In October 2015, IUCN’s Program on African Protected Areas & Conservation (PAPACO) put online the first MOOC on protected areas management for students and professionals in Africa. This innovative experience has been a great success and is expected to continue with the development of a comprehensive training offer for managers of these territories and their partners. An interview with Geoffroy Mauvais, coordinator of PAPACO.

Copyright photo : Geoffroy Mauvais
Copyright photo : Geoffroy Mauvais

Why did you propose this MOOC?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are interactive online courses open to everyone. They are an opportunity for everyone who has access to Internet to study various subjects and receive a certificate or academic credits. There are currently thousands of different MOOCs, which are mainly in English. Ours is the only one addressing protected areas, and it’s in French for now.

We felt that it was particularly relevant to create this type of MOOC, firstly because the demand for training on the subject is very high compared to what is on offer. For example, every year, we organize face-to-face training sessions (academic diplomas) which last 8 weeks, and unfortunately we have to refuse over 80% of the applications we receive due to the lack of places. Secondly, because Internet is the surest way to reach staff in geographically remote protected areas, although it is understandable that connectivity can be a challenge in certain cases.

what skills de people develop by following this MOOC?

The aim of this first MOOC is to give an overall picture of protected areas management and governance. In 42 sequences, it addresses subjects such as planning, evaluating effectiveness, financing, the fight against poaching…, but also topics such as ecotourism, equity and the relation with culture. The main conventions are presented, as well as the relevant decision-making tools, such as the Red List of Threatened Species.

It consequently aims to inform and make people reflect on the many aspects of managing these territories and everyone can further their learning with the documents made available online. But the idea is to subsequently develop certain more detailed sequences in more specialized MOOCs.

How did this mooc come into being?

It is firstly the story of an extremely interesting partnership with EPFL (Lausanne Federal Polytechnic School), which is today the world’s 14th leading engineering university. They are also the largest producers of MOOCs in Europe and were immediately interested in the idea of working in the field of conservation in Africa.

The 1st session of the MOOC started in October 2015 and lasted 7 weeks, thanks to financing from André Hoffmann and AFD, as part of the France-IUCN partnership. Every week, the people registered are invited to watch new videos, train with optional quizzes, exchange on the forum, read additional documents and, finally, take an exam online.

What public does this MOOC target?

This MOOC is primarily, but not only, intended for staff working in protected areas and students and teachers interested in this subject. It also targets a broader public of people who have a general interest in nature conservation in Africa. It is consequently above all an educational tool, but also an awareness-raising tool.

It should be noted that this MOOC is mainly intended for an African public and, today, 75% of the people registered do indeed come from Africa. We see that the participants come from 116 countries, the first being Cameroon, followed by Senegal and DRC. France is, of course, the first European country.

Flop or success?

Following the first two sessions (October-December 2015 and April-June 2016), we had over 5,600 people registered. Among them, over 4,000 are actively following the course. The online forum allows questions about the courses to be answered, but what is more interesting, a MOOC community has developed on Facebook, which currently has some 2,000 enthusiastic participants. It is a powerful network and irreplaceable tool for disseminating and receiving information.

Some 400 students have already received their certificates of achievement. About fifty of them have decided to take a classroom exam, organized by EPFL in 23 countries (in cooperation with the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie), in order to obtain higher education credits, which they can subsequently validate on their university courses.

These figures far exceed our forecasts and confirm the interest of this type of course for African students and professionals who suffer from an acute lack of access to information. It should also be mentioned that the evaluation which was conducted of the first two sessions showed that there was a participant satisfaction rate of 97%.

One-off experience or real project for the future?

The vast majority of participants (91%) say that they are interested in other MOOCs on more specialized subjects. We have taken this into account and are currently developing, with EPFL, a comprehensive range of a dozen or so MOOCs covering the main fields of protected areas management and governance in Africa. If all goes well, this will allow us quite soon to give a COS (Certificate of Open Studies) to people who pass all the exams, which is a real recognition of their work and of the skills acquired. All the MOOCs under development will be in French and English and this should allow us to massively increase the number of people who register!

Make no mistake: this is a real revolution! By providing access to courses given by a leading university to participants, some of whom do not necessarily have the academic background required in the traditional system, we are completely changing the paradigm of access to knowledge. It is not a matter of devaluing the certificate, but of allowing those who have the ability, energy and enthusiasm to learn, and show what they have learned, to finally have the opportunity of proving their skills!

What are your recommendations to promote this type of education?

MOOCs are tools among others to strengthen the skills of our managers. But it is a powerful tool and there is no doubt that there will be a boom in its provision. However, they do require a substantial investment in time and energy: firstly, to produce them, as putting practical knowledge together in videos which last a few minutes is not an easy exercise. It is also necessary to organize all the exams and correct them. But they especially require continuous support once they are online, in the forum or on social networks. They are not just simple self-service resources on Internet. The greatest mistake we could make would be to think that the work stops once the videos have been prepared. In fact, it is just the beginning!

The next MOOC session will start on 15 September 2016. Registrations at https://www.coursera.org/course/apafrique starting on 1 September.

The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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