FRANCE-AFRICA: Medical e-learning network launchedNorth-South network of inter-university diplomas has begun operating, with the first batch of students successfully completing an online course in obstetrics ultrasound in Dakar, Senegal, 6,000 kilometres from Brest in France where the project originated.
Senegal is the first of 17 African and Asian countries participating in the partnership which aims to train medical professionals in specialist healthcare for mothers and children.
The other African countries are Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia. The three Asian countries concerned are Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
"I could have gone to France for a month's training but it wouldn't have been possible to stay any longer than that," said a satisfied Aminata Touré Haïdara, a Malian gynaecologist based in Dakar.
"Through this distance education course I can save time and combine my practical work on specific local pathologies with looking after the needs of my family."
Touré Haïdara is among four women and four men who, out of 12 candidates, gained their inter-university diplomas, or IUDs, in obstetrical ultrasonography in Dakar at the end of October.
The course was jointly formulated by French and African teachers. The students studied the theory online through the internet and DVDs, and completed their studies with practical placements in local hospitals where they had use of ultrasound scanners.
Using the diploma as a model, seven other programmes are planned, including gynaecological surgery, vaccinology and infectious diseases (Aids), with the aim of training gynaecologists, midwives and health auxiliaries specialising in mother and childcare.
But the international cooperative venture had to pass through a number of stages to achieve success.
"We had observed uncontrolled scanning practices which had serious medical consequences, and exorbitant charges, with the risk these methods would become discredited," explained Jean-Yves Redon, the Breton gynaecologist who had the idea of setting up the training programme five years ago when he was on a two-year posting as a technical assistant in Dakar.
"Training courses abroad were too expensive and led to the danger of brain drain," added Jean-Charles Moreau, head of the gynaeocology-obstetrics clinic at the Aristide-Le Dantec hospital in Dakar and coordinator of the obstetrics ultrasonography IUDs in Senegal.
To establish a high-quality course they approached Professor Michel Collet, President of the scientific committee of the national ultrasound diploma at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest.
An agreement was signed between the French university and Senegal's University Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Dakar. This led to the training of eight doctors and four midwives, and the creation of two joint chairs in gynaecology-obstetrics.
In 2008, Albert-Claude Benhamou, President of the Université Médicale Virtuelle Francophone , a French digital campus, added a new dimension to the project when he asked Michel Collet to coordinate an online IUD in obstetrical ultrasonography in Africa and Asia.
In Paris, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the project with EUR3 million (US$4 million) over four years to launch the course - developing the concept and putting it on line - through a priority solidarity fund.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry recruited Christine Cabane to coordinate the South's programme. Based in Dakar, this former paediatrician organised travel between the partner countries, drawing on resources of French embassies and contacts with deans of medical faculties and local academics.
"My role is to organise everyone involved into a network and to make things go smoothly," Cabane said. "The courses must be adapted to the context of the country, to make the IUD appropriate at a local level.
"If you talk about genital mutilation in Hanoi where it isn't practised - unlike Mali - that won't work. On the other hand, you can't talk about it in Mali in the same manner as in France where it is criticised."
Operations must be organised on two fronts. First, a programme of courses must be constructed, jointly produced by teachers from North and South. Then computer operatives and teachers must be trained to put the programmes online.
"I already have some courses and slides prepared. We have organised a meeting in Brest with representatives from Gabon, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Morocco to share out the course material that must be produced according to the priorities of the South. This joint production is the original feature of this inter-university diploma," said Michel Collet.
On the technical side, the educational ICT service of the University of Grenoble-1, a leader in France of online medical studies, is taking charge of distributing the recorded courses from its server.
The plan is for sessions of about 30 minutes to be presented as PowerPoint slides, voiced by local university teachers and the supervisory French teachers.
"It saves considerable time and money for the students, who don't have to leave their work and their families. We have demonstrated that the IUD works for training people who stay at home and that the system can be made permanent," said Michel Collet.
No funding has been scheduled beyond this launch phase. The courses must be self-financing through students' fees. Each university issuing the partially online degrees fixes its own rates and conditions.
"E-learning is one of the tools for the new leadership of universities. My objective is to make the most of educational ICT so lecturers and students can have access to the best sources of teaching," said Cheikh Saad Bouh Boye, dean of the UCAD faculty of medicine.
It also shows a way to get around the difficulties of setting up joint North-South qualifications.
* Fabienne Guimont is a journalist at Educpros.fr. The full feature (in French) can be read here