As Africa’s economic outlook continues to improve it is now more crucial than ever to ensure that the next generation of African scholars and policy experts can meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Our CoLA initiative seeks to establish a network of young African researchers with the aim of giving them exposure to specialist resources and knowledge, while also helping them with their doctoral dissertations. UNU Editor Howard Hudson spoke with course coordinators Dr. Mindel van de Laar (ML) and Shivani Achrekar (SA).
Let’s start from the beginning. What is the Community of Learning for Africa (CoLA)?
ML: This is a project that aims to create a network of young African researchers and support their path towards obtaining a PhD. Through the implementation of an online learning platform we are hoping to transfer the knowledge from UNU-MERIT to the students and their supervisors. The COLA platform has three pillars. The first is the online courses; the second is an open repository of services and links to services around the world that are available to everyone; the third is the feedback pillar where people can ask specific advice on their own research.
Why did you choose Africa as the focus of your efforts?
ML: We focused specifically on Africa because the needs of certain countries on the continent are simply the highest. After conducting a needs assessment, we discovered that a majority of African students need assistance in all steps of the research cycle: from how to set up a proposal, to conducting a literature review, designing the methodology, finding data and how to analyse it properly
The CoLA project had a session at the recent WUN Conference. What issues were discussed?
SA: We used the session to get feedback and engage in dialogue with African universities. We were able to check and test the platform, check if the access to the courses was sufficiently good, test the materials and check whether it was beneficial for them or not for them.
How did you go about this?
ML: We had two pilot phases. In the first we tested platform functionality and course structure, then in the second we tested the platform with the three pillars. Now it seems to be working well. In the second we increased tutor interaction and we saw a rise in participation and completion. This can be attributed to the fact that we included partner institutions (UCT & GHANA). The supervisors of participants from these universities were actively engaging students at home. However, we also noted that courses were better organised and participants from the initial selection and enrolment are also active. Basically, more active tutors equalled higher rates of participation and completion.
SA: In the first one we did (without WUN support), we worked with participants from South Africa and Ghana. We also had participants from other countries, but these two were the most active. We do not know exactly why the others were less active; either they logged in once or they logged in a few times but did not complete the assignments.
What is the ratio?
SA: For now, it’s rather low. We invited 60 participants and we had different results per course; the lowest enrolment was five and the highest was 17. In the smaller courses we had almost everyone participate but these were with the partners who were already invested and active. For the others we had six active out of 17.
Can the courses be accessed via smartphones?
ML: Yes, the whole platform is available for smartphones which attempts at solving some infrastructural issues some universities may have.
Do the students get diplomas?
ML: The programme does not award a PhD at the end but we can offer certificates which attest that the student has completed a course. However, these do not grant credits unless courses are tutored and an exam is taken and we can verify that the exam has been appropriately taken. This is part of the service that we would like to offer, but it is costly.
SA: This is an add-on to the basic degree. Any work you do regarding these courses would be your own. This is the same view the partners hold; they encourage the courses to be taken because, at the end, they care about the students being able to do their research successfully. This is an added value to their programmes rather than a certification in itself.
How many students should each course ideally have?
ML: We tested with between five and 20 students. We had two in the first pilot and four initially run for the second pilot followed by three standalone courses. We realised the best running courses are the ones with 20 people enrolled and where we had around 10 to 15 actively participating. So if we want to offer them as a service with a tutor the maximum should be 15 students; however, if we offer a standalone course then doesn’t need to be a cap. There is a limitation on what we can accept as UNU-MERIT in terms of the number of documents that we could give feedback on.
SA: We have participants invited through our needs assessment, namely from Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia, as well as some enrolment from other less active countries. In general, they look at the material but they do no complete the assignments or discussions.
What are the most pressing challenges?
ML: The problem is that the more you move to other, less-developed, African States or Universities not in the capital cities of the more developed countries we see that the local infrastructure is worse and the educational background of the students is also less developed and that is going to be a challenge. We want to pursue CoLA in a way that the service remains free for our African partners. However, if we really want to benefit from it we will need tutor assistance and we need to foster discussions — which costs money. In order to offer course work and individual feedback we will be seeking funding.
The findings for COLA are quite normal for online courses and the challenge we have in offering this to African universities is not only infrastructural but also cultural — and there are also trust issues.
Are there any cultural issues that we need to be aware of?
ML: Often education in these countries is very top-down; the teacher teaches and the student listens and consumes. By contrast, the idea – and benefit – of our courses lies in interaction. We have to encourage these students to feel free to ask questions.
SA: On the community side, it is all about getting trust. This is not just an African cultural issue but an academic issue worldwide. Many academics feel that by posting their work online it may be stolen. This is slowly changing by gaining the trust of these students.