Distance learning: encouraging experiences in Africa during the Covid crisis


MOOCs and other online courses have appeared for almost 15 years as almost “miraculous” technical responses to the proliferation of education in Africa, the number of registrants no longer being a limiting factor when it suffices to ‘a good connection for training. University infrastructures, such as the student / teacher ratio, can thus be – at least partially – decoupled from the dynamics of demographic growth, without detracting from the educational efficiency sought.

However, the expected miracle was slow to materialize extensively, apart from interesting experiences . And now there is generalized planetary confinement, forcing all establishments and individual or collective actors to produce solutions, often based on digital tools.

Indeed, the academic institution as a whole has not renounced its mission due to the pandemic. On the contrary, it endeavored to continue its teaching and research activities, in Africa as elsewhere. To do this, it had to replace the immediate and physical contact of the in situ pedagogical relationship with a mediated communication by computer (or other non-face-to-face support) in an at least partially digital space. Many testimonies show that it was not simple.

Improvisation capacity

The challenge has however been met, very often successfully. How? ‘Or’ What ? To understand this, we conducted a small survey of 40 establishments in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia around some open questions addressed to teacher-researchers and doctoral students:

  • Were you able to continue the teachings?
  • How?
  • What limitations have you encountered?
  • How did your students react?
  • What lessons can be learned for the future?

Among the respondents, there are as many men as women; seniors and juniors; representatives of the exact sciences, nature, human and social sciences, engineering and management; from the capital, its suburbs or the province; private and public establishments, schools or universities.

There is nothing to suggest that their answers are representative of a majority of the behaviors of their academic community. But they are extremely suggestive of an amazing capacity for improvisation, dispersed, almost spontaneous.

First of all, all of the people claim to have continued the teachings, in one form or another, despite the confinement. Most of them point out that both the lectures, the tutorials and even the practical workshops took place, under suitable conditions.

The programs were generally respected, although the exams were often postponed so that they could be held face-to-face in the fall rather than in the spring. The research supervision (master and doctorate) and the defenses took place systematically from a distance.

The distance course methods are very varied and combine multiple options:

  • television channels, radio channels, YouTube videos, for broadcasting;
  • Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Jitsi, Cisco Webex, for courses in synchronous mode with interactions;
  • Whatsapp, Facebook, emails or forums for deferred discussions or exchanges;
  • Moodle or ad hoc platforms of the establishment, for the deposit of documents and course materials accessible offline, in particular for the students of rural areas without permanent computer;
  • and even until USB sticks are sometimes sent to their neighborhoods or villages…

Everyone juggles with their palette of options, but a collective organization, or the preexistence of infrastructures, also sometimes facilitates adaptation at short notice: thus the Virtual University of Tunis is used by its neighbors to benefit from its platforms. Moodle and Google classroom forms.

Accelerated training is given to teachers and students the first two weeks after closure to familiarize themselves with both standard and specific applications. The heads of departments organize the dissemination of the courses according to the administrative lists they have. While there is a certain amount of creativity and initiative on the part of teachers, structural support (material or organizational) also plays a manifest role.

Encountered difficulties

Several limitations are however pointed out. The first, the most important because constantly mentioned, seems to be the flow problems. They are recurrent in the Maghreb and in Africa although in various ways. The weakness of the network strongly constrains all communications to the dense information that implies distance learning.

However, the actors manage to overcome them by resorting to mitigation, circumvention or adaptation options. The solutions are technical, social or both: hosting on central servers, course recordings for consultation during reduced sequences of the network, written versions substitutable for video, use of email in the event of failure of the platforms.

A second problem is that of the need for preparation. People express the need to train in pedagogical practice with these tools. The age of the teacher then plays a role, young people being more flexible than their elders.

Proximity to technical support services (university IT) is therefore decisive. Reactions diverge between those for whom this new situation is an opportunity for exploration and those who wait for institutional solutions to be produced to support them. Most of those interviewed, however, expressed a benevolent curiosity for these innovations.

The social question is often raised. Various answers are provided: sometimes providing computers, using the mobile phone and its free apps, sequences of temporary access to computers, etc. The absolute absence of electronics seems in any case prohibitive. The exceptional mobilization of private telephone operators, agreeing to make free access to educational resources during the time of confinement, is often emphasized.

Finally, the link with students is the subject of contrasting comments. Not without surprise, the ease of communication is often emphasized: the distance regulates the dialogue, it suffices to put the frames at the start, for economical interactive sessions. But the difficulties are also noted: “nothing replaces the face-to-face; it lacks soul; how to make manips love, from a distance? Complains a young Moroccan biologist. “It’s very tiring. Two hours in front of students who do not activate their camera and whose reactions cannot be seen… ”, confides an experienced Algerian professor.

Satisfaction and challenges

Overcoming absenteeism and ensuring equal access for all to courses is a concern expressed: “Assessments are made regularly by the school in order to identify the difficulties encountered by students, whether personal, technical or health, and this, in order to find solutions making it possible to minimize the inequalities due to the digital and social divide ”, specifies an Algerian lecturer. Recordings in “video capsules” are essential and failing that, catching up on courses during the summer is sometimes offered.

Finally, from this experience in imposed and exceptional conditions, all the teachers consider that the distance formulas deserve to be developed. Some even draw up specifications for their supervisory ministry, in view of the needs identified in practice: increase in bandwidth, intensive training in e-learning, engineering, pedagogy, intellectual protection … very diverse aspects emerge from the reflections expressed.

All insist on the teaching conscience and the student maturity so that the remote working relationship works well. But wouldn’t these be the fundamentals of the teacher-student relationship?

Several original lessons can be drawn from this little survey. The first lies in the reassuring observation of the feasibility of an extensive digital option: there is no need for an integrated, sophisticated and expensive technological package. Most of the time, the combination of different existing tools with complementary functionality is sufficient. This modularity will reassure those who hesitate before massive investments considered – wrongly, we now know – as decisive.

The second observation is no less encouraging for all university players: there is no need to exclude them from remote options to replace them with others, for example the large specialized platforms. The establishments themselves took charge of their students via new formulas and the teachers developed them in the field, in a renewed relationship.

Finally, the age-old concern of replacing humans with machines must be dismissed in the light of this experience: the effectiveness of distance education systems lies in their hybrid nature (blended technology); the intensity of the human relationship remains at the heart of educational success .

This is not the least of the hopes that emerges from this survey from North Africa for the rest of the continent: the expansion of university demand has no limiting human factor. The digital one potentiates the socio-technical response to the exercise of this human resource .

Author Bio:Jean-Baptiste Meyer is Research Director (Population and Development Center) at Development Research Institute (IRD)