Humanitarian Health Lessons Learned: Ebola

Learning in emergency operations: a pilot course to learn how we learn

Reda Sadki Global public health

This is the fourth in a series of five blog posts reflecting on what is at stake in how we learn lessons from the Ebola crisis that erupted in 2014 and continued in 2015. A new blog post will be published each morning this week (subscribe here).

“Continuous learning at the individual level is necessary but not sufficient to influence perceived changes in […] performance. It is argued that learning must be captured and embedded in ongoing systems, practices, and structures so that it can be shared and regularly used to intentionally improve changes in knowledge performance.” (Marsick and Watkins 2003:134)

Scholar is an online learning environment for collaborative learning developed through the education research and practice by Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope of the University of Illinois College of Education. It is designed to produce (and not simply consume) knowledge, in order to develop higher-order thinking, analysis, reflection, evaluation, and application. It closely models forms of leadership and collaboration at the heart of how humanitarians learn and work together to solve problems.

A pedagogical pattern that models how humanitarians teach and learn

A pedagogical pattern that models how humanitarians teach and learn

In November 2013, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) piloted the Scholar learning environment by offering a four-week course open to anyone with experience in at least one emergency operation. Funded by the American Red Cross, the course was supported by Emergency Response Unit (ERU) managers in National Societies and the FACT and ERU team in Geneva.

The call for participants was a single-page summary of the course, linked to a simple enrollment questionnaire. This call was publicized on the IFRC’s web site and circulated by National Societies, partners and supporters.

671 people enrolled in less than two weeks, half of them from the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. Of those, 591 met the criteria for enrollment and 285 people (48%) fully engaged in the course work and community dialogue. Above all, the group was characterized by its diversity: over 100 countries (including 67 National Societies), hundreds of roles and missions were represented, with experience ranging from a single operation to over fifty.

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The purpose of the course was to share and reflect on how we learn before, during, and after an emergency operation. There were no guidelines, reference materials, assigned readings, or expert lectures. Instead, learners were tasked with developing their own case study, guided by a structured evaluation rubric developed by global disaster management and learning experts. Engaged in this process, they found intrinsic motivation to contribute to the community dialogue, and soon began to share reference documents that they had found useful in their own work.

It was difficult in the beginning, but as I was writing and reading the different posts in the Scholar Community, information was coming back to me. Reading and writing [is] not what I love the most in my life, but I [discovered that] once you are reading or writing about something, you like, it [becomes] a passion. I am also getting better in ENGLISH [through] writing […] and reviewing others’ case study.

In addition, each week was punctuated by a “live learning moment”, a synchronous session using webinar technology. In Week 1, JP Taschereau, a seasoned humanitarian and head of operations from the IFRC, described how he learned to take on completely new responsibilities and solve complex problems (that included managing air operations!) in the early days following the December 2004 Tsunami. This inspired and encouraged the community, engaged in writing their first draft during that week. In the following weeks, these live sessions were used to share insights, questions, and breakthroughs by the participants, with strong facilitation but no expert intervention.

The participants engaged in the written activity (writing a case study) in three stages. First, they had to develop a short case study describing how they prepared for an operation they were in, what the gaps were in their knowledge, skills and competencies, and how they learned during the operation (Stage 1 – Writing). Second, they had to peer review the case studies of three other participants (Stage 2 – Review). Third, they had to revise their case study using the inputs and comments received from their peers (Stage 3 – Revision).

“I have been writing reports and case studies”, explained Sue, a learner in this course, “but this was one of its kind, as I had to assess myself and my work, my mistakes and my learning. In general […] we just pick a subject and start writing about that, but in this case study I was a subject […]. I discovered a lot of things which [I had not considered] before”.

In one month, 105 (37%) completed case studies, drafting, reviewing, and revising over 700 pages of new insights into the learning processes in emergency operations. Such a rapid pace (four weeks) and massive volume had never been achieved before.

The IFRC Scholar pilot was then researched by the University of Illinois team. Analysis of the knowledge produced, the learning processes, and evaluation feedback from participants demonstrated that:

  1. open learning in the humanitarian context made productive use of diversity possible (across geographies, levels of experience, roles or position, organizations, etc.);
  2. intrinsic motivation was nurtured and scaffolded by the Scholar learning process, leading to a high level of engagement and commitment from learners who forged bonds that, in some cases, outlasted the course;
  3. the combination of sharing experience (community) and peer review (case study) led to collaboration and reflective learning outcomes; and
  4. the knowledge produced was of surprisingly high quality (given the open enrollment and diversity).

Overall, the Scholar learning environment facilitated an economy of effort that made a strategic shift in how the pilot’s cohort learned more pragmatically realizable than in the past.

To learn more about the Learning in emergency operations pilot course, download Dr Katia Muck’s white paper or her paper The Role of Recursive Feedback: A Case Study of e-Learning in Emergency Operations published in the The International Journal of Adult, Community, and Professional Learning Volume 23, Issue 1.

In Friday’s final blog post in this series, we’ll try to determine how close to the ground a global and digital educational initiative can get.


Cope, Bill, and Mary Kalantzis. “Towards a New Learning: The Scholar Social Knowledge Workspace, in Theory and Practice.” E-Learning and Digital Media 10, no. 4 (2013): 332. doi:10.2304/elea.2013.10.4.332.

Kalantzis, Mary, and Bill Cope. New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education. Second edition. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Marsick, Victoria J., and Karen E. Watkins. “Demonstrating the Value of an Organization’s Learning Culture: The Dimensions of the Learning Organization Questionnaire.” Advances in Developing Human Resources 5, no. 2 (May 1, 2003): 132–51. doi:10.1177/1523422303005002002.

Magnifico, Alecia Marie, and Bill Cope. “New Pedagogies of Motivation: Reconstructing and Repositioning Motivational Constructs in the Design of Learning Technologies.” E-Learning and Digital Media 10, no. 4 (2013): 483. doi:10.2304/elea.2013.10.4.483.