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University in Cameroon Plans New E-Learning Laboratory to Challenge the Digital Divide

UNU teams up with the University of Yaoundé I and participates in a workshop on its campus to share experiences with online courses and e-learning facilities to strengthen the development of higher education systems in Africa.

image A group of ten high level professors at the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon - all recipients of the prestigious Humboldt fellowship - decided to take up the challenge of e-learning and organised a colloquium to raise awareness for its potentials for the Cameroonian educational community. The colloquium “E-learning, Research and Development in Cameroon: Challenges and Perspectives” took place at the University of Yaoundé I on 29 and 30 July 2008 and addressed the challenges for the university asking the question: How can the university benefit most from e-learning and what could be the first steps?

At this high level workshop strategic partnerships were shaped to build institutional capacities. UNU is creating this new partnership for e-learning in higher education to expand its innovation strategy in an institutional capacity building effort. With its involvement UNU is reconfiguring its portfolio of knowledge, information and learning services in order to make use of Open Educational Resources, Web 2.0 technologies for learning and innovative practices to strengthen higher education in Africa.

Motivation and Dedication

The setting up of an e-learning project at the University of Yaoundé benefits from a quite unique conjunction of positive factors. Alone the fact of several professors collaborating on equal level within the same university, as they have done to organize jointly the colloquium, is in itself an achievement and demonstrates the motivation and dedication of the group. But the vision of this group is even more noteworthy: They head for nothing less than to create an “e-learning laboratory”. Paving the way to create e-learning “made in Cameroon” for the Cameroonian academic community - so their ambitious goal. As a starting point the group concentrated on networking. It used the “Humboldt Kolleg” scheme of the Humboldt Foundation, which enables Humboldt fellows researchers to organize a conference on multidisciplinary scientific topics relevant to local development problems to establish and maintain lasting contacts between Humboldtians from the same country. The second step envisaged is the creation of an e-learning laboratory.

Before setting up a central e-learning facility, however, all partners need to have a common understanding about the prerequisites, the challenges, benefits and objectives of e-learning in Cameroon. Prof. Mama Foupouagnigni  - mathematics professor, and Head of International Relations at the University of Yaoundé and the president of the organizing committee and leader of the e-learning project – drew the participants’ reflection on three fundamental questions that need to be answered in order to create a common understanding of the topic:

  • Why should e-learning content be developed and disseminated at the University Yaoundé I?
  • What is needed in terms of institutional support, cooperation agreements, equipment, human and financial resources?
  • What are the different steps to take up e-learning and harvest its potential at the university?

image [[Dr. Virginie Aimard moderates a session]UNU supports the process and Dr. Virginie Aimard, Academic Officer at UNU-ViE and e-learning expert, was invited to talk about the potentials of e-learning. She also moderated a hands-on practice session at the workshop at the Yaoundé campus. The 60 participants received up-to-date information about e-learning technology. In her two main keynotes, Dr. Aimard presented an overview of the e-learning field and gave participants the opportunity to explore e-learning materials themselves. The colloquium was held in the Centre for Information and Communication Technologies, benefiting from state-of-the-art facilities, with the full support of its director, Prof. Gabriel Nguetseng.

Practical Experience

Among the topics explored were: open educational resources, learning materials developed by education communities worldwide and made available for free following the example of the MIT. Also the Open CourseWare portal of UNU was presented and participants could actively improve their knowledge about Web 2.0 technology by hands-on practice. After the conference, participants did not only acquire theoretical knowledge, but actually had some practical experience with e-learning applications like Wikis, blogs and the platform Moodle, an open source e-learning environment for delivering online courses. How e-learning finds its application in the different academic disciplines was demonstrated by Prof. Wolfram Koepf, from the University of Kassel, Germany. He presented various innovative e-learning applications in the field of mathematics.

The workshop was successful and the partnership now enters a new operational phase. The cooperation between the UNU, the University of Kassel and the University Yaoundé I will continue to develop a plan for the implementation of an e-learning unit at the university in the next phase. That is why Prof. Foupouagnigni, the president of the organizing committee and of the Humboldt-Alumni Association of Cameroon, now spends 3 months (September – November 2008) at UNU Bonn and at the University in Kassel to consolidate his expertise in production and delivery of e-learning content while preparing a strategy to deploy e-learning at the University of Yaoundé I.*

The project is furthermore supported by the Rector of Yaoundé I University Prof. Dorothy Njeuma, a former UNU Council member.

Challenges to Education

When it comes to education, developing countries face various structural challenges. Students frequently have difficulties in accessing learning materials resources. Textbooks are often rare, expensive and not always up-to-date. Students and teachers have to work with limited means to acquire textbooks and learning materials. Another obstacle to education can be the lack of infrastructure, especially in rural areas. E-learning can help to overcome physical distances and open up new opportunities for students in rural areas who have difficulties to attend classes on campus.

As an example, Cameroon’s oldest university, the University of Yaoundé I - the only university in the country until 1993 – has encountered a dramatically increased number of enrolments. Today the university needs to provide tuition and facility access for more than 33,000 students. The number of teachers remains very limited as to cater for the creation of the six other new universities, i.e. the University of Buea, the University of Douala, the University of Dschang, the University of Ngaoundere, the University of Yaounde II and the University of Maroua (August 2008), which was created in response to the growing number of students and in order to distribute education facilities more evenly throughout the country. ICTs were officially introduced in education by decree of the President of the Republic in 2001 and it became an obligatory discipline for primary and secondary school from September 2003.

In the 21st century, knowledge has become the primary production source and gained more importance in comparison to capital and labour. To meet the demands of today’s knowledge society, Cameroon must prepare its students for an economy of knowledge services and equip them with at least a minimum knowledge of computer based tools. In order to create this computer literacy, students need to train themselves in modern computer technologies and web tools. Today, computer literacy is critical for employability, entrepreneurship and economic growth.

But taking up e-learning also poses an education challenge , as it questions the traditional model of transmissive learning. Students shall no longer be passively receiving instructions from a teacher and expecting knowledge to be poured on to them. This old pedagogical approach has shown its limitations in a time when rapid change requires adaptation capacities and competence to think up creative solutions to concrete problems. Still, e-learning is neither a panacea nor a magic tool to bring immediate solutions to this challenge. It does, however, have the potential to diversify the learning experiences and to create a conducive environment by providing facilities to operate at multi-level learning modes that promote autonomy, initiative spirit and team work. Instead of students being only the recipients of information, they are invited to actively engage in a reflexive learning process, practice themselves in project-based learning, as well as in collaborative learning and problem-solving tasks.

E-learning also challenges the teaching tradition in that it introduces a new knowledge transfer paradigm. Students are encouraged to work in dynamic learning environments which facilitate knowledge construction instead of simply taking in what the instructor delivers. The students themselves become the co-creators of the learning content. Social computing technologies such as wikis, blogs, podcasts, etc. allow learners to share experiences, exchange ideas and work together on assignments and projects. Wikis are a good example of collaborative authoring tools – which enable people to create outcomes of collaborative work.

Within developing countries introducing e-learning is a special cultural challenge . In most African cultures, education is traditionally oral and centred on the presence of the teacher. The teacher represents an authority highly respected in society and the student is expected to strictly follow instructions and expects the teacher to provide knowledge and indicate a clear path.

Connectivity

image [[Please see bellow for who is who from left to right**]]To create good conditions for the online learning activities to take place, it must be admitted that a minimum level of technological set up is indeed necessary (e.g. multimedia computers, sufficient internet bandwidth). This issue is often quoted by e-learning opponents as a main obstacle to take up e-learning in developing countries. However, there are also ways to harvest e-learning potentials even with basic technical configurations (and lower bandwidth). For example, students can download learning materials and in addition make use of hard copy support (CD or DVD) or local area network. Moreover, it is often the case that lack of resources is not so much the problem as the lack of awareness of what can be the added value of investing in resources in that particular area. That is why it is crucial to let the management of the university become aware of the added value of such an investment and the conditions necessary (well trained and knowledgeable staff, strategic integration of e-learning in the curriculum etc.) to make it fruitful for the whole organisation.

Benefits of E-Learning

E-learning means using computer technologies for learning related purposes. It offers the great opportunity to provide more training to more students at more places while at the same time reducing costs. Concretely, this means that e-learning can help to compensate for the lack of teaching staff relative to demand – as it is the case at the University of Yaoundé I with its growing number of students. Moreover, the use of open education resources can help to compensate for the lack of text books. With the help of so-called Learning Management Systems (LMS), that is to say e-learning platforms, course material is integrated into a learning scenario. The LMS – often available as open source products and as thus cost-free – allow access to resources, interaction and communication for teachers and students. Besides, the use of e-learning in distance learning programmes for example, can also provide additional financial resources for the university, for example by extending its potential target groups, for example to professionals in a lifelong learning context. In short, e-learning bears the potential of widening access to education in that it diversifies ways to access content. E-learning means an extension of the classroom and overcoming geographical distance. Besides all these advantages, the socio-constructivist approach of e-learning brings further benefits for the learners as it places the student at the centre of the learning process and demands a cognitive and social engagement of the learner. It facilitates learning for oneself as well as the establishment of a learning network.

Members of the core group e-learning team at Yaoundé I included:

  • Prof. Mama Foupouagnigni (Mathematics)
  • Prof. Pius Tamanji (African Languages and Linguistics)
  • Prof. Bernard Zobo Essimbi (Physics)
  • Prof. Siméon Kouam Fogue (Chemistry)
  • Prof. Paul Woafo (Physics)

** From left to right, Dr. Virginie Aimard (E-learning expert, UNU), Prof. Etienne Ze Amvela (Vice Rector in charge of internal control and evaluation), (second row behind), Jean-Emmanuel Pondi (Secretary General, University of Yaoundé I) Charlotte Reimann (Premier Secrétaire, German Embassy in Cameroon), Prof. Dorothy Njeuma (Rector of the University of Yaoundé I), Prof. Mama Foupouagnigni (Mathematics, Head of International Relations, University of Yaoundé I), Dr. Felix Streiter (Alexander von Humbolt Foundation, Head of Division Middle East, Africa, Latin America), Prof. Guy Tsala Ndzomo (Vice-rector Research & Cooperation, University of Yaoundé I)

To find out more about e-learning and the involvement of UNU in this field please download the presentation “Overview of the Potential of E-Learning for Higher Education” by Dr. Virginie Aimard as PDF here .