Dr. Bakary Diallo has held a variety of positions in the field of education. In the past twenty years, he has worked as a teacher, researcher and administrator. As CEO of the African Virtual University, he has the opportunity to shape the future of African education. We were fortunate enough to meet with him at the OCWC Conference and hear about the challenges and rewards that come with improving education for an entire continent.
edited by Stacy Redd
Q. Could you tell us a little bit about what AVU is and how you're involved with it?
A. The AVU is an intergovernmental organization. Our mandate is to contribute significantly to increase access to higher education through the innovative use of ICT.
The AVU was created in 1997. Since then, it's been through different phases. We've learned more about e-learning and have been adapting our strategy according to new findings and experiences.
There's a board that oversees the governance of AVU. I'm the CEO. Our headquarters are based in Nairobi, Kenya and we have a regional office in Dakar, Senegal. We have the largest e-learning network in Africa. We operate in 27 countries and some 50 universities are working with us.
Q. How do you get everyone to work together toward the same goal?
A. You need to conceptualize what you want to do. You can imagine that if you want to put colleagues together to develop something in any university it's complicated. As far as the countries where our universities are located, some of them speak English, some of them speak French and some of them speak Portuguese. They have different education systems based on who colonized them. In one of our projects for instance, we put 10 countries together to develop education programs that are now released as Open Education Resources (OERs).
The first thing we needed was to agree on how to do it. This was a highly political process. We invited the Ministry of Education, the leadership of the universities, other stakeholders and experts from around the world. We also had to draft a policy document. That didn't mean the process was easy, but it made it easier because we succeeded in reaching an agreement with our partners on how to proceed.
The first stakeholders meeting happened in 2005. I was not leading the AVU at that time; I was appointed CEO in 2007. I think my colleagues did a wonderful job in bringing all of these people together. I have learned that implementing this type of project was tough. It was very hard to agree on some of the aspects. It makes it more expensive as a project. The lifespan of the project was longer because of the differences in culture and processes. But it makes it richer because then you can learn from different parts of Africa, from people coming together. To me, it was a great experience. I learned a lot from it.
Q. Have students finished the bachelor's degree program the AVU developed from that?
A. Not yet. We finished developing the contents of the program in 2008. We did a pilot phase in a few countries - one Anglophone-speaking country, one Francophone-speaking country and Somalia. After the pilot, we officially launched the program in 2009. In 2010, students started enrolling in the bachelor's degree program through the 12 participating universities in the 10 participating countries..
AVU also offers diplomas and certificate programs from the resources. Up to now I believe we have about 4000 who are enrolled and 200 who have graduated from the certificate programs in ICT basic skills for teachers and from the certificate of integration of ICT into education. That one is very important. It enables teachers to effectively integrate ICTs into teaching and learning activities.
Q. Are the graduates of those programs teaching?
A. They are. We look at teachers who are already in classrooms. They're desperate in terms of ICT skills. Not all teachers can, for instance, use Facebook because they don't know how to use a computer. But their students know how to use those things. So that's a very popular program these days.
Q. You've built e-learning centers throughout Africa, right?
A. Yes. The development of content we're referring to is part of what we call the AVU Multinational Project. That's part of AVU Capacity building strategy. We received funding from the African Development Bank (AfDB), about eight million US dollars, to help ten countries develop four bachelors of education in mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry.
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In this multinational project, there were four main components. The first was infrastructure. We assisted the ten countries, through the 12 universities, by installing e-learning centers. The second component was training university staff in e-learning in three main areas: content development, technology & delivery, and administrating of eLearning. The third component was to develop content for teacher education programs. The fourth was mainstreaming gender to make sure that females are a part of what were doing, not to have only males in our project.
In Africa, the rate of educated people is lower than anywhere else in the world. You'll find that in terms of professionals working right now there are fewer females in universities. In math and sciences, the numbers of females are even fewer. That's a problem everywhere in the world, but in Africa, we wanted to address it through this project. We've trained about 450 or so university staff. When we were developing the content, we brought in a lady who was a gender specialist. She helped the writers to be sensitive about gender in math and sciences. When authors were writing the teacher education content in math and science, we ensured that it was not biased against females.
Q. What are the challenges that the AVU is facing moving forward? Is there anything you need to work through right now?
A. We have different activities. We work also as a service provider to help corporations or universities develop e-learning. We have a videoconferencing facility. We have webcasts. We have clients coming in and using our services. We're also working to raise more money to support our scholarship fund.
Our challenge now is looking into the future, first of all with the multinational project. From the AfDB perspective, the project which ended in February 2011 has exceeded its expectations. We're trying to raise funds and learn from our experience to expand the multinational project to some 25 countries.
My greatest challenge is that AVU went from a donor-driven organization to now raising funds to support its core expenditure. This year nearly 75% of our budget came from our own sources. To raise that money, you need to have skilled staff members. It's been challenging to retrain colleagues, to change mentalities.
The other challenge, for us, is related to the environment in Africa. We announced the launch of AVU's open educational resources (OERs) portal in January 2011. When we looked at the Google analytics from April to May 2011 we found 80% or so of the visitors are from outside Africa. They're from Brazil, from France, from the United States and from Kenya. From the first ten countries we had one African country. People like what we do. That's great! But we wish also to see more Africans accessing our site.
We also have to deal with technology. We have to make decisions based on e-learning solutions. It's not easy to make a decision because of an array of solutions available. And then we have to keep up with the technological change. Those are some of our challenges.