Carnegie Mellon University

Classroom on a phone

April 20, 2020

CMU-Africa Mobilizes

When the coronavirus surfaced in Rwanda, the Government of Rwanda, globally renowned for innovation across various sectors, including health care, responded quickly. Robust countrywide measures were immediately put in place to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission. A nationwide lockdown that included the closure of all schools and universities in the country on March 16, was implemented. Carnegie Mellon University Africa (CMU-Africa) had less than a week to switch to remote instruction. When the time came to lock the doors, CMU-Africa had moved its classes and research activities online on March 18, effectively enabling the students to continue their education.

“CMU-Africa was able to quickly and successfully transition to the remote instruction mode, thanks to the enthusiastic cooperation from CMU-Africa students, staff, and faculty, as well as the support and guidance from CMU leadership. It was also very helpful that CMU-Africa has significant experience in using remote instruction for some of its classes,” said Vijayakumar Bhagavatula, director of CMU-Africa.

Before the first case of coronavirus was reported in Rwanda, CMU-Africa administrators were monitoring the changing COVID-19 situation and closely following conversations with Carnegie Mellon University leaders in Pittsburgh. Bhagavatula and his team were working hard to develop a contingency plan to ensure the health and safety of its community, and when the Government of Rwanda announced the closure of schools and universities, they took immediate action.

“One of the biggest challenges we had to address was getting the students internet connectivity in their residences,” said Faith Rugema, senior program manager, partnerships and communications. She explained that students have very good internet access when they are at CMU-Africa, but the majority didn’t have adequate connectivity in their residences. The staff moved rapidly to ensure that all students had the equipment and data packages required for them to continue their coursework and stay connected to CMU-Africa.

As for actually conducting the classes online, the transition was not difficult. “Though not to the same extent, remote learning and instruction are not entirely new practice for us,” said Rugema. “Some of our students take courses in Pittsburgh via Zoom [a cloud platform for audio and video conferencing], and we teach courses at CMU-Africa that are offered in Pittsburgh. We therefore already had this infrastructure in place, and a number of faculty and some students have experience with this.” Prior to moving to complete remote instruction, a number of tests were conducted by faculty to ensure that they were ready to interact with the students from the confines of their homes.

Technical matters aside, CMU-Africa seriously considered how closing the school affected the students. “It was a shock for them,” said Rugema, “We are a small tight knit community. Students are accustomed to walking into a faculty member’s office or into the Student Services Office. To maintain a strong sense of community, it was important to give students continuity in the various student services they were receiving, though now, virtually: faculty mentor and staff advisor office hours, career/internship advising, professional development sessions, counseling and psychosocial services, and IT support. Student life events and activities continued to move forward online as much as possible, such as Friday evening Toastmasters and various student club meetups. In addition, staff and students established WhatsApp groups. (WhatsApp is a social media platform commonly used in Rwanda.) This is helping students stay connected to each other and post questions, and staff are able to provide support. Students now feel more comfortable and have adjusted to this new way of operating.”

Problems with the transition have been few. “Most companies in the country have moved to working remotely, so if there is a glitch here or there, it has to do with internet speed and connectivity in some residential areas. Generally, things are going really well,” said Rugema.

To stay on this successful trajectory, CMU-Africa has a team in place to monitor everything from IT systems to student administrative needs. “Everyone here is staying in touch and we can address problems as they arise,” said Rugema. 

CMU-Africa intends to teach remotely through the end of the semester. While everything is running smoothly, Rugema admits that students and colleagues, “prefer in-person interactions. We are a small community that thrives by being around each other and on campus.”