How close to the village can a global, digital education initiative get?

Reda Sadki Global public health

This is the final 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).

“Opportunities to contain the virus were lost soon after, largely because of a lack of trust between local communities and the officials and medical professionals trying to nip the epidemic in the bud.” (Petherick 2015:591)

Online training of humanitarian professionals is one thing, but what about community participation? “Beneficiary communications” and “listening” approaches have emerged to encourage inclusive approaches to all aspects of humanitarian work.

Learning needs to include not just professionals but also volunteers and affected families, whether or not they are involved in social mobilization efforts. As the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has taught us, volunteers are far more than part-time humanitarians. They are embedded in their communities and learn to use the cultural and tacit knowledge from belonging to empower themselves, their families, neighbors, and every member of the community – whatever their status, in a fully inclusive way. Making sense of what happens in a community (and what should be done there, as well as how to do it), more so than ever before, requires a fluid, reciprocal (two-way) connection between communities and global knowledge and practice.

Recognizing this, there are three practical questions:

  1. what is the pedagogical model (and technology to deploy it) that can scaffold such an inclusive approach;
  2. to what extent can we overcome limitations and barriers such as language or uneven access to the Internet, in the divide between the capital cities and the village; and
  3. how can we capture and process learning during a crisis.

By opening up an inclusive “lessons learned” process to all involved in or affected by the Ebola crisis, a new learning system may:

  1. provide a practical demonstration of the notion of “shared sovereignty” in the interest of protecting public health when health crises reach across borders;
  2. contribute to mainstreaming community engagement as a core function when managing a health emergency.

Every organization has already engaged its own internal processes to monitor, evaluate, and review what went right, what went wrong, and what to do about it. Some organizations may feel that they have already completed the most thorough review and evaluation process (including public scrutiny) they have ever undertaken. Between organizations, dialog may be more difficult but is nevertheless occurring, at least between individuals who have learned to trust each other and are more keenly aware than ever that their effectiveness depends on the quality of collaboration and coordination. Lessons learned is already a major topic of scholarship referenced in the scientific literature since 2014 (2,690 articles found by Google Scholar for the search terms “Ebola” and “lessons learned”, with 70% of them published in 2015).

However, many if not most of these processes rely on small, closed feedback loops, inside expert circles or established organizational hierarchies, limiting the ability of such reviews to achieve double-loop learning in which the governing values as well as actions are questioned. Mainstreaming community engagement is unlikely to be taken seriously if the communities are kept outside of such efforts that declare their intention to be inclusive but lack mechanisms to do so effectively.

Resolving the technical barriers to access is necessary but insufficient to ensure community engagement in lessons learned. This is why we need an initiative that provides pedagogical affordances to facilitate the balance between central (global) and devolved (community) knowledge sources, key to recognition of the complementary value of both expert technical knowledge from the global perspective and the perspectives ‘from below’ of community health workers, volunteers, and others in the field.

The objective is to open access the lessons learned process, increasing the volume (scalable to accommodate hundreds or thousands of participants), diversity (any organization, country, role in the epidemic), and efficiency (faster knowledge production without sacrificing quality). Furthermore, knowledge sharing and peer review ensure that participants are learning from each other as they work, so that the lessons identified and reflect on have an immediate impact across the network of those taking part (and, by extension, their work contexts and organizations).

For participants in such a system, the process of community dialogue, knowledge sharing, peer review and revision will produce deep learning outcomes. The shared experience will also forge bonds of trust between individuals who otherwise might never meet, despite their common involvement in the crisis. Together, the learners will produce new knowledge that will be analyzed by the research project so that its output may inform the initiative’s organizational partners, and be available as a citable and extensible body of work going forward.

The author would like to acknowledge Bill Cope for his ceaseless guidance and boundless patience and Kátia Muck, whose research and insights nourished his own.


Petherick, Anna. “Ebola in West Africa: Learning the Lessons.” The Lancet 385, no. 9968 (February 2015): 591–92. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60075-7.