“If young people have access to these tools, maybe they won’t drown trying to reach Europe,” said Benjamin Yao, an Ivorian teacher, interpreting the hope behind MOOCs, free online courses open to everyone.
The dream is to offer better educational prospects to a generation of African students who were born with and have grown up with the internet. This hope was furthered by the recording of the first MOOC in sub-Saharan Africa, attended by swissinfo.ch, in the capital Yamoussoukro.
Behind this project initiated by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), lies the story of students who work tirelessly to succeed, despite numerous obstacles. It’s the story of the dream of access to global knowledge at the click of a mouse.
“Internet is a real problem here.”
Jordan Romaric Brika
In the cramped digs that are the norm for university students in Ivory Coast, Jordan Romaric Brika proudly points to the most valuable feature in the room: a Wi-Fi box.
“Eight of us bought it together and we share it,” explains Brika from the small room that also boasts a narrow bed, a desk, shower and small refrigerator. It’s a few square metres within the Institute Polytechnique Félix Houphët-Boigny (INP-HB) in the Ivorian capital, Yamoussoukro. From there, Brika can access the same education as his peers in other parts of the world – thanks to the wireless internet connection.
Known by the acronym MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses aim to provide unlimited global access to university courses via the web. They offer video lectures, scientific experiments and other course components as well as interactive user forums accessible to both students and teachers. Brika is currently taking four MOOCs, including a course on project management from the Central School of Lille, in the north of France.
“I use the courses to extend my knowledge in certain areas because there are a lot of ideas that we just skim over in class,” he explains, as he taps on the computer’s keyboard to open the internet platform Coursera that is home to several MOOCs. The download takes a few minutes.
“Internet is a real problem here,” laments Brika.
While most MOOCs offer a diploma to students who can pay the associated fees, this isn’t an option for Brika.
“I don’t have much money and it wouldn’t be a profitable investment for me,” he says.
A day with the elite
Students at Yamoussoukro aren’t cramped – as is the case in the country’s universities. The Félix Houphouët-Boigny national polytechnic has some 3,500 students from 15 countries in Africa. They represent the best graduates in the Ivory Coast, since only 650 are admitted each year out of more than 7,000 applicants.
“Only the students who have a little bit of money can afford to follow a MOOC.”
Moussa Kone Ahmed
Not so for Moussa Kone Ahmed, an engineering student in logistics and transport who, like Brika, uses most of his free time to follow MOOCs and has already obtained a certificate from a French management school.
“For me, it’s important to have the certificate. I think it gives my CV more weight,” says Ahmed, dressed in neat sports clothes and carrying a tennis racket on his way to the campus recreation centre. It’s a rare moment of relaxation for the young student.
“Most of the time, I get home at 6pm. I eat and then I’m ready to get back to work,” says Ahmed, as he shows us a rechargeable 3G internet connection key that he has in his pocket.
“I had to invest in internet access that allows me to follow the MOOCs within the allotted time, and to hand in the course exercises on schedule. Only the students who have a little bit of money can do it,” he says.
Ahmed’s friend and classmate Michaelle Shai tried to take a MOOC, but because she couldn’t afford the internet connection, she was unable to complete the course.
“Everyone would be interested in MOOCs if we had access to free, fast internet on campus, because everyone wants to improve their knowledge. But in the current conditions it’s impossible,” says Shai.
For students at Yamoussoukro INP-HB, internet access is a particularly precious tool, even if, at the moment, the idea of free Wi-Fi on the university campus seems like utopia.
“Essentially, we use the web for our research because there are not many interesting books in the libraries,” says Ahmed, who says he has rarely visited the library in four years as a student. “The books available are old. They often date back to the 1980s and ’90s, which is not very useful for keeping up with the latest technological advances.”
Courses transformed into cinema
Professor Yves Tiecoura has chosen to wear a green and yellow shirt for the filming of the first 100% made-in-Africa MOOC: ‘Signs and LED displays’. He sits facing three projectors and a camera.
“I’m a little nervous,” admits Tiecoura ruefully as he prepares to start filming.
Filming, however, is quickly interrupted after Tiecoura yells “Cut!” because the air conditioning is making too much noise. It is turned off for the shoot and the air in the studio quickly becomes heavy. The audio-visual team checks the images that have just been filmed to ensure they meet the quality standards required for the MOOC to be published on the Coursera platform.
Silence! On air!
The recording studio for MOOCs at Yamoussoukro was set up with help from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), which supplied most of the material.
While Tiecoura is a bit of a star at Yamoussoukro, he is not solely responsible for the first African MOOC. ‘Signs and LED displays’ is a collaborative MOOC, a concept initiated by the Network of Excellence in Engineering Sciences of the French-speaking Community (RESCIF). It has been developed in collaboration with three other professors: Mamadou N’diaye from Senegal, Alain Tiedeu from Cameroun and Pierre-Yves Rochat, a lecturer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).
Collaboration by professors from different cultural backgrounds is not always easy and requires compromise. Notably, the professors had to agree on the usage of certain terms.
EPFL targets French-speaking Africa
When it comes to MOOCs, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) is a pioneer in Europe. The school first launched the online university courses in 2012. The impetus came from EPFL president Patrick Aebischer, who observed the phenomenon during a visit to Stanford University in the US.
The first MOOCs at EPFL followed the model that emerged at the beginning of the decade in North America, and were produced in English. After a first online course was held in French in 2013, EPFL recognised the potential for MOOCs in Africa. Sixteen percent of participants in three francophone courses were African – a group that the school could not have attracted without this key language offering.
Next, EPFL created MOOCs Africa, "a North-South collaboration that works to strengthen higher education and continuing education in Africa." The project is supported by the Swiss Department of Development and Cooperation, and by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations. EPFL also relies on RESCIF member institutions.
Between 2012 and 2015, EPFL MOOCs (PDF) had more than one million registrants from 186 countries.
For the EPFL, MOOCs represent a solution to some of the problems caused by the so-called ‘massification of higher education’.
The filming of the MOOC is generating a lot of interest among Ivorian educators and is also a test case that is being closely watched in Switzerland at the EPFL, which hopes to transfer the technical and educational tools to create and use MOOCs to its African partners.
“The idea is that they will be able to produce their own courses that meet regional needs, because we know there are different methods of teaching depending on where we find ourselves in the world,” explains Dimitrios Noukakis, who heads the MOOCs for Africa programme at the EPFL.
It is no secret that crowded auditoriums, overworked professors too busy to update teachings, or massive course loads that leave little time for interaction is the daily lot for universities in Ivory Coast and Africa in general. For the EPFL, MOOCs represent a solution to some of the problems caused by the so-called ‘massification of higher education’.
The Swiss school’s strategy is to establish three techno-educational centres that would enable the production of MOOCs. Already operational, the first centre is in Yamoussoukro, while centres in Dakar, Senegal, and Yaoundé, Cameroon, are in the pipeline. Some dozen professors from each university will be trained to integrate existing MOOCs into courses.
However, despite the enthusiasm for MOOCs, many educators fret that videos will replace teachers.
“We try to reassure them that that is not the aim at all,” says Noukakis. “They simply need to rediscover the added value of not delivering a course to an auditorium of 1,500 people.”
The teachers, the actors
“I’m more at ease in class than in front of the camera.”
For the moment, Tiecoura, who himself studied in Ukraine, is the only professor at the INP-HB to have recorded a MOOC video. He is convinced that MOOCs represent the future of teaching.
“A lot of young people think you have to go to France to get a better education. If they could follow quality courses online, perhaps they wouldn’t go to the other side [Europe],” he says.
Tiecoura has a ready smile and jovial air that put him at the heart of life at the INP-HB. In the university corridors, he stops to joke with colleagues and chat with students.
“I’m more at ease in class than in front of the camera. When I record a MOOC, I have to be precise and get to the point. I can’t tease my students like I usually do,” he says as we cross the large lawns that separate the different campus buildings under a blazing sun.
“We live in an era of the image, in a digital world. The school has to take on these new technologies,” says Tiecoura, adding that he hopes the MOOCs will help improve the quality of teaching. “When I was a student, I often wondered if what we learned in Ivory Coast was right, if it wasn’t out-dated. The MOOCs force the professors to check and to question themselves because they are published around the world.”
Source of inspiration
Certain MOOCS, despite sometimes having technical names, can have highly practical implications. That's the case for the course called "Understanding microcontrollers", given by Pierre-Yves Rochat from EPFL and Jean-Daniel Nicoud. It is very popular among students from French-speaking Africa.
“I show my students MOOC videos of experiments. By doing that, they understand better.”
Florence Bobelé Naimke
The videos also have the power to substitute the materials and teaching aids that the university cannot afford to purchase. The INP-HB for example, does not have the means to properly equip its chemistry laboratories.
“So I must give up organising experiments,” deplores Florence Naimke Bobelé, professor of chemistry and deputy director of the university.
Her face, lined by fatigue, is suddenly overcome by melancholy. She is one of the few professors among her colleagues who has not studied in Europe.
“I’m a pure product of the INP-HB,” says Naimke, remembering when she was a student and the university still had high-quality laboratories – which have now fallen into disrepair. For her, the online courses are a panacea.
“I show my students MOOC videos in which the experiments are demonstrated. By doing that, they understand better,” says Naimke.
In the modern air-conditioned pavilion that serves as a canteen for the teaching staff, Alphonse Diango, professor of mechanical engineering, is sceptical. He is interested in the MOOCs and has even tried to follow some but has been frustrated by the slow internet speed.
“We don’t manage to follow them. We register but when we try to access them, we can’t because of problems with the connection,” he sighs, between bites of attiéké (a dish made with cassava). “You buy a subscription from an operator with a rate of 400 mega, but we never seem to get a fast enough connection on our computers. What they are selling us does not fit with the actual rate.”
“A MOOC? But what is it?” asks another teacher we meet in the corridors. Little interested by the new technology, he prefers to work with traditional course aids that he has created himself. Upon reflection he comments: “The MOOCs are fine but the internet needs to follow!”
A MOOC ancestor in Ivory Coast
Most Ivoirians who attended primary school between 1968 and 1981 participated in the Education Televisual Program which was carried out in partnership with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
The first school programmes were broadcast in 1971 from Bauaké, thanks to televisions that were provided to primary schools. Teachers animated the sessions and a programme was put in place to train them in the method. The project required large and expensive installations. In the first year, some 447 classes were televised, covering around 22,500 students. In 1980, the televised classes reached nearly 80% of the country’s school population.
However, in the early 1980s the programme was heavily criticised for the poor level of students – particularly in writing – who had been taught through the televised classes. The government ended the programme in 1981.
(Source: Le programme d’éducation télévisuelle de La Côte d’Ivoire, J.C. Pauvert, Unesco/ Une aventure ambiguë, P.Désalmand / La radio et la télévision au service de l’éducation et du développement en Afrique, Chloé Maurel)
Towards a connected world
“I don’t understand why in a poor country like ours internet is so expensive.”
It’s 35°C (95°F) outside and 20°C (68°F) in the air-conditioned office of Professor Benjamin Yao. The contrast is incredible. Head of the INP-HB MOOCs programme, Yao welcomes us by showing us a Wi-Fi box.
“I had to buy it myself so that my doctorate students can follow the MOOCs,” he says.
Yao, who is also director of the Polytechnic Graduate School, explains that his students can now follow specific courses online that are not available at Yamoussoukro.
“For me, the MOOCs are the blessed bread,” he says, adding however, that limited internet access threatens to destroy the efforts of his team to integrate MOOCs into courses. Yao is “outraged” that he never receives the connection speed for which he pays. “It borders on fraud! And I don’t understand why in a poor country like ours internet is so expensive.”
Yao estimates the cost of a one-month subscription is equal to around CHF40 ($41), a little bit less than half of the minimum wage in Ivory Coast (CFA60,000 / CHF99).
“The internet problems are an enormous obstruction which keep us in our position of under-development. If young people had access to these tools, perhaps they would not drown themselves by getting on boats and trying to get to Europe,” says Yao.
“We even appealed to the budget minister to try to find a solution.”
Moustapha K. Sangare
The university direction has appealed to Ivory Coast’s budget minister to try to find a solution.
“He told us he would use all his weight to influence the operators,” says Moustapha K. Sangare, deputy general director.
While waiting for such a digital revolution, the INP-HB, with the help of the EPFL, has established a network in the school which allows students to access the course videos through a local server. The EPFL has also installed a satellite antenna, which should enable students to have internet access dedicated solely to MOOCs, and especially for submitting assignments or asking questions on the discussion forums.
Hundreds of Ivorian teachers are also ready to begin recording MOOCs. The EPFL has invited teachers to participate in training weeks, as has the Francophone University Association (AUF), which also organises seminars.
In some ways it’s a bit like putting the cart before the horse, suggests Roger Kpon, AUF trainer and IT director at the Swiss Centre for Scientific Research in Ivory Coast.
“At Abidjan, hundreds of teachers have learned how to create MOOCs, but nothing has really happened since, because they have neither the materials nor the access to the internet that would enable them to put courses online,” says Kpon. He believes in the potential of MOOCs as long as they are accessible to students.
“Knowledge is only valuable when it is shared,” points out Kpon.
Abidjan, the overflowing university
In Abidjan, the harbour of peace that is the INP-HB seems a long way away. From the moment we arrive at the Cocody campus, the strong police presence is evident.
We are quickly surrounded by several officers who are clearly not happy to see a photographer present. “Photographers are not allowed!” they insist.
Their suspicion is no trivial thing. Several days before our visit, fresh clashes between students and police broke out on campus. The conflict had its basis in a brutal police intervention in April 2016 that resulted in the sexual assault of young girls.
The tension on campus is palpable. The university is crammed with some 60,000 students; too many students, not enough classrooms, not enough teachers.
“The university had defined MOOCs as a priority to solve the problems of the massification of higher education,” says Mamoutou Touré, professor with the geography department.
But the university still does not have a recording studio, which is supposed to be operational by March 2017. And while some teachers are ready to take on the MOOCs challenge, others don’t yet know what the acronym means.
En Quête d’Ailleurs
This report was produced as part of En Quête d’Ailleurs (Quest Elsewhere), an exchange programme between journalists from Switzerland and developing countries.
Katy Romy, with input from Oumou Dosso
Felipe Schärer and Ester Unterfinger