Story | 16 Jan, 2018

MOOCs and protected areas capacity building – where we stand

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are now an undeniable part of the education landscape. Their development really started to take off in 2012 and there are now over 7,000 of them mainly from European and North American universities. MOOCs are a revolutionary opportunity for everyone across the world with an Internet connection to access free courses and to receive a certificate or academic credits.

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Photo: Geoffroy Mauvais

Having MOOCs on protected areas is relevant for two reasons. First, too few training opportunities on the topic of protected areas exist in Africa to cover the demand. To illustrate this, almost 90% of applications (for Master’s degree and university diplomas) for IUCN-Papaco trainings cannot be responded to due to lack of spaces available. Second, many staff members working in African protected areas are located in remote places with little or no access to a university. With proper Internet access, they can easily follow online courses either through a cell phone or a computer

The origins of our MOOCs

The École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and IUCN-Papaco embarked on this adventure two years ago, starting with a general MOOC on protected area management initially available only in French. After a few months, 4,000 people had already signed up, leading to the team developing new courses. 

      Photo: IUCN Papaco

The first MOOC was originally created as a partnership between André Hoffmann, the EPFL and IUCN, and was funded by the France-IUCN partnership (in particular the French Development Agency), EPFL and a Geneva-based foundation. Four MOOCs have now been produced: the general one on protected area management (PAM) in Africa and three specialised courses on ecological monitoring in protected areas (em), law enforcement in protected areas and species conservation in protected areas. 

Each of these courses is available both in English and in French. They involve numerous specialists, and particularly people from IUCN member organisations and Commissions. New sessions of all these MOOCs start in January 2018 (more information, course descriptions and registration in the table below).


A MOOC is by definition open to all and whoever is interested in the topic can sign up. But through the topics of the courses we present and our communication strategy, we specifically target African conservationists.

MOOC students across the continent       Photo: IUCN Papaco
These include students or young professionals, but also school teachers, university professors and professionals working on conservation projects and on other topics related to the MOOCs such as tourism, sustainable development and natural resources management. This explains the relatively ‘old’ median age of our students (31 years old) compared to other MOOCs. Finally, even though our MOOCs can be followed by people from all over the world, they obviously target African citizens.

The MOOCs on protected areas management and ecological monitoring have cumulated a number of 12,700 registrations so far from more than 120 countries. 

The French versions of the two MOOCs that are currently online mostly reach African students (respectively 83% and 75% of all participants). This is thanks to a group of countries where the MOOCs are very successful: Cameroun, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal. On the other hand, the English versions of these two MOOCs reach a more international public with ‘only’ 61% (PAM) and 43% (EM) of Africans. 

These differences are likely explained by Papaco’s stronger network in French-speaking Africa and by the greater offer that already exists in English speaking African countries. 

MOOC evolution       Photo: IUCN Papaco

MOOC stats       Photo: IUCN Papaco







Finally, the participants are mostly men (78%) in their 30’s based in African countries (74%). This comes with no surprise and should not raise concerns since many protected areas in Africa are managed by military or para-military organisations, mostly made of men. Hopefully, this will evolve positively in the future. 

Student satisfaction

Participants are generally happy with the courses: 97% agree or strongly agree to say that the MOOCs met their expectations and 92% think they will use what they learnt in their conservation-related activities. They are also very satisfied with the videos: 96% agree or strongly agree that the video contents are interesting, 93% that they are clearly understandable, 95% and 88% that the quality of the image and sound is good or excellent.

Despite this already good feedback, it is important to maintain the quality of the MOOC materials as well as their relevance, and the Papaco team has already selected a few videos that will be updated in 2018. 

"My MOOC experience has helped me to cover concepts I hadn’t fully mastered yet: planning, governance and PA funding for instance, which is also a reason why I chose to follow this course. Thanks to my newly acquired knowledge, I will be able to better contribute to the management of my country’s MPAs. As an intern at an organization intervening in a PA with a large marine area and not much of a set management plan, I am taking on the challenge to fix this based on what I learnt." (Eddy N., Cameroon)

Activity and interactions

In terms of participation and interaction, both the EM and PAM MOOCs do very well. French speaking African students in particular proved to be extremely active both on the Facebook group (3,500+ members in the French-speaking group and 370 only in the English-speaking group) and on the forum. 

A trend in many universities consists in creating self-running MOOCs that require less intervention from professors. This solution can be interesting for courses with a very high number of students with questions that can be answered directly by their peers. This option is however unlikely to suit our MOOCs; indeed, the active involvement of the MOOC staff is believed to have a strong effect on the courses’ success and is regularly mentioned by the students (see testimonials).

Success rate and student engagement

MOOC trainings are often criticised because of their low completion rates, as around 5% of enrolees get a certificate. This figure should be put into perspective as studies show that not all learners want to validate a MOOC when they register - many choose to watch some videos on a topic that sparks their interest, and have no particular interest to go any further. Our MOOCs have an average certification rate of 5.6%, which is slightly above the global MOOC average. To date, and thanks to the MOOCs, 708 people have received a certificate in PA management and ecological monitoring. This is 2.5 times more that the number of certificates delivered through IUCN-Papaco on-site trainings (13 University diplomas have been organised so far) in 7 years... And the cost per student is of course much cheaper.

How to enroll (click on the text):

Ecological monitoring in Africa MOOC       Photo: IUCN Papaco







Species conservation in African protected areas       Photo: IUCN Papaco