African Virtual Campus - Breaking down barriers to learning

African Virtual Campus - Breaking down barriers to learning

Friday, 18 March, 2011

Implementation of an online African Virtual Campus Network for Science & Technology Education is based on the model of the Avicenna Virtual Campus and is targeting all 54 countries of Africa’s five main regions. The African Virtual Campus provides the necessary online courses, training and tutoring for teachers. The idea is that each university creates online course material through a collective virtual library. This allows the lecturers involved to share, adapt and translate teaching modules.

To achieve this, UNESCO is working with existing educational institutions, and notably the Avicenna Virtual Campus (UNESCO & European Commission Network) that it has already established in the Mediterranean Basin with European Commission funding (EUMEDIS Programme), to develop a regional e-learning network in science and technology in Africa.

Senegal, one of the very first countries to join, has now been participating since November 2008. We got in touch with Professor Niang from the University of Cheikh Anta Diop to find out more.

What led your university to join the African Virtual Campus?

“There were three main reasons: distance learning is a priority for the university; the government is strongly in favour of pedagogical innovation; and, the Avicenna model had already traced out the path towards distance learning where university faculties possess a high level of autonomy. Avicenna’s added value is in the methodology already in place for open and distance learning.”

What support has the university received?

“As we sought to incorporate ICTs and distance learning into our teaching, our material and organisational needs were supported by the African Virtual Campus. This made it possible for us to develop content in any format and to know better how to introduce distance learning into our courses.”

What would you say are the major achievements so far?

“We set up a recording studio which gives us the ability to couple videos with PowerPoint presentations. A number of classes have now been recorded. We set up e-learning modules for first year chemistry and physics courses. These modules give our students the possibility of following classes online, revising and testing themselves.”

What advice would you give to an institute which has just joined the African Virtual Campus?

“It’s essential to have an ICT development policy in the university in the first place to be able to integrate the virtual campus. The virtual campus is only one aspect of a university’s distance learning development strategy.”

What are the next steps and what hurdles have to be overcome?

“Our main aim is to consolidate our current position. We face material problems - a streaming server, for example. This is preventing us from putting in place a remote teaching system which would allow is to broadcast classes in real time. We would also like to take AVC to a nation-wide level so that other Senegalese universities can benefit.”

Togo is one of the more recent countries to join the network. We spoke to Professor Amah d'Almeida from the University of Lome to get an insight into how they’re progressing after only a few months as official members.

What does Togo hope to gain from joining the African Virtual Campus?

“The AVC gives us the opportunity to improve our teaching capacity using ICTs. It enables us to build up many skills - methodological, organisational, technological, pedagogical and legal. Right through from primary to tertiary education, our teaching capacity is expected to grow. The model means a pooling of resources throughout Africa, e-learning for students, teachers and adults en masse, and the integration of visually handicapped students into our education system.”

How well would you say the African Virtual Campus is contributing to the advancement of science and technology?

“The AVC develops networks of excellence which serve as catalysts to scientific research and technological innovation. These are the main goals of the Consolidated Plan of Action and should create a virtuous circle towards the strengthening of Africa’s socio-economic growth and its position in the world economy. By boosting our capacity at each level of education through the use of modern technology, we will come closer to meeting international standards. This will help us catch up on our deficit from the socio-economic problems of the 90s, among other things.”

What have been the first steps in the setting up of the AVC in Togo?

“While the protocol was signed only on 12 November 2010, Togo has been an official AVC partner since October 2008. We bring together three institutes at the University of Lome: the IT and mathematics centre (CIC-UL); the distance learning centre (CFAD); and, the National Institute of Education Sciences (INSE). Our steering group is already operational and will soon become autonomous.

The virtual network has been put together based on our most urgent educational needs. It comprises three sub-networks:

    • Sub network I will be made up of three virtual centres combining the University of Lome, the University of Kara and the Ecole Normale Superieur (teacher training, production, quality assurance)
    • Sub network II will be made up of two virtual centres combining the CNP, teacher training institutes (ENI) and secondary level continuous teacher training centres
    • Sub network III will be made up of one virtual centre combing technical and vocational teacher training centres.

Overall, the national network will consist of six AVC centres. The set-up of the University of Lome’s AVC centre is currently underway.”

What are the next stages for Togo? What are obstacles have been identified and how can these be overcome?

“Our steering team which was trained up in 2008 is based at the IT and mathematics centre (CIC-UL) of the University of Lome. The next step will be to equip their premises for the production of online distance learning courses. This centre will be the reference point for the creation of the other AVC centres in Togo. It will train up teachers from each of the institutes, until the other centres are up and running with full technological autonomy and adequate human resources.

The only foreseeable obstacle would be in the financing of the project. Our financial partner needs to cover around 33% of the costs of producing online courses, paying staff to run the AVC centres and broadcasting the productions. We need to find a lasting way of covering these costs to avoid any unnecessary hindrances.”

 

As part of its 2011-2013 action plan, UNESCO is working on a fund-raising strategy in cooperation with Africa’s regional economic communities as well as with its financial partners which include the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the European Commission.

The African Virtual Campus project is one of several other projects identified by the AU Commission to respond to certain technological needs and challenges on the continent. These projects were agreed upon with the European Commission in 2008 as a basis for the 8th Strategic Partnership on Science, ICT and Space.

Partnership Coordinator, Francesco Affinito called the projects “high desirable” as they build up Africa’s own research capacity. “The African Virtual Campus is one example of ICT systems being used to further the interests of research and higher education.

“These centres give Africa the capacity to train up large numbers of teachers in the fields of science, engineering and technology. The basis for this development is the Avicenna Virtual Campus which, in just four years, established itself as a model for quality in teacher training and student learning in the Mediterranean region” explained Prof Mohamed Miloudi, former coordinator of the Avicenna Virtual Campus and current coordinator of the African Virtual Campus at UNESCO.

At a workshop in Djibouti on 19 March 2011, it was decided that this action plan be extended to cover the creation of lifelong learning centres in the IGAD region (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda). The idea, launched by Prof Dietmar Moeller from the University of Hamburg and adopted by Dr Mohamed Miloudi, is seen as a possible means of guaranteeing sustainability.