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Distance learning in conflict zones: tales from the African Virtual University (AVU)

Somalia's collapse into civil war in the early 1990s has led to a generation without an education and with none of the safeguards expected under the rule of law in a normally functioning country. Distance learning has come into its own, and so has the African Virtual University. Sidiki Traore, who has been with the AVU for over ten years, tells us how.

In Somalia, torn apart after the collapse of the military regime of Syad Barre in 1991, entire generations missed out on an education; others had their schooling interrupted, while university students saw their careers and dreams destroyed. Worse, most of the professionals who survived the civil war left the country, mainly for Europe and America. So how do you provide education in a country that has neither government nor a functioning civilian infrastructure?

A few universities have been re-established in Somalia since the year 2000 but resources are still scarce. However, experiences from the African Virtual University's (AVU) distance learning initiative in Somalia show how ICT-enhanced learning can support long-term development even in the most desolate and abandoned regions of the continent. Sidiki Traore has been at the AVU for ten years and is admirably placed to tell us of its successes.

The African Virtual University (AVU) is a tertiary education network that uses blended Open Distance and eLearning (ODeL) programmes to facilitate quality tertiary education dissemination through established African universities to increase access for a wider array of learners, including traditional students, lifelong learners and active workers and professionals. It was initially launched in 1997 as a World Bank project and evolved to become an African-led and African-run initiative in 2000. AVU was transferred from the World Bank in Washington DC, USA, to Kenya in 2002 and registered its headquarters in Nairobi as an inter-governmental organisation.

Supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank, Somali universities were able to implement an AVU learning environment in Online Distance Learning (ODL) by providing short courses in journalism, packaged and delivered by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania; IT, packaged by the New Jersey Institute of Technology; and language certificate courses.

The programme required significant commitments from participating institutions to using ICT to facilitate learning, e.g., establishing computer networks, developing in-house computer science training, building a website and establishing links to the Internet through local ISPs. Currently, the University of Hargeisa, Amoud University, East Africa University, Puntland State University, University of Mogadishu, The Somali Institute of Management and Administration Development (SIMAD) and Burao University are taking part in the distance learning initiative.

ImageThe University of Hargeisa was the first Somali tertiary institution to join the AVU network in 2004. Its large campus is situated on land that was used by a secondary boarding school before the civil war, then becoming an unofficial Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp and finally a militia barracks. Following much deliberation and intensive campaigning, the old school grounds were transformed into a university in 2000. The university is in the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa, and is strategically placed to serve the educational needs of both local city residents and international staff residing in the capital. It currently has faculties for five areas of study: Business Administration, Islamic Studies, Science, Medicine and Law.

To date, the University of Hargeisa has had over 500 learners involved during one semester or another over the past year of operation. There has been good progress in the second cycle (year two of ODL), with planned implementation of bachelor-level accreditation in journalism and teacher training.

Urgent training needs in all sectors

The majority of journalists at local media organisations lacked formal training in journalism and essential reporting skills, while the few trained Somali journalists did not practise journalism during the decade-long civil war and had no opportunity to enhance their skills. Thus, the certificate courses in journalism, offered through AVU, came at just the right time when they were first introduced by the University of Hargeisa in 2004. Around 380 students took part in the certificate course. Since then, the university has extended it to a Bachelor of Journalism and Mass Communication in partnership with the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

In view of the underdeveloped ICT infrastructure in this part of Africa, the programme used a variety of delivery modes, including CD-ROMs, DVDs and WebCT platforms with e-mail, online chat, both synchronous and asynchronous lectures, lecture notes and electronic quizzes. With this training, the new breed of journalists will, in part, use social scientific methods for gathering and disseminating information in a way that can be applied to local communities - hence community journalism.

When the courses were introduced, there was overwhelming interest from participants who saw it as a dream come true: many had long wished to receive professional training for the job they were in, or would like to be in.

Ayan Muse, for example, is a female journalist working as a reporter for KOOR, a quarterly magazine focusing on HIV/AIDS. She revealed that she initially faced a lot of challenges working as a reporter, mainly because she was not professionally prepared to handle the task. Among the challenges she faced was the lack of basic journalistic skills. Most of her copy was not well-received by her editor. She felt frustrated, when told to rewrite her stories, and at times her confidence was low.

She was therefore encouraged to enrol in the 12-month certificate course. Having successfully completed it, she believes she has made great strides and can now perform most of her tasks with relative ease: "Now I can conduct interviews in a professional way and can avoid the frequent mistakes I have been making over the years." She is also able to write feature articles for the first time.

More info:

  • www.avu.org

  • www.elearning-africa.com

  • Sidiki Traore will speak at eLearning Africa in Senegal from May 27-29 and will highlight both successes and continuing challenges for the AVU's distance learning programmes in conflict zones. Developing Telecoms would like to thank eLearning Africa for permission to publish this article.

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