) (VIU), and Darcy (Selkirk College). One advantage of engaging such a multifaceted stakeholder group was that it provided a variety of ideas to inform my plan. The drawback, however, was that there were many different, at times competing, needs. I had to comb through responses, group and analyze them, and incorporate some of my own thoughts. At the end of this process, my list looked like this:

  • Strategic planning for an emerging TLC

  • How to find, create and use resources to support a TLC

  • Consulting and facilitating with faculty

  • Building relationships and communities of practice

  • Marketting a TLC

  • The role of research (SoTL) in educational development

  • Workshop design and delivery

  • Engaging teaching strategies/lectures

  • Effective and aligned assessment and evaluation


It was a lot to do in 10 days, but at least we’d be busy. In creating a schedule or plan for how to address all of these topics, I saw that there were two areas that were emerging: pedagogy and strategy. The pedagogy side included the skills my group of 12 trainees, also called champions, would need to design and develop CBET training to faculty at their institution. These sessions would be similar to the types of sessions I would run for faculty at VIU around course design, engaging teaching strategies, and effective and aligned assessment. In this way, I would model how I would run sessions like this, as well as give the champions the content of the sessions. I was in effect training the trainer. On the other hand, the strategy side of the training would involve facilitated conversations around the running of the TLC, and would focus on creating deliverables, or key “to-do’s” that I could leave with the team to structure their way forward.


What actually happened?

I engaged the chart-making tool in WORD to design a large (I used landscape layout!) chart carefully laying out my master plan, including a nice, logical flow of sessions throughout the day, mixing up to-down and bottom-up sessions nicely, and alternating nicely between the pedagogy content and the strategy content. It was a tight-tight schedule with start and end times, time for breaks, and even mindful flex-time. It was solid and readable, and very fine indeed. However, I probably changed that schedule just about every day of the training. Nothing about that schedule came off as I had laid it out. Turns out it’s hard to make a tight-tight schedule for training a group of people you have never met in a country far-far away. Although I had a general sense of what we would do, I found myself tweaking sessions for a couple of hours each night, building on what we had covered the day before and what felt right as to where we needed to go. The following is an overview of what we covered, and the order in which we covered it:

  • Started with an introduction to our work and general discussion about TLCs.

  • Engaged in a strategic planning session: getting more specific about what the TLC will do, and creating deliverables for the team

  • First pedagogy session on engaging teaching strategies (teaching as discovery/bottom-up approaches to activity design)

  • Session on best practices in workshop design (how to design a workshop)

  • Laddered into a session that collectively designed the TLC’s first induction workshop

  • Second pedagogy session: Assessment and evaluation (formative, summative, and rubrics)

  • Reviewed TLC Wishlist and created a committee to source items and find quotations to submit to VIU

  • Session on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and how to support research into teaching

  • Third pedagogy session: Strategies for group work

  • Marketing a TLC: pamphlet, website, social media and HoD meeting

  • Applied session: Designing meaningful and engaging activities for CDACC curriculum

  • The soft launch: Introducing the TLC to key KNP stakeholders: meeting and open forum


Key take-aways

Generally, our 10 days together was a mix of pedagogy and strategic planning. Although I recognize that the group could still benefit from more sessions related to engaging teaching and learning, the sessions that I enjoyed most, and that I thought went most far in supporting the team, were the strategic planning sessions. This surprised me, and still surprises me, as the pedagogy sessions are solidly in my wheelhouse, and I believe the team could still benefit with more practice and opportunities to apply these ideas. But what I enjoyed most, and what I thought made the biggest impact, were all the bits and pieces that encouraged the team to identify their goals and create a plan to work toward those goals. All the work around creating deliverables for three months, six months, and one year. And all the marketing pieces, and the logistical pieces—these were the pieces that really drove the team, and myself, and felt the most transformative. By the time I left, I felt that the team had a few more ideas about teaching and learning, ideas that they would hopefully implement and apply. But they had a solid plan and clear path forward, and a great deal of energy and good will ready to apply to their emerging centre. I felt most hopeful that this TLC was going to go somewhere.


However, the biggest take-away for me was the realization of how much I loved this work, the strategic planning sessions, and how confident I felt in guiding the conversation and supporting the team in getting to where they needed to be. I loved the enthusiasm of the team, and the commitment that they brought every day to the sessions. What a privilege it was for me to play a small role in their journey, and to know them at this exciting time. Their gratitude was overwhelming, and buoyed my spirits. I felt like this opportunity provided me with a taste of a role that I want to play more fully in my professional life. And then came COVID.


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© 2015 by Kathleen Bortolin.