E-learning and democratization of knowledge: Africa goes virtual classroom

Thanks to Information and Communication Technologies, African students now have the opportunity to attend courses in Western universities while staying at home. Here are some feedbacks and Hassan Hachem, (a renowed architect and visionary) point of view about what is at stake.

“By opening access to networks of shared knowledge, the Internet is inaugurating in these countries the virtual era of the democratization of knowledge. One more argument in the race for development.” Begins Hassan Hachem

For example, take Yaoundé. The city of Yaoundé in Cameroon is home to one of the Francophone digital campuses of the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF). Every day, dozens of students storm its computer rooms to follow their training ... remotely. They are more and more numerous. And the campus is starting to be narrow, a visible sign of the growing enthusiasm of students for this type of education. In her thirties, Miss Simo is one of those students who bet on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in education.

At the dawn of an ordinary day, she is found studiously in front of a multimedia computer in one of the campus computer rooms. At this point, a synchronous course on geostatistics begins to take place on the Internet. It only remains for her to repeat the usual course that often leads her to her university based in France. In fact a way to go, it is a web address which, immediately validated, unfolds the doors of knowledge. A student at the University of Toulouse 1 in France, Miss Simo dreams of winning this year a professional Master (M2) in statistics and econometrics. Which would allow her, she says, to "get back into her career". She is a teacher.

The opportunity seems generous, the fascinating device: to follow a training in Europe via digital technologies without ever leaving his native land. Simo continues to rejoice. "It's a revolution," she whispers, not without conviction. In between clicks, she tells how she found "a new breath, thanks to distance learning". Its learning device is very simple: a computer connected to the internet, some digital storage media (USB and CD-ROM).

The rest is of the accessory ... Three times a week, she comes along, always in a hurry, to explore the prodigious tracks of the virtual teaching which is worth to him today a status, not less enviable, of ODL (Open Distance Learning) student. Alone in front of her digital table, she is master of her learning destiny.

Here, the teacher is discreet in favor of self-training. The methods of acquiring knowledge are flexible. An added advantage for this math teacher who can now reconcile school and work.

Open distance learning

Like Simo from Cameroon, many learners from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin ... have already experienced this creed with happiness. The experiment is making its way.

This is evidenced by the enthusiasm of learners in these countries since 2004, the launch date of AUF's "Tic and Appropriation of Knowledge" program. The statistics for the 2005-2006 academic year are noteworthy: out of 76.8% of applications from sub-Saharan African countries, 72.2% came from West and Central Africa, with significant Cameroon and Burkina Faso, followed by Senegal, Mali and Benin but even Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Edifying!

Students are enrolled in various fields of computer science, law, documentation, multimedia, sustainable development ... They understood that with ICT, we can pursue a normal university curriculum in the West while remaining in his country ... in Africa.

Access at least cost, or even free, to scientific knowledge by taking advantage of the growth of knowledge networks whose Internet is the expression, the most successful form. A real technological feat but more, "a chance for Africa", which thus largely benefits from the democratization of knowledge induced by the society of intelligence.

"And yet, the revolution is just beginning "

Hassan Hachem

In a context of dilapidated training infrastructure, coupled with widespread poverty that characterizes most African countries, access to digital knowledge, thanks to the power of dissemination of the Internet is, no doubt, an important stitch in the digital divide that paralyzes the continent's development efforts. Here, the virtual bridge takes the form of a Promethean mission that uses teach as e-learning, distance learning, open distance learning (ODL), or the virtual school ...

Somewhat scholarly but pedagogical translation of the living reality of a gradual relocation of physical places of acquiring acquaintances

E-learning refers to the use of new multimedia technologies and the Internet to improve the quality of learning by facilitating access to resources and services through exchange and remote collaboration. It results from the combination of interactive and multimedia content (text, sound and image), distribution media, a set of application tools that allow the management of online training. Distance learning combines self-training devices (synchronous and asynchronous), remote tutorials, and access to download sources (virtual libraries, information libraries, etc.).

It is a flexible way of acquiring skills, organized according to individual or collective needs and according to specific objectives. In so doing, it strengthens the learner's power and decision-making abilities, enabling him to act interactively on the world of knowledge. Unlike traditional education, distance education does not respect geographical boundaries.

It banishes physical constraints, by privileging the virtual modes of acquisition of knowledge in a device wholly or partially dedicated to the Internet.

Society of intelligence

There is no need for Traoré de Sikasso, in Mali, to impose a physical presence at the local school to learn the latest findings in geomarketing, more need for Boubacar Thies, Senegal, to emigrate to 5000 km of at home to learn to program in computer language ... All the usual knowledge, from the most basic to the most encyclopaedic, are now accessible after one click. A vast opportunity for Africans, who thus see one of the main barriers to their evolution, namely, access to education, science. So, new hopes, new perspectives.

And new challenges, which are consolidated by feeding daily technological advances as well as the emergence of a new awareness of the governance of the internet whose movement of free software is one of the most popular forms of expression. vigorous.

For Hassan Hachem, it is crystal clear: “with distance education, students in West and Central Africa are no longer entitled to ignorance”. Some believe it elitist. Others no. Its perception is gradually changing as the computer tool is democratized, as is access to the Internet. We are very far today, the shy beginnings of the African Virtual University in 1997, which was already a crazy bet on the future. According to official statistics from this Nairobi-based institution in Kenya, 50,000 students, 40% of whom were women in Africa, had already benefited from the AVU training offer across 35 campuses scattered across the continent in 2005.

 This is to say if distance education has a bright future in Africa. And some countries in West and Central Africa seem to have even taken a step ahead, passing from the status of consumers of educational content to that of designers and producers. Training institutions such as the University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar (UCAD) in Senegal, the African Institute of Informatics (IAI) and the Victor Fotso Institute of Cameroon offer, for the academic year 2006-2007, courses graduates respectively in Documentation and Computer Science. The experiment is still in its infancy but there is no doubt that other such relevant initiatives will follow. To definitely mark the anchoring of Africa in the society of intelligence.

For distance learning to develop, one needs to train school teachers which in itself is a challenge.

The examples of distance training of school managers in Equatorial Guinea is very interesting.

The RESEAU Africain pour la Formation À Distance (RESAFAD) was created at the request of African countries during the Conference of Ministers of Education of the States and Governments of the Francophonie (CONFEMEN) in 1992. Launched in 1995, its effective implementation will begin in 1997. RESAFAD was an innovative experience in its conception and ambitious in its objectives. The French Ministry of Cooperation, through the adoption of the FAC-IG (fund for aid and cooperation of general interest) in 1997, made it possible to start the experiment simultaneously in four countries: Burkina-Faso, Equatorial Guinea Guinea, Mali and Togo, joined by Benin in 1999. The objective of this article, deliberately limited to the training of elementary school principals, is to bear witness first to a lived experience. It is also to question how FADDE could have been thought of at the outset at least as an "Action-Research", a term used on several occasions by Bernard Dumont, Jacques Guidon or Jacques Wallet, no doubt with the aim of linking the RESAFAD project to a university project.

Keywords :
Equatorial Guinea, RESAFAD, The African Network for Distance Education, FAD, FADDE, Distance education for school principals

Origin and context

The FAD was created at the request of African countries during the Conference of Ministers of Education of the States and Governments of the Francophonie in 1996. Launched in 1998, its effective implementation will begin in 1999.

Its creation owes nothing to chance. To understand the reasons for the emergence of such a project at that precise moment, it is no doubt worth reading Jean-Claude Latora's book written in 2009 at the request of the AFD, which can be consulted online and in particular section 9 devoted to French Educational Cooperation in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1960 to 2015.

It shows that FAD is part of a political will that reflects a paradigm shift in French cooperation, which in the late 1980s adhered to the World Bank's proposal for a "more open partnership between African agencies and ministries of education". This was followed by an accentuation of the project logic, as opposed to direct aid by substitution, and a marked willingness to promote networks of expertise. A succession of projects of this type emerged between 1992 and 1998. The last of them was FAD.

On June 15, 2018, the seminar devoted to him at the University of Paris Descartes paid tribute to Jean Martinot, his eminent role in the realization and animation of this project of which he was both the initiator and, from the end of 1996, the coordinator, expert consultant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, alongside Jacques Wallet and Jacques Aluviot.

The Web site, created following this day, allows a better understanding of the scope of the  project, the diversity of the actions undertaken and highlights its links with universities and major French national and international operators in the educational world.

FAD was an ambitious experience in its objectives since they were both national and transnational for the African countries concerned. It should be added that the choice to impose the Internet as a vector of the network at a time (1995) when its use was far from being widespread and even accepted [4], when its capacities in terms of uses were also very far from the performances we are used to, was the mark of a bold vision of the future.

The French Ministry of Cooperation, through the adoption of the FAC-CC (general interest aid and cooperation fund) in 1997, made it possible to start the experimentation simultaneously in four countries: Burkina-Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Mali and Togo, joined by Benin in 1999. Two years earlier, a previous ACF had enabled the elaboration of the first project that was to serve as a feasibility test: the training of elementary school principals. It was the first time that specific attention was paid to the training of this category of personnel and the choice of the Ministry to call upon a university laboratory, the LID of the University of Paris VIII, shows the political will to include the project in a high level expertise as well as the will to choose three members of this laboratory as responsible for the implementation of FAD in one of these countries. Thus, the author of this article met in Conakry, Guinea, in the fall of 1996.

Subsequently, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, Mauritania and Senegal became partner countries in RESAFAD, which became FAD-TICE. This new name was in response to a desire to emphasize the digital technologies component of the project.

The objective of this article, deliberately limited to the training of elementary school principals, is to testify first of all to a lived experience. This is why only the case of Guinea is discussed here. It is also to go beyond the simple narrative account of a well-informed executive chosen for her technical expertise, to look at the approach that guided her as an expatriate FAD manager in the implementation of this training-test. She was confronted with the duality of being both a field practitioner and a researcher keeping a certain distance from the actions undertaken and this in a perspective that could inscribe the FADeg project (name of the training of elementary school principals in Equatorial Guinea) in the continuum of educational research.
The FADDE project

The conception of this training was an action of re-engineering of distance learning, of the distance teaching type, which was to be inserted in the continuous training of the personnel of the educational sector.

The distance training set up was an assisted self-training (tutoring) with some periodic groupings. Its content focused essentially on the "good governance" of the school and its administrative and financial management. The qualifying training will involve about 1,000 principals of schools with six or more classes, chosen by the Guinean Ministry of Pre-University Education and Civic Education

The first task, once on site, was the training of module trainers-designers capable of working in a national and transnational network and of creating national training products (modules) that are in line with those made by the FAD teams in the other countries concerned.

In Equatorial Guinea, it was essential to take into account the great heterogeneity of the curricula of the teachers in place. As a direct legacy of the era of Sékou Touré (1959-1984), it affected all the teaching staff from elementary to university level. If we look only at the case of elementary school teachers, since it was from among primary school teachers that the Ministry appointed principals, we know that from the first years of independence, a lowering of the level of requirements for teaching occurred under the pressure of needs.

Moreover, from 1968 to 1984, teaching in primary and secondary schools was done in national languages. The average age of the principals to be trained was 45 years old, and many had not learned French in the classroom. This explains the care taken by the design team in writing and formatting the guides and modules, the drastic choice of a precise vocabulary, but necessarily simple and usual, and the willingness to associate for each new concept a concrete example with its definition in order to allow all those trained to acquire a common background and know-how.
Was the FADeg a "Research-Action"?

FAD was defined by its promoters as action research, no doubt with the aim of linking the FAD project to academic work. It was also, as far as I can testify for myself, the feeling of the "expatriates" of the LID who went to implement it, aware of the important part of initiatives and formalization they had to undertake to carry out the project on the spot.

This type of approach was then at the heart of the concerns of didactic research. In 1986, a symposium at the Institut National de Recherche was devoted to this type of research, whose 1987 report  was entitled "Research-Action, training: what articulations? »

In 2002, an article targeted the characteristic markers of action-research in the clearly defined framework of a researcher teaching in a classroom situation. Following the conclusions of the 1987 symposium, it highlighted the flexibility and the need for this type of research to be "participatory and collaborative".

We believe in the need to continue to develop this type of research, exploratory research: we are in a context where technologies are evolving rapidly and there is a permeability between research and action. We used to talk about "action research.

The work carried out in Guinea always seems to me to fall within the scope of this type of research even if, with the passage of time, it must be recognized that it lacks the dimension of capitalization of the acquired knowledge which prevents it from fully deserving this name.

From my point of view, it can be linked to it by two characteristics: flexibility and collaborative work.

FADDE and Flexibility

Like action research, FADDEg has had to adapt and confront reality. This was an indispensable element to be able to move forward, both at the beginning of the project and during its implementation.

Like the FAD project, the training of elementary school principals had been meticulously thought out and prepared at Paris. However, a certain number of choices and planned actions proved to be inadequate on the spot and had to be amended. Two examples will allow us to understand the need for adaptations to the field.
The first is the result of a technical deficiency.

In Equatorial Guinea, in September 1996, when I arrived, the Internet was not yet in place. The official launch took place in Conakry at a seminar a year later.

Subsequently, the poor quality of the Internet, added to a very limited coverage, explains that, except for exchanges with the FAD centers in Burkina and Togo and with the Paris back base for the design work, all the training was done on paper. Modules and assignments were mailed to the Prefectural Directors of Education (DPE) and dispatched to the directors from the prefectures, sometimes under acrobatic conditions, as southern Equatorial Guinea was affected by the war in Sierra Leone from 2000.

As a result, the project did not actually begin in Malabo until December 1997, at a very low and irregular 56-bit/s rate; most often reduced by half. In addition, there were frequent power cuts in the cities served. The vast majority of small towns, villages, and even sub-prefectures still did not have access to electricity at the end of the 2000s and had to make do with petrol-powered generators that were expensive to run.

This difficulty was compounded by a lack of computer equipment. Although the FAD resource room was equipped, the country's computer equipment, even in the capital, was practically non-existent. The few existing computers in the education sector were used for administrative processing.

It became very difficult in these conditions to exchange with the teams of other countries and it was utopian to think of being able to work in network at the local level without an extension of the Internet coverage at least to a 3 large regional prefectures.

As soon as the Internet arrived in these three Equatorial cities, in 2001, a distance learning training program was undertaken with the master trainers of the Pedagogical and Linguistic Support Centers (CAPL) created in these cities by the French cooperation in order to set up a collaborative network with remote teams of trainers. The result was uneven but three modules were completed, two in Labé and one in N'zérékoré (see Map of the prefectures of the Republic of Guinea in the appendix).

Under these conditions, it was impossible to implement the synchronization, originally planned, of the development of modules on a specific theme with the possibility of interaction from one country to another.
The second example relates to the limits imposed by the specificities of the countries concerned.

Despite the proven existence of common needs among school principals in the subregion, in situ knowledge of the reality of each country showed the limits of a collective basis for the development of modules. Thus, the status of principals differed radically from one country to another. Governed by legislative and regulatory texts in Burkina, it did not exist in Guinea. There was no text defining it, and the whole issue of training was to negotiate with the Secretary General of the Ministry of Pre-University and Civic Education a qualifying training recognized by a certificate of aptitude.

The choice to start the training only after completion of all sixteen modules and obtaining the approval of the Minister of Pre-University Education on their contents was made following the observations of two members of the FADDE design team from ISSEGE (Institut Supérieur des Sciences de l'Education in Equatorial Guinea). The latter had drawn the group's attention to the considerable difficulties encountered in carrying out distance training for educational administrative staff. The training had begun when only the first modules had been completed and delays in the completion of the following modules, or even their non-realisation, had led to the disorganisation of the course schedule and homework.

As a result of this decision, the training of directors in Guinea started one year later than in the other countries. Subsequently, the planned 12-month training schedule, including vacations, was held without incident or delay.

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