View from the Learning Executive: Reda Sadki

Reda Sadki About me, Interviews

This article was first published by the ASTD’s Learning Executive Briefing.

By Ruth Palombo Weiss

Q: Why do you think the Red Cross Movement has a deeply rooted culture of face-to-face training for its 13.6 million volunteers?

A: There is a deeply rooted culture of face-to-face training at the Red Cross because of our unique brick and mortar network of hundreds of thousands of branch offices all over the world. What drives people to the branches is that they want to learn a skill, such as first aid, disaster risk reduction, and we’re really good at teaching those things.

In the future, educational technology might enable us to connect branches to each other. Imagine what the person in Muskogee, Oklahoma, can learn from the Pakistani Red Crescent volunteer who lived through the Karachi, Pakistan flood in 2010, and who participated in the recovery efforts afterward. That sharing of knowledge and skills would be an enriching and valuable experience. Technology will enable us to put such connections at the heart of the volunteer experience.

Q: What are the challenges in connecting the 187 national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies and using social, peer-based learning to link them to each other in a vast, global knowledge community?

A: In the 21st Century, such connections may prove indispensable for anyone working for change at the community level, most obviously on global issues with local impact and consequences, such as climate change. We need to improve lateral connections by bringing technology into the branches. We also need to find ways to reassure the headquarters of each of these national societies that local, community-based, volunteer networks are a good thing and not threatening to existing hierarchies. Currently, our web-conferencing still feels like a sub-par experience compared to getting volunteers together.

We’re waiting for web-conferencing to create a presence similar to the power of face-to-face training. Google engineers have been trying to recreate the fireside chat with Google Hangouts. What makes the branch experience so powerful is you get to know people and spend time with them after the training is over. Some of the challenges are parallel to those of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and on-line education. Part of what’s at stake is can we recreate not only the knowledge transfer, but improve on the advantages of face-to-face encounters.

Q: Tell our readers about the online courses for specialized disaster response teams, how they are formatted, and how effective they have been.

A: The recruitment and preparation of IFRC’s specialized disaster response teams have ramped up their use of educational technology in the last three years by developing online courses. In 2009, we launched our first online CD-rom course: The World of Red Cross/Red Crescent. The intent was to show that eLearning was a serious thing. It’s a very information-heavy course in which there is little for the learner to do except try to retain enough information to pass the quiz.

We’re now doing scenario-based online courses where people have to problem-solve, make choices, and see the consequences of those choices.  We have moved to a technology that uses HTML 5 and responsive design, a technology that enables a course to reformat and resize, so it can be used on a tablet, smart phone, or desktop screen. The pedagogy is based on things that connect to our learning culture. The technology is based on the reality that people in emerging countries, if they have access to the Internet at all, are accessing it through a mobile device. For example, in Egypt, 80 percent of people have Internet access only though their cell phones.

Q: How has this pioneering use of online education as didactic prerequisites to lessen the information load during face-to-face training led to a broader conversation about the purpose of training and questions about the quality of current learning systems?

A: In 2010, the IFRC spent almost $24 million dollars at the Secretariat in Geneva on workshops and training, almost all of which were face-to-face. Initially, people questioned the legitimacy and efficacy of online learning. Then we realized we had never evaluated our face-to-face training. A big part of our efforts involved comparing online and blended learning to face-to-face learning. We referred to two meta-analysis studies published in 2010 comparing online with blended learning. These studies found that online learning gets a slightly better outcome, and showed no benefits from blended learning. Such evidence helped us shift the debate. There are many more complex and interesting issues we can explore, but the argument of which modality is better has been settled.

Now we can focus on when there is value to moving bodies and materials at high cost: what materials do we move, and what do these bodies do once they’re there? Our emergency health public coordinator has explained that when volunteers are in training, they hang out, get to know each other, and become friends. In the heat of an operation, when one volunteer has to tell someone that he is doing something wrong, that is likely to be accepted because of the friendship. So the question is how do we build such connections using educational technology.

Q: How has the Red Cross Learning Network stimulated new thinking in the humanitarian and development field and increased the magnitude, quality, and impact of humanitarian service delivery?

A:  To start, it has enabled volunteers to tap into a global knowledge community with no intermediaries prescribing or circumscribing what they should learn. We have found there are increasing numbers of people on our learning platform and those numbers are growing every month. There is a dynamic through which national staff and volunteers all over the world discover the learning platform on their own, and they see value in it for themselves. We have a completion rate of over 50 percent for the information transmission modules.

The learning platform tries to do two things. One is to encourage those who are eager to learn, to manage their own learning. That is at the heart of social learning. At the same time, we’re looking at helping learning and development managers to be able to use these tools. The message I give when I go to the various Red Cross headquarters is your staff and volunteers are already completing courses: would you like to know which courses they’re taking and how well they’re doing?  Would you then like to be able to prescribe a learning focus for teams that have performance gaps? We need both a structured and managed approach to learning as well as a people-driven approach.

Q: Are your new eLearning platforms cost-effective and how well do they work?

A: To deliver one-hour of training online through the learning platform costs a licensing fee of $0.50. Delivering one hour of face- to-face training is roughly $50 USD. Clearly, it’s 100 times cheaper to deliver learning online. This is the argument which gets senior management’s attention. It’s cheaper, but can it possibly be as good?  Because we haven’t in the past evaluated the face-to-face training, there is no secretariat-wide effort to evaluate training for all 187 headquarters. Comparing online to face-to-face is tough, and we are currently building an evaluation framework for both kinds of learning, where all new courses are required to include a follow-up evaluation.

The cost effectiveness is complicated, because the development of an online course is more expensive than that for face-to-face. With face-to-face, someone develops a power point, we give him a plane ticket, and he gives the lecture. You can have multiple branches funding that kind of training, and it can be spread out over time, so any time a national society has a budget, they organize a new training module. However, over time the cost really adds up.

On the other hand, if you want to design a new online course, you have to think through the pedagogy, the technology, the content, and that’s all front-loaded work. Finding the money for that work on the promise of effectiveness has turned out to be challenging. We want to keep all of the good things about the face-to-face culture, but we also need to make sure every dollar is used to maximize the services to vulnerable people, which is the heart of our mission.

Q:  How might a collaborative learning community be developed for volunteers across language and other barriers?

A:  Crowd sourcing is the easy answer. We already have virtual volunteers doing amazing things, such as crisis mapping, entirely online.  An example is the Haiti earthquake. There were thousands of people online (such as rescue teams) who voluntarily collected and analyzed data. There is a lot of debate in the humanitarian world as how to use that, and one of the problems is that we need to be massively multi-lingual. Our learning platform is being translated into 38 different languages, and we’re using a needs-driven approach. When a Red Cross unit says they need a course in the local language, then we’ll mobilize resources to provide the content.

Q: What were the results of the pilot “new learning” program, based on research on open learning and MOOCs, to promote global, open, active learning (GOAL)? 

A:  The Global Youth Conference brought together in Vienna, Austria, 155 youth leaders from all over the world. We had 775 people from over 70 countries working together online – four times as many learning online as gathered for the conference events. The Vienna event lasted three days, whereas online, people worked together for six weeks on the same four thematic areas. We asked people to self-assess how much they learned, and 58 percent reported working consistently on the open learning activities. We had more than 40 percent who spent at least one hour each week on the learning activities, and 58 percent reported they had learned a lot. Many of those people have kept the connections they’ve established during the program. We are now seeing young people organizing their own learning activities on issues such as nuclear disarmament, using the tools they discovered in the GOAL program.

Reda Sadki is the Senior Learning Systems Officer in the Learning and Research Department of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).