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Improving Open and Distance Learning (ODL) Initiatives Through the Internet in Developing Countries: The Case of CIFFAD (International Francophone Consortium of Distance and Open Learning Institutions)

Cyrille SIMARD <>
Denis LOPEZ <>
Sékou Chérif FOFANA <>
Agence de la Francophonie

Version française


The fast development of ICT has brought the CIFFAD, a consortium of open and distance learning institutions spread over 49 countries, of which 80% are in developing nations, into a phase of reengineering. The purpose of this paper is to show that Open and Distance Learning (ODL) Internet based projects developed in a gradual implementation and appropriation perspective constitute a proper "methodology" to help institutions in developing nations take the "quantum leap" correctly, as well as a major development in the field of distance learning as a discipline. Projects that integrate the use of Internet in the conception, realization and delivery of open and distance learning materials are presented. The general approach used to integrate Internet in the practices of ODL in developing countries and results already attained and/or expected are also presented. Finally, a framework for the appropriation of ITC in developing countries is proposed and discussed.


L'Agence de la Francophonie

Founded in 1972 in Niamey (Niger), the Agence de la Francophonie, formerly known under the name Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique, is the single intergovernmental organization of Francophonie and the principal operator of the bi-annual Conferences of the Heads of State and Government of the countries having French as an official language, called the French-speaking Summits.

Gathering 49 states and governments of the francophone area, the Agency shelters the general secretariat of the authorities of la Francophonie, personalized by Mr. Boutros Boutros Ghali, and also acts as an agency of multilateral cooperation in four major fields:

  • Law, Democracy, and Development
  • Economic Development and Solidarity
  • Culture and Communications
  • Education and Training

In addition to its seat in Paris, the Agency has an International School in Bordeaux (France); an Institute of Energy in Quebec (Canada); associated offices monitoring international organizations in Geneva (Switzerland), Brussels (Belgium), and New York; and regional offices in Lomé (Togo), Libreville (Gabon), and Hanoï (Vietnam).

The CIFFAD -- International Consortium of Francophone Distance Education Institutions

The CIFFAD was created in 1987 and was incorporated into the program of the Agency in 1990. It's a francophone consortium built around a network of establishments of education and training which implement national systems of distance education and collaborate with each other on a regional basis. The CIFFAD is animated by a distance education division, based at the École internationale de la Francophonie in Bordeaux.

The CIFFAD was strongly influenced by the important development of ICT and Internet in particular. Indeed, with the creation of the Distance Education Division in 1996, the CIFFAD, formerly an institutional program having the objective of informing and managing national projects, became a network of establishments with objectives such as consolidating the distance education system and creating and adapting programs. Once an institutional program, it became a network of collaboration and exchanges. Today the use of the Internet is an essential dimension of this network.

The CIFFAD'S mission

The CIFFAD'S mission is

... to create and support the access to training opportunities using distance education and new technologies via an international consortium of distance education establishments.

Fields of intervention of the CIFFAD

The CIFFAD works in four major fields:

  • Basic education (literacy, training of teachers)
  • Teaching of French (French as a second or foreign language)
  • Technical and vocational training
  • Actions of solidarity (equipment and technology, training in distance education, network building, etc.)

Thus, its activities touch a large and varied public ranging from education personnel, employees in the productive and service sector, administrative employees, and the public in general.

Since its beginnings, the CIFFAD created close links of collaboration with several international organizations including UNESCO, the ISESCO, the COL (the Commonwealth of Learning), the ASAFFAD (French-speaking African Association of Distance Education), and several others.

Projects of the CIFFAD ... an overview

The following table demonstrates the wide variety of projects carried out by the CIFFAD.

Projects Public Countries
  • Creation and consolidation of distance education system
General public 40 countries
  • Literacy: training of literacy agent
1320 literacy agents 9 countries
  • Primary education
  • School directors
  • Pedagogical councilors, inspectors
150 directors

1300 councilors or inspectors

10 countries

26 countries

  • Secondary education (French as a second language)
  • Teachers
2000 teachers 8 countries
  • University, secondary level, adult education (French as a foreign language)
10,000 learners 7 countries
  • Network of educational radios
General public 17 countries
  • Vocational and professional training:
    • Heads of workshops (woodworking, electricity, etc.)
    • Electronic maintenance
    • Cooperative agents and managers
20 trainers

20 trainers

500 technicians

400 managers

5 countries

5 countries

6 countries

11 countries

All those projects started years ago (promotion, design, and adaptation). During the biennium 1996-1997, the majority of them entered a crucial phase of experimentation. The current biennium will see their consolidation and their development, especially through the introduction of the ICTs. The CIFFAD has entered a phase of reengineering commanded by the "information society."

Entering the information society: a crucial phase of reengineering

If the market and the priorities of the CIFFAD were hardly influenced by this true technological revolution called "information society," its methods of delivery were very much influenced by it. It should be mentioned indeed, that traditionally, the delivery mode generally used by the CIFFAD was the correspondence course, with tutors as assistants.

This important phase of reengineering led the Distance Education Division to develop a global model aimed at improving the distance education systems through a gradual introduction of ICTs. According to us, this process was going to influence the whole system -- its teaching dimensions as well as its administrative ones.

Bringing distance education institutions into the information society: towards a model

Consequently, three major questions arose:

  1. What are the values on which our initiatives can be based in order to ensure an optimal degree of acceptability of the ICT?
  2. Which strategy were we to adopt in order to support a true appropriation of the NTIC on behalf of the partner institutions?
  3. Which are the key initiatives we could set up and who would show the powerful use of ICT in distance education systems?

Acceptability: essential values to respect

In developing countries, hands-on experience is an essential condition of any cooperation project. In this respect, it is important to define the framework of our action properly if we want to adopt a strategy that guarantees our success. Thus, the important values on which our actions rest are explained in the following sections.

Political values: information, political awareness, and geopolitics

In developing countries, the political structure and apparatus are omnipresent. Respect for the hierarchy and for its political leaders is usually the case. It is thus important to inform the political actors properly, to make them aware of our objectives, and thus gain their support. Without strong support from the political leaders, any cooperation project will ineluctably lead to failure.

On the other hand, the francophonie went through a phase of redefinition during the past fifteen years, going from a "cultural community" in which its relevance was defined more in terms of "fraternal relationship" to a more political phase in which its relevance is based more on the concept of a "community of interests." Formerly the francophonie existed because of the presence of French-speaking people; today what exists are regional geopolitical blocks willing to cooperate on the basis of "common interests." This transformation contributed to the emergence of a certain regionalism and it is necessary to take this into account in any cooperation project.

Sociological values: respect of cultures and languages, hierarchy and structures, rhythm of society, need for endogenous models

The respect of local cultures and national languages (known as partner-languages) is a sociological value important to preserve and to reinforce when one works in French-speaking developing countries. Being respectful of the vision these populations have for existing structures and for hierarchy, of their support for endogenous models in order to avoid all form of foreign-based ones, and even of the importance of ensuring a natural trademark to multimedia products, each element of an intervention must be studied attentively in order to prevent the importation of inadequate models. In the context of ICT, the key word to retain in order to avoid its pitfalls is "empowerment."

Economical values: scarcity of resources, requirements of international sponsors

Each cooperation intervention must also take economical values into account. Among those is the acute consciousness of the precariousness of local resources; of the often-decayed state of certain pieces of equipment; in short, of the importance of a judicious use of resources. Economic planification being carried out in such a context must proceed by a gradual accumulation.

On the other hand, it is also necessary to consider the constraints related to the requirements of international sponsors who always work according to an internal logic which unfortunately seldom corresponds to realities such as fiscal years, budget procedures, etc.

Technological values: technology transfer and knowledge transfer, installation rhythm of infrastructures

As far as technological values are concerned, it is advisable to consider the two most important ones. The first, and undoubtedly most important, is to ensure a true technological transfer towards the population. Each action, which implies a technological change, must obligatorily be accompanied by a whole set of measures allowing a true technological adaptation by the local partners. Moreover, it is essential to plan the operations correctly in order to adjust ourselves to the installation of infrastructures rhythm in order to avoid a too important demarcation with reality, even the creation of "white elephants."

Educational values: teaching paradigm, technology at the service of the programs

Last but not least, the most fundamental, and perhaps the most universal, educational values must be respected. Initially, it appears important to us to respect the educational paradigm in the concerned area. Although many societies, in the North as well as in the South, are experiencing important changes in their educational paradigm, it does not mean that it is done at the same rhythm and according to the same progression everywhere. In French-speaking developing countries, the "traditional" model, which grants a central place to the act of teaching and to the teacher, is still strongly present in opposition to new educational paradigms (constructivism, phenomenologism) which place more emphasis on the learning and on the learners.

In addition, an important educational value which must be necessarily respected in the distance education co-operation projects is the need for technology to remain at the service of the programs, not the other way around. Unfortunately, we often see technological artifices being presented as panaceas to distance education, thus ignoring pedagogical issues.

Effectiveness: a strategy ... vertical and horizontal integration

In the light of the preceding elements, the strategy which appears most effective in supporting a real appropriation of ICT by the partner organizations is based on our intention to create a climate of relative "destabilization" (cognitive dissonance), regarded as a necessary condition for the adoption of any change, while supporting a degree of sufficient comfort so that changes are not rejected because they are perceived as too dramatic.

Concretely, the strategy consists of adopting an approach of gradual vertical and horizontal integration.

Vertical integration

Vertical integration is the process by which the integration of the ICT in distance education projects is done in a successive, gradual, and integrated manner, touching first the management team (phase I), passing through the teaching staff (phase II), and finally leading to learners themselves (phase III).

This approach has the advantage of allowing a true appropriation of new technologies insofar as one tries to respect the values mentioned above. Indeed, we note that one needs to increase the awareness of the political apparatus before dealing with the administrations. Moreover, within the institution, the managers must benefit from ICT first, so that thereafter the designers and pedagogues, and eventually the learners themselves, can benefit from it.

In addition to these political and sociological considerations, gradual vertical integration allows a respect for the following values: economical (damping of the investments), technological (more effective technology transfer) and educational (real use of the ICT by real actors in their daily functions for the improvement of the existing practices).

Horizontal integration

Horizontal integration is the process by which the establishment of ICT projects respects a geographical logic starting from large urban centers (phase I), passing by regional centers (phase II), and leading to the distant villages (phase III).

Proceeding differently would certainly be difficult, considering the existing technological infrastructure in the majority of these countries. Often, the Internet "backbone" is only accessible in the capital city even if this phenomenon changes quickly as shown by some projects in Burkina Faso and Mali, for instance. In addition, even if the current satellite race may allow an access to digital technologies in the most inaccessible villages, it should be added that the appropriation of these technologies is not only a matter of signal. Several other considerations such as training and maintenance of the equipment are still strongly tinted by geography.

For these reasons, but also to respect the rhythm of the local populations and to support the judicious use of resources, we support a horizontal integration articulated around the values mentioned above.

The following image summarizes this strategy:

The information campaign towards the political structure started at the Francophonie Head of State Summit in Cotonou (Bénin) in 1995 (this summit contributed to the creation of a new technology division and of a distance education division within the Agency) and was amplified at the first international conference of ministers in charge of the information highway held in Montreal (Canada) in May 1997. Thereafter, it became important to base CIFFAD's strategy on solid, well-articulated projects, promoting a visible expression of the utility of ICT for distance education.

Utility and visibility: six key initiatives

A true digital network of distance education institutions

Through the RELAIS program of the Agency, which mainly aims towards establishments of at least one hundred access ramps to the Internet per year in French-speaking establishments, about thirty institutions of the CIFFAD could profit from a connection in 1997. In 1998, the major part of the consortium will have access to the network. The necessary equipment and the training of the users are ensured by the Agency; connections and the subscriptions are ensured by institutions.

In our vertical integration logic, it is clear that this access ramp is initially beneficial to institution managers (phase I) by which they might understand more the nature of Internet, integrate it into their day-to-day work, and exchange with their counterparts in their region and around the world (electronic mail and file transfer).

Thereafter, the designers and pedagogues (phase II) may use this tool while working on conception, pedagogical design, and preparation of material (written handbooks, audio-visual tools, and multimedia). Finally, the establishment of distance education local centers in distant areas (phase III) will give access to delocalized tutors and to learners.

Découvrir Internet: for Internet discovery

"Découvrir Internet" is a set of autotraining modules in HTML format for the use of the Internet tools. This autotraining product is the first stake of a distance education program for the appropriation of ICT in the francophonie. Currently available on Internet ( and on CD-ROM, this product is used to complete the initial training offered to the organizations receiving an Internet connection. Currently, the persons in charge of the organization will benefit from it first (Phase I). Quickly, the teaching staff (Phase II) can benefit from it just as the learners (Phase III).

The "One Stop Shop" Web site

Inevitably, the CIFFAD developed a Web site dedicated to supporting the projects that it carries out and its partners. The Web site is "service-oriented" and aims at becoming a "One Stop Shop" for distance education in the francophonie. The site is divided into four major sections:

  • We are ... connection space -- institutional information about the CIFFAD and its members and the francophonie as a whole;
  • We do ... information space -- programs of the CIFFAD;
  • We offer ... working space -- toolbox for distance education practitioners (online training programs, various guides, texts, databases, index, handbooks, links to French-speaking institutions, etc.); and
  • We discuss ... discussion space -- place for discussions and synergy.

Currently, the site is especially directed towards the managers of the distance education institutions (phase I) and the pedagogues and designers (Phase II). Gradually, its actions will incorporate dimensions dedicated to the other layers of the system (phase III) (learning material, online training devices, etc.)

ORFFAD ... the online watchtower

ORFFAD is the acronym for the Observatory of French-Speaking Resources for Distance Education. It's in fact a watchtower on distance education that includes a database (online and on CD-ROM) on distance education institutions, distance education courses and training programs, products used in distance education, and distance education experts in the francophonie. To this a semi-monthly bulletin of information on distance education and the animation of a series of virtual discussion forums are added. This tool was initially designed for managers to provide information on available resources (phase I); thereafter, it is hoped that the teaching staffs will be able to benefit from it (phase II). Finally, learners themselves (phase III) will be able to have access to the complete distance education and training offered in French-speaking countries.

Connected Radios...

Connected Radios is a project aiming towards the establishment of a network of the educational, rural, and associative radios of the francophonie. It is a project which supports the exchange and the coproduction of radio educational programs. The network is currently built around ten institutions, of the North and the South, which are equipped with digital audio and are able to digitize their productions and are connected to the Internet for radio programs exchanges. In this project, phase I is characterized as the leveling of the radio equipment (installation of digital audio studios). Phase II will be the moment when production, coproduction, and exchange of programs will be possible. At the end (phase III), we the network will be able to provide a true library of francophone educational programs on the Internet.

VIFAX ... learning French by television and the Internet

VIFAX is initially a methodology for the learning of a foreign language. The French-VIFAX system, built around this method, is a multimedia TOFFL (Teaching of French as a foreign language) system. VIFAX starts from the news bulletins coming out of the international French-speaking television network TV5 and distributes exercises by electronic mail to learners and professors throughout a certain number of French-speaking countries where French has a foreign language status (Bulgaria, Romania, Moldavia, Lebanon, Egypt). These exercises are carried out and distributed daily to reinforce teaching in classes but also for individual learning. Given the more advanced state in use of ICT in those targeted countries, we can already consider that the system is in phase III. In addition, steps have actually been taken to develop a complete Web-learning platform for VIFAX.

Towards a model?

Nearly two years have passed by since the creation of the Distance Education Division and the New Technology Division at the Agence de la Francophonie. This period witnessed the emergence of a certain number of projects and the updating of many others. All of them integrate ICT to some extent. To this regard, we adopted a realistic and pragmatic approach, aiming at the creation of a context of receptivity increased by a gradual and integrated vertical and horizontal deployment.

In this respect, it is important to look at the work already done and the conclusions we can draw from our experience. Those lessons can be gathered in five main categories:

  1. Best decisions are made when closer to reality. Try to coordinate the installation of one hundred Internet access ramps in sub-Saharan Africa, starting from a coordination center located in the North, in relation with a provider also located in the North, and you will quickly understand the reason behind this assertion. In spite of a tight planning, this kind of operation was usually saved by specific interventions from local people. To facilitate the transition of the equipment out of duty offices, to negotiate with the Internet service providers, or to carry out the installation of equipment and the training of the staff, nothing replaces a local intermediate. It appears essential to be able to rely on a solid base of effective collaborators to bring any project in these countries to a successful conclusion.
  2. Three words must be taken into account when you deal with the transition of developing countries into the information age: rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm. Indeed, although we are conscious of the power of the ICT and the advantages which we get from them, it is necessary to avoid precipitating this transition in developing countries. The rhythm of the local populations and of the development of the communication infrastructure in these countries and the "political" receptivity of this social change are key elements to respect. The rhythm of the local populations is expressed in the short set-up time which was reserved for the greeting of this type of technology. Computers, especially microcomputers, just like the expansion of microprocessors in the day-to-day life of an average individual in developed countries, contributed to a rather smooth transition towards ICT. This was not the case in sub-Saharan Africa. Some training needs have to be addressed prior to new technology training. In addition, it is necessary to consider the state of development of the communications infrastructures and the still important cost that an Internet subscription represents in several of these countries (especially when we consider their ability to pay). Thus, creating heavy, loaded Web sites, putting resources online, and setting up exchange structures will gain by being developed in a simple and effective manner. A hybrid CD-ROM (incorporating a connected and not-connected mode) will be a more powerful tool than a single Web site; a listserv will be more useful than a discussion forum on the Web; and the downloading of a handbook from a FTP site will be more handy than an "online" handbook. Of course, these are transitional measures, but they are well adapted in several circumstances.
  3. Any process of integration of ICT in developing countries is a long-term process. Indeed, it is necessary not only to carefully plan these operations, but also to preserve our capacity of reaction in a fast-changing context. Each action will have more important repercussions than those anticipated at the beginning. However, in a context of profound changes, this element is even more important. The establishment of a digital satellites bouquet radically changes the context in which a project was first elaborated.
  4. Reality should be looked at as it is, not as we think it is. The concrete results of ICT in developing countries are not easily measurable when one compares them to the situation in developed countries, but, in their context, they are true quantum leaps. Compare the time necessary to send a ten-page text, by mail, from Réo (Burkina Faso) to Bordeaux (France) to the time necessary to send it via electronic mail in 1998. One month compared to ten seconds? Add the time necessary for each person to check his or her e-mail (let us add two days if the interlocutors are beginners), and the demonstration speaks for itself.
  5. Real changes must always be fostered. Real changes do not take place on their own if not truly accompanied by a set of supporting measures. It is useless to dream of a true appropriation of ICT in developing countries if we don't offer support to the users. Training will help them learn about the tools. But the real challenge is to change the "habitus," the real and complete integration of these tools in daily work. The most striking example of this phenomenon is undoubtedly the necessary step taken in order to put those users in realistic situations where the tools become necessary and in which they can appreciate their utility.

The proposed model does not presume to be a single answer to questions, which, no matter what we may say, are multiple. Stating the contrary would put us in contradiction with the values on which our actions are based. In addition, we believe that our general step is likely to contribute to the creation of a favorable context to a true appropriation of the ICT in the developing countries where we work. Already, the first signs are promising. It will be necessary to continue to study this phenomenon before coming to a more precise conclusion and being able to evaluate the adequacy of our approach. Most of all, we must not lose sight of our objectives in order to adapt every single action that we undertake to prevent us from deviating from our main inspiration and to assure that all the establishments and the people involved become real change actors for the benefit of the populations reached out to by our cooperation actions.

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