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An Interview with Patrick Awuah: A SXSW EDU Keynote speaker

Nov 1, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy – 

1) Patrick you are the first keynote speaker at the SXSW EDU conference. First of all what does SXSW stand for and where and when will this be held?

The SXSW EDU Conference & Festival cultivates and empowers a community of engaged stakeholders to advance teaching and learning. The ninth annual SXSW EDU will return to Austin, March 4-7, 2019, for four days of compelling sessions, in-depth workshops, engaging learning experiences, mentorship, film screenings, startup events, policy discussions, competitions, exhibition, networking, and so much more. Through collaboration, creativity, and engagement, SXSW EDU empowers its global community to connect, discover, and impact.

SXSW EDU is a component of the South by Southwest® (SXSW®) family of conferences and festivals. Internationally recognized as the convergence gathering for creative professionals, SXSW EDU extends SXSW’s support for the art of engagement to include society’s true rock stars: educators!

2) Patrick, you are an engineer, educator and entrepreneur- how do you juggle all these different hats?

As founder and president of a university, I am grateful to have worn many hats in my lifetime. My initial passion for engineering as a tool of discovery and problem solving led me to great experiences in the early days of Microsoft. I have used the learnings from that time to build an engineering department that provides our students with the same urgency and inquisitiveness that has informed so many of the best tech companies to date. I pursued an MBA in advance of establishing Ashesi, which was one of the first steps in building an enduring team – the existence of which ensures I can focus my energy where its needed most at any given time. As you know, education is a constantly evolving arena – but best practices and impact metrics can guide our course when available. I work to balance innovation against what we know serves students and the community at large in the most impactful ways.

3)  What are you going to be discussing?

I am looking forward to sharing what and how Ashesi is doing to prepare ethical, resilient and critically thinking leaders for the future of Africa. We engage Design thinking and human centered design to present a liberal arts curriculum infused with entrepreneurial training at every step of a student’s journey. I plan to share examples of how we do this, and my vision for how success can be shared and replicated for maximum impact. Of course, I’m happy to share the challenges we face along the way – and how we have successfully addressed many to date.

4) I have been to Belleville, South Africa- and been to the Cape of Good Hope- and have seen Africa- up close. How are things in that country and what can we look forward to in the future?

South Africa continues to grow as a business leader for the continent. We have a number of graduates working in South Africa, and continue to grow partnerships with businesses and foundations there who recognize the key role tertiary education plays in a portion of workforce and leadership development. It is exciting to see how South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana are all growing in global recognition for technology and business incubation.

These are very exciting times for the continent.

5)  Ashesi University—where is it and what is the basic philosophy behind it?

Ashesi University is located on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana. We started 16 years ago to provide African students with a world class degree opportunity they didn’t have to cross an ocean for. At Ashesi, the operating premise is that liberal arts provides the best learning environment for an undergraduate degree. Traditionally, an engineer at a public university in Ghana, for instance, would focus exclusively on engineering and math courses – gaining the technical skills to do a job, but rarely the critical thinking, social and environmental awareness that is cultivated via a more dynamic curriculum. Ashesi believes that entrepreneurship is neither a title or an individual class, but is instead a way of thinking, exploring and learning. Entrepreneurial thinking ensures students stay nimble, dive deep into causality and are always looking for how to do things more efficiently and for maximum impact. Further, Ashesi is built on a foundation of ethical behavior – we pioneered Africa’s first student-led honor code, with which our students are accountable to each other. We watch as students take these skills out into the larger community, ensuring the “Ashesi Way” grows in scope and impact.

6) Now, critical thinking- a lot of people talk about it- but very few assess it. How important is the ongoing assessment of critical thinking?

Good point. Ashesi faculty have actually devised rubrics to assess students, but most importantly, we ask corporate Ghana to assess our student’s abilities and give us feedback that guides our future work.

7) Teaching, learning and preparing students for the future- this is a tall order- how do we go about training future teachers to accomplish all this?

Collaboration is incredibly important for tall orders such as this. At Ashesi, we have pioneered an annual convening to bring educators and administrators together to share best practices, challenges and opportunities to improve education delivery throughout the continent. Just two years in, we have seen the most enthusiasm from young teachers anxious to collaborate as they take this herculean task on. This is just one opportunity to infuse diverse institutions with awareness and exposure to resources.

8) The world is becoming increasingly inter-connected. How can we prepare our future leaders to use technology and the Internet to communicate more effectively and efficiently?

Technology has the power to amplify communications. A strong communicator can utilize growing platforms to increase their reach and grow collaboration in incredible ways. Conversely, technology can magnify and amplify misinformation and miscommunications on levels we have never before seen. I am most interested in ensuring that educational resources and systems involving technology have the foundation, support network and oversight needed to ensure quality content reaches those who need it. Instilling strong communications skills in students and faculty alike, is a great start.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

I am especially excited about the opportunity to share my work with Ashesi with educators from all over the world at SXSW EDU. While different countries and continents may have unique challenges, we are all working towards similar goals. It will be fantastic to share the week with this global community, sharing and learning from each other.

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