Mission accomplished

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

We won.

  • The former school teacher and humanitarian trainer who argued vociferously that nothing would ever supplant face-to-face training is now running a MOOC.
  • The training manager who refused to consider e-learning is now running a distance learning, scenario-based simulation. People he trains are now working remotely – and a simulation, dirt-cheap and run by e-mail, is closer to modelling the real world than is the artificially and unrealistically “safe space” of the high-cost, low-volume training room. Work went through digital transformation before “training” did.
  • The old-school learning and development manager is getting certified to run webinars. Through practice, she has surprised herself by how much she feels when running a session.
  • A digital course run ahead of a face-to-face workshop mobilized ten times as many (people), for ten times less (money). Course participants produced tangible artefacts, directly applicable to work, through collaboration and peer review. And they did not need to take time off in order to do so. The outcome of the physical-world, residential experience is less tangible. Or, with a double entendre, one could say: more virtual.

These are not stories of the superiority of one medium over another. They are stories of the accelerating pace of change.

These are not stories of victory. They are stories of experiencing our humanity in and through new, rapidly-changing spaces where we work, live, and grow.

This is how we learn.

Image: A metaphor for irony. Bush delivers a speech to crew onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare combat operations over in Iraq, as the carrier steamed toward San Diego, California on May 1, 2003 (Larry Downing/file/Reuters).

Jack Welch photo in GE's Annual Report (2000)

Relishing change

Reda Sadki Quotes

Jack Welch in General Electric’s Annual Report, nearly two decades ago:

We’ve long believed that when the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight.

The only question is when.

Learning to love change is an unnatural act in any century-old institution, but today we have a Company that does just that: sees change always as a source of excitement, always as opportunity, rather than as threat or crisis.

We’re no better prophets than anyone else, and we have difficulty predicting the exact course of change.

But we don’t have to predict it.

What we have to do is simply jump all over it!

Source: Welch, J., 2000. General Electric Annual Report 2000 (Annual Report). General Electric, Fairfield, Connecticut, USA.

#DigitalScholar Apprenticeship

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar, Job opportunities

(Please do share this announcement with promising learning leaders in your network. Your support is much appreciated. – Reda)

The Geneva Learning Foundation, together with LSi and the University of Illinois College of Education, have joined to develop new learning approaches to build capacity, produce locally-situated knowledge, and foster deep learning outcomes. Through this ‘Scholar Partnership’, our aim is to explore new ways of learning that can accelerate the development of new leadership and talent in the face of growing humanitarian, development, and global health challenges.

In July of this year, the Foundation offered the first #DigitalScholar journey, a four-week course in which anyone, from anywhere, could learn to design their own digital course. Over 800 people joined the course, forging meaningful connections across industries and geographies, creating nearly 100 new digital courses in four weeks.

LSi is now offering an apprenticeship for learning leaders interested in mastering this ‘Scholar Approach’. The aim is to provide an opportunity to gain practical experience and rapidly develop skills and competencies needed to design, facilitate, and manage Scholar-based digital courses.

Scholar courses currently in preparation by the Geneva Learning Foundation and its partners cover a range of topics, from the global mobilisation of ambulance and other pre-hospital emergency care workers in the face of growing violence against health care workers… to the first course on collective impact for computer science education.

Preference will be given to applicants who have completed the Geneva Learning Foundation’s #DigitalScholar course.

The first apprentices will start in January 2017, but applications are welcome on an ongoing basis.

Full announcement here. Apply via this link.

Image: Hands (2016) (Les petits dessins/enfants.click)

Blossoming across both digital and physical spaces

Meeting of the minds

Reda Sadki Events, Presentations, Theory

This is my presentation for the Geneva Learning Foundation, first made at the Swiss Knowledge Management Forum (SKMF) round table held on 8 September 2016 at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Its title is “Meeting of the minds: Rethinking our assumptions about the superiority of face-to-face encounters.” It is an exploration of the impact of rapid change that encompasses learning at scale, the performance revolution, complexity and volatility, and what Nathan Jurgenson calls the IRL fetish.

The point is not to invert assumptions about the superiority of one medium over another. Rather, it is to look at the context for change, thinking through the challenges we face, with a specific, pragmatic focus on learning problems such as:

  • You have an existing high-cost, low-volume face-to-face learning initiative, but need to train more people (scale).
  • You want learning to be immediately practical and relevant for practitioners (performance).
  • You need to achieve higher-order learning (complexity), beyond information transmission to develop analytical and evaluation competencies that include mindfulness and reflection.
  • You have a strategy, but individuals in their silos think the way they already do things is just fine (networks).
  • You need to develop case studies, but a consultant will find it difficult to access tacit knowledge and experience (experience).
  • You want to build a self-organizing community of practice, in a geographically distributed organization, to sharpen the mission through decentralized means.

These are the kinds of problems that we solve for organizations and networks through digital learning. Can such challenges be addressed solely through action or activities that take place solely in the same time and (physical) space? Of course not. Is it correct to describe what happens at a distance, by digital means, as not in-real-life (IRL)? This is a less obvious but equally logical conclusion.

If we begin to question this assumption that Andrew Feenberg pointed out way back in 1989 was formulated way back when by Plato… What happens next? What are the consequences and the implications? We need new ways to teach and learn. It is the new economy of effort provided by the Internet that enables us to afford these new ways of doing new things. Digital dualism blinds us to the many ways in which technology has seeped into our lives to the point where “real life” (and therefore learning) happens across both physical and digital spaces.

The idea for this round table emerged from conversations with the SKMF’s Véronique Sikora and Gil Regev. Véronique and I were chatting on LSi’s Slack about the pedagogy of New Learning that underpins Scholar, the learning technology we are using at the Geneva Learning Foundation.

Cooking up a round table

Cooking up a round table

With Scholar, we can quickly organize an exercise in which hundreds of learners from anywhere can co-develop new knowledge, using peer review with a structured rubric that empowers participants to learn from each other. This write-review-revise process is incredibly efficient, and generates higher-order learning outcomes that make Scholar suitable to build analysis, evaluation, and reflection through connected learning.

Scholar process: write-review-revise

Scholar process: write-review-revise

Obviously, such a process does not work at scale in a physical space. However, could the Scholar process be replicated in the purely physical space of a small round table with 15–20 participants? What would be the experience of participants and facilitators?

It took quite a bit of effort to figure out how we could model this. Some aspects could not be reproduced due to the limitations of physical space. There was much less time than one could afford online, and therefore less space for reflection. The stimulation to engage through conversation was constant, unlike the online experience of sitting alone in front of one’s device. Diversity was limited to the arbitrary subset of people who happened to show up for this round table. This provided comfort to some but narrowed the realm of possibilities for discovery and questioning.

I have learned to read subtle clues and to infer behavior from comments, e-mail messages, and other signals in a purely digital course where everything happens at a distance. That made it fascinating to directly observe the behavior of participants, in particular the social dimension of their interactions that seemed to be wonderfully enjoyable and terribly inefficient at the same time.

Only one of the round table participants (Véronique, who finished the first-ever #DigitalScholar course during the Summer) had used Scholar, so the activity, in which they shared a story and then peer reviewed it using a structured rubric, seemed quite banal. At a small scale, it turned out to be quite manageable. I had envisioned a round robin process in which participants would have to move around constantly to complete their three peer reviews. However, since they were already sitting in groups of four, it was easier to have the review process take place at each table, minimizing the need for movement. This felt like an analog to what we often end up doing in an online learning environment when an activity takes shape due to the constraints of the digital space…

Image: Flowers in Thor. Personal collection (August 2016).




Towers of technology

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar, Learning strategy

This came up in one of the Live Learning Moments in the first week of the Geneva Learning Foundation’s #DigitalScholar course:

This is for Reda: I’m very used to the Coursera/EdX kind of LMS and I’m finding it difficult to follow the course related postings and schedules on the digital learning community currently. I just feel that we are missing some structure.

This comment calls for reflection on the knowledge architecture of Scholar in relation to other technologies. In the first week of #Digital Scholar, we examined the architecture of the lecture and the classroom. I understand the yearning and the preference for a container view of knowledge, even though I believe the time has come to autopsy the discipline known as knowledge management. This view is reassuring because it is familiar. It mirrors the experience of mass industrial-age education that has shaped most of us. But does it correspond to the learning needs of today and tomorrow – and those that we are trying to address with #DigitalScholar by inventing a new method for the rapid, agile production of digital learning? Is learning a process or a product?

Scholar's Activity Stream

Scholar’s Activity Stream

What you are seeing in Scholar’s Activity Stream is learning as a process. It moves fast. There is no way to know everything. Learning to navigate becomes a key competency that you develop by doing. This is contrary to the views with which we were able to function in the past. But it models the fast-paced world we live, and it is not going to slow down. (George Siemens’s Knowing Knowledge remains for me the best explainer of what this means for learning.)

Now, I tend to be fairly agnostic about technology for learning. Basically, my conviction is that if you give a good learning designer a piece of string and an e-mail account, they can use these tools to enable an amazing learning journey. In fact, I have seen beautiful learning design compensate for the deficiencies of even the most broken, nightmarish corporate learning platforms. And I have friends and colleagues who have built amazing learning journeys on MOOC platforms or in Moodle. But to my mind they have had to work against the learning architecture of those platforms in order to achieve these.

In the MOOC platforms (and in many other similar learning management systems), the container view of learning is expressed by the curriculum. Sign in, and that is what you see: the content. Dialogue is buried in siloed discussion forums. If you are in one compartment, you may not see what is happening in the other. Furthermore, you may have a user profile but it is not really relevant to the course work. You exist only as an individual consumer, with an individual reward (the certificate). You may engage with peers in the forums, but that is mostly in response to specific discussion prompts. You consume content, and then get quizzed about your ability to recall it. Finally, when there is peer review, its purpose is to scale grading without needing tutors. You receive a grade, and then that’s it. There is no revision stage in which you are invited to think about the grade you received and what that means for your work.

In EdX, content transmission is center stage

In EdX, content transmission is center stage

In Moodle, you see the syllabus and, separate from that, a discussion forum. Dialogue is hidden from view, organized into one or more silos. Learners can submit work to the tutor or teacher, and then the assumption is that this teacher evaluates the work. This model requires more tutors for more learners. It is expensive to scale, and not very practical. Moodle replicates the classroom learning architecture. I understand that in the early days this may have been important to reassure professors exploring the use of technology that they could reproduce their behavior and keep the same habits of teaching. It is particularly ironic that, buried in Moodle’s documentation, you will find the claim that its design and development are guided by social constructionist pedagogy. That was a long time ago.

A linear sequence of assignments in Moodle

A linear sequence of assignments in Moodle

Philosophically, there is a distinction when thinking about what we mean by the democratization of education. Is it making learning technologies open source (Moodle)? Is it about opening access to content (MIT’s OpenCourseWare)? Or how about transmitting content from elite universities for consumption by learners who otherwise would have no access to it (EdX, Coursera)?

These are all important and significant. But there is one more, and it is fundamental. It is about recognizing the value of the experience and expertise of each learner. It is focused on dialogue between learners to foster network formation, that can happen around expert, curated knowledge but is equally likely to take place in relation to the learners’ own needs and context. It is about scaffolding the production of new knowledge that both individual and community can put to use. Individuals take responsibility for their own learning, but then learn from others as they are formulating feedback and inputs to their peers. Ultimately, it is about recognizing that every learner is also a teacher. And that teachers have much to learn from their learners – and this learning strengthens their role, rather than diminishes it. The expert’s value as convener, facilitator,and designer increases in a system in which the expertise of every contributor is recognized.

The most notable difference between Scholar and other platforms for learning is in the pedagogical model (Bill Cope’s and Mary Kalantzis’s 7 affordances of New Learning and Assessment) that underpins it.

Cope and Kalantzis 7 affordances of New Learning and assessment

Cope and Kalantzis 7 affordances of New Learning and assessment

Functions and features in Scholar are not dictated by a list of IT specifications but by this model. Everything in Scholar is about dialogue, not content. Content has its place: as an opportunity for discussion, reflection, and construction. Content is always shared in a network, whether that’s in the Community or in the more structured and private, safe space of Creator’s anonymous peer review.

For me, it was a Eureka moment in 2012 to realize how the use of Scholar would give me a new economy of effort to teach and learn. I had been struggling with trying to improve “click-through” e-learning modules that have limited efficacy and that people don’t finish even when it is mandatory. I have never finished a MOOC either. With Scholar, the opportunity to build something, especially if I can then use it in my work changed everything. I don’t know if your experience of this course will lead to the same epiphany. You may be attached to paticular tools and the ways of teaching and learning that they afford. Your practice or even your livelihood may depend on these. At the very least, I hope it will feed your thinking, learning, and doing on the tools and models you are using now, and how you are deploying technology to do new things in new ways, consistent with the needs and challenges of our times.

Image: skyscraperpage.com

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

Tower of Babel

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

What happens when a fledgling, start-up foundation convenes learning leaders from all over the world to explore digital learning? Over 800 participants from 103 countries have joined the Geneva Learning Foundation’s #DigitalScholar course developed in conjunction with the University of Illinois College of Education and Learning Strategies International.

The course officially launches on Monday. Yet participants  joining the online community have begun introducing themselves and, in the process, are already tackling challenging questions on the pedagogy, content, and economics of education and its digital transformation.

“Look at all the people here!” exclaimed one Digital Scholar. And, yes, we are from everywhere. You could start from “cloudy England”, a hop-and-a-skip away from “rainy Amsterdam” and then keep travelling, stopping in any of the 103 countries where participants live. You might end up in the “paradise island” of Mauritius, “sunny but chilly” Sidney, or “hot and humid” Puerto Rico.

Think about it. When Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis describe the affordance of “ubiquity”, the anywhere-anytime in digital learning, that describes the ability of learners to connect to a course. But ubiquity also enables our connections to each other, across time and space. A banal weather report becomes a way of relating here to there, a way to refer the diversity of contexts and paths that have led us here.

“Thrilled” and “excited” and “delighted” come up more than once. But why are we here? In the words of one Digital Scholar: “I hope to learn and obtain skills to rock!” It is the “opportunity to learn new skills” about the “nuts and bolts” of digital learning. It is also for “professional and educational growth”.  Yes, technology is the “new shiny” but our task as learning leaders is to be “always thinking about how it can best be used in learning”.

So we are here to begin building our own digital course. Not everyone is sure what to expect – and I was surprised by the number who do not know what course they want to develop. That will be the first order of business on Monday and throughout the first week of the course. What we express is of course situated in our context of work and life. The diversity of contexts is staggering – and harder to wrap my head around than the weather. I get that the choice, for example, to focus on “citizen-centered community action”, education, peace, or social justice issues is of course no accident.

The Geneva Learning Foundation’s initial call for applications focused on its own network, in the humanitarian, development, and global health space. So there are public health specialists, evaluators, crisis mappers, knowledge managers, leadership developers, school principals and teachers.

But our bet was that the call would then escape the boundaries of our known circles and reach other industries. And we have. Hence we find decision-making and risk management, writing, faculty development, and the occasional topic that intersect specialties, such as the course on “Twitter for health professionals”.

The common thread is the yearning to share, translate, grow, develop, fusing experience and practice and networks.

So you want to build a course. How do you know that there is a demand for it? Yes, that is the crass language of Economics 101 supply-and-demand intruding in a world of learning that we would like to imagine pure and removed from material considerations. But one of the key lessons we hope to convey in this course will be the realization that there is a political economy to knowledge and learning. “There seems to be an interest to learn more” about Twitter for health professionals, explained one participant, after giving presentations “at various local medical organizations”. Is that sufficient to demonstrate demand for a course that will require investment of time and resources and possibly carry a price tag? There is, in fact, only one business model for education that can happen fast and be sustainable: institutions, individuals or both must be prepared to pay enough to cover the costs of the operation.

Traditional institutions of higher education already have channels for marketing, recruitment, sales, and so on. But what about those of us who do not work within one of these institutions – or who wish to develop learning that does not fit into their sometimes-narrow constraints, especially as we push to innovate the practice of education?

For one participant, the logic is one of austerity, of how to do more with less: “Due to the sharp decrease in training funding from the government, we are looking seriously at the fully-online mode” rather than blended learning that had been used in the past. The caveat is that the mere fact that technology does enable you to make “services more widely accessible” does not mean they will be more affordable – and nor does accessibility mean that people will come (much less pay for) an educational programme.

My premise is that content and pedagogy are the easy parts (tongue in cheek) to figure out. The real challenge is in taking it to market (even if the learners won’t be the ones paying for it). In developing their course announcement, #DigitalScholar course participants may well find that this is the most challenging part of the endeavor. How do you test and verify your assumptions about who would actually want to take your course? What if you are wrong?

My last question to incoming participants is about the Digital Transformation. Yes, that’s with capital letters, originally used in management theory to describe how conventional industries are transformed by “e-business”. I believe that this is one useful lens to reframe our role as learning leaders, to help us adapt and perhaps even stay a step ahead of the accelerated pace of technological change.

Some Digital Scholars are not sure about what it means. For others, it referred to the impact of technology on learning, “how we interact with content” or “with each other in a Digital Age”, “how content is made available, and how it is utilized” in a “mix of dynamic possibilities”. Others ascribed the concept with inspirational or aspirational aims, leading to “a transformed learning experience” “potentially offering innovative and dynamic courses”, in the name of “deeper, more meaningful learning” and “rich interactions with peers and the instructor”.

Many of us keep coming back to scale (““improving access of education to more learners”) as the starting point for thinking about what we can afford to do through effective use of technology. What we will explore in the course is that there are, in fact, many more affordances of digital learning’s amazing economy of effort.

You can still join to become a #DigitalScholar until Sunday, 3 July 2016. The course will launch on the 4th of July. Read the full course announcement and apply here. We also have Facebook, Twitter, and Slack.

Image: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

Minecraft learning science

Insomnia against the grain – and putting Bloom to bed

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

Summer 2016, Day 1. “So, that puts to bed Bloom’s Taxonomy… that reliable workhorse,” sighed C. “What do we use in its place?”

“We don’t”, answered the Walrus. “There is no successor to neatly replace Bloom’s. It’s still there – and can still be useful. It’s about changing the way we think and do the design of learning. Just look at how we are building our course in real time.”  And we are. Observing the accelerating flow of applications for the #DigitalScholar course is more than a spectator sport. It is turning me into an insomniac. It is about feeling who is out there in the interwebs, somehow ending up with a course announcement from a brand-new (read: obscure) foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. Reading motivation statements, trying to figure out how they connect to boxes ticked… It is on that shifting knowledge landscape of what is shared, across time and space, that we are sculpting the experience we hope amazing, starting on the fourth of July.

In fact, we’ve already started. Slack, Facebook, and Twitter accounts are all set up to connect participants to each other even before they connect with the course and the #DigitalScholar team. Never mind that some folks might struggle with Slack, may legitimately feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or annoyed by so many different platforms before the course has even started, and that using Facebook for anything related to work could well be anathema… Yet getting used to the multiplicity of tools, purposes, and intent is part and parcel of what we need to learn.

This course doesn’t even have a name. Instead, it is about becoming a #DigitalScholar. That is no hipster hashtag, by the way. It is part of a taxonomy of New Learning that sees technology as not just enabling or mediating learning, but affording us a new economy of effort, the means by which we can afford to  extricate ourselves from the miasma of the learning-and-development of the Past. Becoming a #DigitalScholar is not about content. It is about metacognition (thinking about thinking) far more than about cognition. It is about figuring out what it means to be human in a Digital Age, a far more significant question than the gruesome dichotomy between real and virtual that leads to the sterile dead-end of our IRL fetish.

In Minecraft, you do not have to sit through six-minute video lectures about the different kinds of building blocks before taking a quiz testing your ability to recall them. Mastery learning implies that there is some end point, some learning objective that you reach. You can build and measure what you build or how you got there – but isn’t what you build (and how you did it) what really matters? Can a badge – or even 1,000 discrete, specific, networked ones in the blockchain – represent what we know and experience?

Winter 2014. Cointrin, Geneva’s airport lounge. “Just stick to what you know,” said the Roly-Poly High Priest of Learning. “Maybe you can convene a group of humanitarian folks and build an L&D network around shared needs. Start there.” A sensible enough proposal. I already knew more than a few really bright folks pushing technology for learning in various international organizations. Yet my gut hated the idea, recognizing something unsavory about that pattern. It has taken me two years to figure out why – and to build something the potential of which rests on success (or failure) in convening learning leaders from as many different quarters as we can.

One key weakness of our humanitarian learning culture rests in our insularity. (There are also many strengths). We think we are different because of the nature of the business we are in. So we neglect meaningful connections to external systems. And yet when we engage with learning leaders outside our little corner of the Universe, the gaps between what we do and what they do can lead to a kind of ghoulish fascination for the opulence and the confidence of the corporate learning space, where CLOs erect brick-and-mortar campuses, deploy transformative leadership acceleration (not just development) programs to tackle their most wicked business problems, and lead teams with capabilities that we can only wish for. Witness the rare heads of learning and development who lavish budget to join corporate learning networks with no clear strategy of what might be transferable or how, given the differences in context and mission. Meanwhile, most of us work with shoestring budgets and struggle to lock down an appointment – never mind recognition, support, or funding – with our CEO, or, more likely, the head of HR that we report to.

Yes, the learning I know is about saving lives (think first aid, disaster response, or emergency health) and about building a sustainable future. I’ve learned many humbling lessons about how difficult it is to apply theory and principle to chaos. The chaos of your industry may be of a different nature. But they are connected, part of the same messy world we share.  Education is privileged to be the science of sciences. It is the meta layer of the networked data society. It eats communication and knowledge management for breakfast. And I can no longer think of what I do in learning in isolation of the rest of the world. Limiting the unit of analysis to one organization, its people, or even its industry is a constraint of the past. In fact, I refuse to conceive a learning initiative that does not cross boundaries. It is a necessary condition for learning to provide a way of seeing trends developing in the world today. The incoming signals amplify the sense of what that condition might mean. That is why I am finding it hard to sleep. And so eagerly looking forward to walking on the edges for four weeks with a multitude from everywhere.

Image: WallpapersCraft.

Digital learning with the Geneva Learning Foundation

Beyond MOOCs: the democratization of digital learning

Reda Sadki Events

It is with some trepidation that I announce the Geneva Learning Foundation’s first open access digital course in partnership with the University of Illinois College of Education and Learning Strategies International.

The mission of the brand-new Geneva Learning Foundation is to connect learning leaders to research, invent, and trial breakthrough approaches for new learning, talent and leadership as a way of shaping humanity and society for the better.

This open access, four-week (16 hours total) online course will start on 4 July 2016 and end on the 29th. It will be taught by Bill CopeCatherine Russ, and myself, three of the eleven charter members of the Foundation.

We’ll be using Scholar to teach the latest digital learning pedagogies. Everyone will develop, peer review, and revise an outline for a course relevant to their own context of work. This outline is intended to be the practical basis for developing and offering an actual course – so this is no academic exercise.

The course is tightly aligned by this mission, both theoretically and practically:

  • Theoretically, learning – like almost everything else – is being remade by digital. Learning in a knowledge society is a key process to change, hence the urgency and centrality of thinking through what digital transformation means with respect to knowledge and learning.
  • Practically, it will convene learning professionals who will collaborate to develop new ways of teaching and learning

You will notice that there is no reference specifically to the humanitarian context in the course announcement. I hope that participants will come from many different industries, and that all stand to benefit by new learning approaches we have developed on the edge of chaos.

Please do share the course announcement with trusted colleagues and networks. And, if you are free in July, don’t miss it. I am betting that this first run will gather an eclectic group of learning mavericks and at least a few of those whom Cath calls edge-walkers, not just fellow humanitarians but folks from other industries operating in the same, increasingly-complex world.

So why claim that this is “beyond MOOCs”? I do not mean to imply that this course is somehow a successor to massive open online courses (MOOCs). Rather, I have written elsewhere about how MOOCs remain mostly about the transmission of knowledge. This course is about learners as active knowledge producers. I believe this is an important distinction. (Seb Schmoller argues that strong learning design can organize a beautiful, effective learning journey in just about any architecture. This, to me, is akin to saying that even a car can be made to fly – you just need to strap on some wings…)

There is an equally important distinction when defining what we mean by the democratization of learning: is this about scale (more learners with access to education)? Or is it about a paradigm change in what learners get to do: learning anywhere and any time by actively designing meanings and making knowledge they can use, thinking about thinking (metacognition), giving each other recursive feedback as they collaborate to solve problems… in other words, being teachers in a Digital Age?

Click this big red button to learn more…


Old cash register (Andrés Moreira/flickr)

Inventing by investing in new business models for humanitarian training

Reda Sadki Education business models, Thinking aloud

Through research and broad sector collaboration, a consensus has emerged on the recognition that uneven quality of personnel is a major limiting factor in humanitarian response, and that serious effort is needed to address the global gap in skills and build capacity of countries and local communities. At the same time, there is growing recognition that existing models for learning, education and training (LET) are not succeeding in addressing this gap, and that new approaches are needed.

Structured learning has long been assumed to be an expenditure and, for a long time, remained unquestioned as a necessary investment. Yet learning advocates increasingly find themselves in a defensive posture, in part due to the complexity involved in correlating education initiatives with measurable outcomes for a cost centre. However, new business models point to education driven by demand that can not only cover its own costs but generate revenue to be reinvested in the organization’s growth. Challenges include transforming cultural norms around trainings and workshops, rethinking the roles of those who earn their livelihoods from such activities, and correctly assessing markets in which those who pay are usually not those who learn.

In a world of knowledge abundance, selling content is an increasingly tough proposition. The objective of market research is no longer to decide which courses to issue. Rather, it is about determining the value of content – to the extent that content adds to a credential of value. In the search for new business models for education, marketing itself may be considered to be a learning function, with the goal of establishing meaningful connections and loyalty with end users through the utilization of learning processes.

The bottom line of humanitarian learning, education and training is still mostly an afterthought. Supply-driven initiatives are launched with donor funding traded for vague promises of sustainability within five years, but no incentives built into the project that will help it get there. Scrambling for alternatives to an existing model in which financing has long been assumed rather than earned may be the toughest challenge of them all for established organizations.

The path of least resistance is to do more of what has been done in the past. In a startling failure of imagination, scaling up resources results in more courses and programmes, more trainings of trainers, more classrooms in shiny new training centres, and more online platforms. Those tasked with spending are then bound to ensure that the metrics will look good, fast enough so that donor support remains unwavering. Yet it is vital for such initiatives to also invest in questioning their own assumptions, starting with those that underpin the business model of a status quo that is unlikely to produce the results that are needed tomorrow, irrespective of the impressive announcements about resources secured today.

Image: Old cash register (Andrés Moreira/flickr)

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.