An insight into teaching R programming in Botswana

A case at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST)


Simisani Ndaba


August 9, 2023

Botswana International University of Science and Technology in Palapye

Dr. Chipo Zibana is a trained statistician with a passion to bring data driven solutions for sustainable development through engagement, collaboration and consulting services. Her long term goal is to be able to understand different complex social and health problems using statistical methods including: machine learning, data mining, big data, statistical modelling among others. Her research and publications focuses on the prediction and understanding of disease epidemiology and health for COVID-19, HIV, heart disease, Tuberculosis and breast cancer.

This is her experience teaching R programming at Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST). BUIST is the second largest university in Botswana, established in 2006, was envisaged to be one of the key drivers in bringing about a fundamental transformation of Botswana as a catalyst for economic and social development. BIUST was established mainly to transform the country’s economy from a resource based to a knowledge-based economy.

Hi Doc., first of all, what is your professional background and how long have you been using R or any other statistical analysis tool for Data analysis, data visualization or other Data science workflow.

I am a lecturer in Statistics who holds a PhD in Statistics and employed by BIUST in the department of Mathematics and Statistical Sciences since November 2019. I concurrently serve as Assistant coordinator for our Departmental statistical services unit since its inception in June 2021. I have been using R for my research since 2012 and started incorporating R in my statistical teaching modules since 2017 whilst in Zimbabwe and at BIUST since 2020. Besides R, I also use SPSS and STATA for teaching and Statistical consultations on data analysis, data visualization depending on the domain expert.

How long have you been teaching R at BIUST?

I have been teaching R since I joined BIUST almost 4 years ago. I am one of the first instructors to teach using R for most of my assigned modules in statistics both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels including, statistical computing, Linear regression, time series Analysis, among others.

Have you used R in any of your research studies, how have you used it, e.g. which packages have you used and what have you used them for?

Yes I have used R in my research. I have used it to both as a programming platform and used variety of packages for data visualization, mixture models, time series analysis, survival analysis and machine learning among others. In particular some of the packages I have used includes tidyverse, flexmix, cluster, caret, nnet, xts, astsa, fpp3, timetk, survival, ggsurvfit, and many more.

What are students attitude towards R and is it gaining interest among scholars?

Initially students were resistant and hesitant to learning R, this has however, improved slightly over the years. So, I now get few students who are very interested as they are well versed with the data science trends. At BIUST However, the acceptance and interest of R is very low compared to other universities I have taught using R.

How often have you seen R be used for machine learning experiments and what is the difference between R versus Python documentation?

I used R more for machine learning than Python. However, I think that researchers from Math and Statistics use R than Python more in machine learning compared to computers scientists and other business analytics platforms. R documentation tend to be smaller for me compared to python and it more field specific in my opinion.

Where and how have you seen R being used in the Botswana industry?

I have not seen much of it being used in industry in Botswana although I have used it for few consultative assignments with some few companies in the health sector. By and large most companies I have interacted with uses SPSS or excel in their analysis.

How can R awareness be increased in Botswana?

I think there should be advocacy for schools and universities to incorporate it in their curriculum. Secondly the advantages of using R are huge but barely unknown to many and industry. Once industry is aware then usage can improve hence awareness will also go a long way.

Are community organizations enough for raising R programming awareness for Data analysis?

They are in my opinion. However, a well united and coordinated approach maybe more helpful.

What are the challenges in teaching R programming?

The environment itself sometimes doe not somehow support teaching R, for example;

  1. The laboratories are shared and may not have proper infrastructure (i.e. computers) needed.

  2. Not much time is normally given to programming R courses due to limited resources and/or lack of policy ti such courses.

  3. Students generally lack interest due to lack of knowledge on the benefits and lack of encouragement from departments.

  4. The programming space tends to be a challenging environment for non STEM students in general.

Are you the only woman teaching R at BUIST?

I am not the only one, there are other two women. Although, of the two of them, one isn’t that consistent ans she just started last academic year.

Do you collaborate with other lecturers from other schools who teach R, if you do, how do you do it and what do you work on?

I have not done teaching collaboration since I joined BIUST. Although, I am l working on some possibilities.

Are there any clubs for students to participate in to work together to improve their skills in R? If there are, may you please share their socials and contacts to let people get in touch with them.

Nothing is in place as yet.

What projects are you involved in?

I have three projects I am working on.

  1. Antibiotic resistance prediction.

  2. Malaria,

  3. Botswana strategies to curb COVID-19

What kind of projects do you give your students to work on?

Mainly Data analysis, Data visualisation and Machine Learning projects.

As R programming is not well known in Botswana, what techniques do you use to keep students actively involved and motivated during a lesson?

I use hands on techniques mostly where we do it together, debugging and I comment on the expectations as we go. This has been my main win areas students tend to be involved as they do not feel left out. I should acknowledge though that BUIST numbers are small, so it work well. I also have motivation classes on “Why R” beginning of my classes. This lists R as being financially, academically and advantageous career wise.

Thank you for the insight Dr. the approach towards teaching R is now clear in understanding how the skill set comes to be.

Always welcome.

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