A New Digital School Ushers the Tech Sector to Togo

Through a partnership with Duke Learning Innovation, a school started by a Duke parent is offering some of the faculty’s online courses to help train workers in a West African country for the digital economy.

The idea for the first digital school in Togo first came up during a family conversation.

Antoine Toffa and his brother, Max, had been talking about some of their siblings’ attempts to leave the small West African country.

“In our own family, we had a few brothers and sisters who tried to take boats illegally to come to Europe, as a lot of immigrants do,” Toffa says. “They fell on very hard times, and they thought there was not a chance for them to do anything in Togo.”

As he was growing up in Europe and pursuing a career as a technology entrepreneur, Toffa kept in touch with his 17 siblings still living in Africa, including Max, who was the principal of a private school. During these conversations, the brothers realized that many people they knew didn’t want to leave Togo or their families yet felt forced to seek opportunities elsewhere.

“So my brother and I said, ‘Let’s start a school,’” Toffa says. “If we train a lot of young people in the digital economy, they could work from Togo and not have to leave the country.”

While planning the curriculum for the new school, Toffa discovered through his son’s (Sinclair Toffa, Trinity ‘18) connections at Duke that some of faculty’s online, non-credit bearing courses could help train technology workers in Togo.

Togo struggles with systemic poverty, ranking in the bottom quarter of countries by gross domestic product, according to The World Bank. With the idea that careers in the tech industry offer higher paying jobs with more options for remote employment, the brothers opened the doors of the nonprofit TamTam Digital School in October 2018.

The instruction at TamTam is what’s called a hybrid model – online lessons paired with in-class learning. The students at the school receive their education nearly for free, funded through scholarships offered by the school, contributions from sponsors and projects through paid internships.

“This seemed like the right way for me to give back to my origin country,” Toffa says.

At the school, there’s a start-up feel. Most of the roughly 55 students are in their twenties. The school offers programs in big data, software development, digital marketing, digital creative arts and digital business management, which includes advanced online courses created by Duke faculty in data science and software development and other non-Duke courses offered through Coursera, an online learning platform.

The connection between TamTam and Duke formed when Antoine’s son put Antoine in contact with a Duke mentor, Matthew Rascoff. As the associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, Rascoff and his team at Duke Learning Innovation had seen success in collaborating with local educational partners who understand their communities’ specific needs and could use online courses as the spine for tailored educational programs.

Based on previous experience with another social venture, we knew we could provide our content to help power local programs that need access to high level, research-backed courses built by our faculty at Duke,” says Rascoff.

In the future, Rascoff and Toffa hope to expand on the partnership and bring Duke students to work and learn side-by-side with Togolese students.

“Digital learning can have a massive global impact at scale but not if it’s treated as a stand-alone alternative. Instead, higher education leaders should focus on shared digital learning infrastructure that builds local capacity through partnerships,” Rascoff added. “I hope the Duke-TamTam collaboration can be a model for those who seek to meet the global need for learning.”

Audio: Listen to Matthew Rascoff, the associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University, talk about sharing Duke’s online, non-credit bearing courses with educational partners around the world.

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