Bridging the capacity development gap in Africa

Africa’s protected areas, and the prolific wildlife that they protect, face significant and increasing threats (poaching, climate change, habitat reduction, etc.). Establishing protected areas alone does not guarantee the fulfillment of conservation objectives: areas must be managed effectively by competent and well-trained professionals. Fully aware of the fact that capacity building is key to the efficiency of protected area management, the IUCN Global Protected Areas Programme (GPAP) has developed a comprehensive capacity building programme involving IUCN Regional Programmes, Commissions and Members.

A student following a MOOC from home

Protected Areas and the need for massive trainings

In African protected areas in particular, the demand for training far exceeds the offer. Since 2009, the Programme on African Protected Areas & Conservation (IUCN-Papaco) has been regularly running training programmes (an eight-week on-site university diploma, and a two-year Master degree) for protected area stakeholders in Africa. Unfortunately, almost 90% of applications have to be rejected, not for the lack of motivation of applicants but simply because these trainings can only accommodate a limited number of students. Innovative ‘massive’ methods for training are urgently needed.

What is a MOOC?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are part of the latest developments in distance learning. They are online classes meant for large numbers of participants, and give anyone with an Internet connection and a smartphone or a computer, access to courses that used to be out of reach for millions. They are typically made of short thematic videos, quizzes, automatically or peer-graded assessments, recommended readings, etc.

MOOCs are a relatively new tool, and only started to spread over the Internet in 2012. Today, there are over 6,000 of them.


The first MOOCs on protected areas 

MOOCs cover many different topics. However, MOOCs on statistics, computer science, business and management flourish all over the Internet, courses on nature conservation are a lot harder to find. MOOCs on protected areas were non-existent until IUCN-Papaco launched the first one in October 2015, ‘Protected Area Management’. This generalist MOOC was later followed by a more specialised one on ‘Ecological Monitoring for Protected Areas’.

Both these courses are very successful and are welcomed with a lot of enthusiasm by conservationists, especially in Africa where 70% of the participants are based. By May 2017, over 10,000 participants from 120 different countries had enrolled.

Fulfilling the needs and expectations of Papaco’s students

Every MOOC has its own particularities, and these must be considered for the course to be successful. Understanding the needs and the expectations of the students is of utmost importance: are they looking for a specialised or generalist course? Do they only want to acquire knowledge or also want recognition for their skills? Are they aiming at obtaining a diploma? And academic credits? Are they willing to pay to obtain them? What are their academic backgrounds? And their professional experiences? The answer to these questions will determine the content of the course, what platform a MOOC should be hosted on, what universities to partner with, etc.

Surveys and exchanges with students reveal that participants of both MOOCs introduced by Papaco are not only looking to acquire new skills, they also expect professional recognition. Most of them are not necessarily unwilling to pay to receive the certificates offered by the traditional MOOC platforms, but this option can be a limitative factor for participants who do not own credit cards. The delivery of free certificates by IUCN-Papaco has proven to be an essential aspect to motivate learners to finish the courses.

Papaco’s MOOCs are also a good way to fill the gap between the relatively low academic background of some of the learners and their extensive professional experience. This requires the use of many examples and practical exercises, as well as making sure that we rely on automatically-graded tests.

Finally, active daily management is key to a MOOC’s success. This means not only actively adapting when challenges arise, but also continuously exchanging with students through the forum, emails, Facebook, online chats, etc. Even if it is not held in a classroom, a MOOC is still a course: interactions with students are a key component of the learning experience as well as a vital condition of the MOOC’s success.

Adapting to constraints: Internet-access and computer literacy

Due to their location (Africa and remote locations of protected areas) many students have irregular Internet-access: over half of them declare that they encounter issues with their Internet connection or access to electricity.

A “typical” MOOC student is someone young and connected. On the contrary, Papaco’s MOOC participants tend to be older than the average MOOC participants and, although they may be very competent on the field, many of them lack computer skills.

Despite it being impossible to fully compensate for these two factors, the Papaco team tries its best to simplify access to the course, but also to make low-definition videos available to download, to have assessments open for longer periods, etc.

More about IUCN-Papaco’s MOOCs

IUCN MOOCs by Papaco

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