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For education, a million miles to go

The Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is helping to spread world-class education to marginalized areas in need around the world

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For education, a million miles to go

The Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is helping to spread world-class education to marginalized areas in need around the world

Malawi is a country wedged between Mozambique and Zambia in southeastern Africa. The cerulean water of Lake Malawi sits in the east of the country, and in the south and west mountains ascend into the sky from valleys across the lush green landscape. 

Yet in a country with such rich natural beauty, its people are some of the poorest in the world. The World Bank states half live below the poverty line, and a quarter is unable to satisfy food needs. The average Malawian subsists on $377 per year, the second-lowest gross domestic product per capita in the world, according to World Population Review.

Data from UNICEF in 2016 said roughly three-fourths of Malawian children don’t pursue education past the age of 14, and attendance is even worse in rural regions where children often choose to work in agriculture or fishing instead. ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is working on extending access to education in the marginalized African country — and other countries in similar situations — partnering with Malawian universities to provide scholarships and share knowledge learned through similar endeavors around the world. 

Associate professor Samuel DiGangi of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College was training teachers in Gaza in 2018 when funding for the project was abruptly cut by Congress after the passing of the Taylor Force Act, ending all funding to Palestinian Authority assistance projects. 

He turned his attention to Malawi soon after. 

“It was interesting that as (the project in Gaza) was deactivated, it was within a month that we received word … that our proposal for the Malawi project was elected and funded,” DiGangi said. “It was very good timing.”

Which worked well for DiGangi, who said the day-long flights across the globe have given him the environment in which he thrives and is most productive. 

“Because I'm trapped in a plane for 13 hours at a time, it's really hard to be distracted and to find something else that I could be working on,” DiGangi said. It allows him to focus on the projects at hand. 

The Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity is part of the U.S. Agency for International Development, a federal agency that helps administer foreign aid to assist developing countries. The goal of the project is to increase Malawi’s skilled workforce, especially for women and people with disabilities. 

DiGangi has led a number of similar programs in countries across the globe as the lead investigator for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“We look from the perspective of 'What is ASU well positioned to engage in?' What fits with the capabilities of the University?” DiGangi said. “We saw ASU as being very well positioned for this one because we were focusing on the goals, looking at 'How can higher education institutions in Malawi strengthen their ability to extend access to persons who otherwise would never have the opportunity to go on to higher education?'”

Access to education

DiGangi said education is simply not a priority to the rural population of Malawi. Many of the children there help with farming, and their labor keeps their families afloat. 

“From an economic perspective, the funds to pay for higher education are incredibly limited. For rural areas in particular, it’s cost-prohibitive for students to attend,” DiGangi said, “And that’s not just tuition, but also the time away from working, from taking care of the family.”

The lack of higher education in Malawi contributes to a perilously homogenous economy. About a third of Malawi’s gross domestic product is based in agriculture, according to the World Bank.

This is a concern when dealing with the volatility of the weather — and the intensifying effects of climate change — that make Malawi’s economy especially vulnerable to downturns. In 2017, Malawi’s government declared a drought that economists said was part of the reason its economic growth rate slowed.

The average internet speed in Malawi also dipped in the past few years, slowing from 1.7 Mbps in 2016 to 1.3 Mbps in 2017, according to the Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2018 report. A majority of Americans have an average internet speed of at least 25 Mbps. 

Increasing access and speed of internet services will be vital to one of the Center for Advanced Studies in Global Education’s key initiatives of its effort in Africa. 

“We brought the vice-chancellors from each of these universities to ASU’s Tempe campus and to our Washington, D.C. campus for a week and worked with them on designing the model for open (and) distance learning that would be enabled by this program,” DiGangi said.  

The Open and Distance Learning centers would work like satellite campuses in all the states of Malawi. DiGangi’s work in internet-delivered education helped to guide the Open and Distance Learning side of the project. 

DiGangi directs the largest online graduate program at ASU as well, he said. Looking at the University as a whole, more than 30,000 students receive education from ASU online. It is ASU’s expertise in this area that DiGangi said allows his team to lead in the planning of the outreach effort.

Associate Director of CASGE Ann Nielsen said the collaborations are mutually beneficial to the education systems abroad and the learning done inside classrooms at ASU. 

“We really do not enter into this work to tell you something because we know it better than you,” Nielsen said. “I’m always humbled and inspired by these opportunities to engage with educators in other areas. They have some of the same challenges we do in our own K-12 education and many challenges that our own teachers have, but I'm humbled by the perseverance broadly.”

Domestic violence, poverty or simply having to relocate impacts a child’s ability to focus in the classroom, Nielsen said. For international projects, however, the issues faced are on a larger scale and impact entire generations of children. 

In Gaza, children live among the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Malawi, children face some of the worst poverty in the world, and refugees from neighboring countries have found a home there, too.

Areas of crisis

Nielsen also travels to places like Malawi and Palestine to help facilitate the international projects in which ASU is engaged. She said CASGE had an incredible program called the Next Generation Leaders Program, with 10 up-and-coming leaders from the West Bank.

The program chose teachers in Gaza poised to become leaders in underserved communities to receive instruction from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. 

In places like Malawi and Gaza, access to education is not the only issue, Nielsen said. Many of the circumstances in the daily lives of students and teachers affect the environment in the classroom. 

Students in Gaza have to live around bombings and shootings between the conflicting factions near the West Bank. In 2018, Malawi hosted nearly 37,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from neighboring countries for economic and social reasons. 

The opportunity for educators to work with refugees in foreign countries allows them to transfer those same learning methods to children facing conflict and crisis at home in the United States, Nielsen said.

One of the teachers from the Next Generation Leaders Program, Mona Shalhoub, took five classes about leadership and research skills. On Skype, she’s wearing a maroon hijab that outlines her round face, almond eyes and wide smile. As an educator in Palestine, she said the conflict of the region affects both teachers and students. 

Between March 30 and Nov. 19 in Gaza, Israeli security forces “killed 189 Palestinian demonstrators, including 31 children and 3 medical workers, and wounded more than 5,800 with live fire,” according to Human Rights Watch, an international organization gathering data on human rights violations.

Shalhoub’s travels take her throughout Palestine where she meets other teachers and shares what she learned from being in the Next Generation Leaders Program.

She said it sometimes takes three hours to pass through the Israeli-controlled checkpoints around Gaza. The checkpoints help Israel control who and what can pass through them, at times denying the entry of resources for Palestinian schools. 

In conditions with crisis and conflict, teachers serve as protectors for children during the school day and must effectively educate children who may be traumatized from the world outside. 


From Malawi to Arizona, the success of the program and those involved in it rely heavily on the awareness of the litany of programs and opportunities the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College offers. 

As Nielsen said, awareness of the intercommunication between foreign universities and teachers with those at ASU is mutually beneficial to educators across the globe. 

The collaborations between the faculty and researchers at ASU, and the teachers and administrators in foreign countries “come up with unique solutions and ideas and ways to overcome challenges and barriers in the classroom that you couldn’t create in a textbook,” Nielsen said. 

In addition to bringing education abroad, the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is building a foundation for the next generation of international teachers.

The college offers a degree called educational studies specifically for those interested in teaching outside stereotypical classrooms. 

“It’s a program designed for students who really want to engage in education but maybe not in formal schools. So many of them go on to teach abroad,” Nielsen said. 

Right now, however, DiGangi and the Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity project are attempting to change the idea of higher education in the minds of Malawian students.

To many Malawians, higher education is not a priority or even a reality that’s attainable, DiGangi said. Changing that mindset will be integral in spreading success for his Open and Distance Learning centers. 

“A key component in increasing access is also impacting the awareness of potential students, increasing the awareness of parents that higher education is something that is possible and it can be attainable,” DiGangi said. “The idea that higher education could even be possible is often not the case.”

DiGangi said he foresees positive change in the education system of Malawi within 10 years. With the innovative programs DiGangi and his team have implemented, he said the country’s universities are poised to extend access to higher education in Malawi. 

“The potential of increased access, I anticipate, will show our impact in five years, in even less than 10, in terms of the number of students, the types of students who engage in and benefit from higher education, and in particular, women and persons with disability.”

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