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.


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.

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.

Humanitarian Health Lessons Learned: Ebola

Online learning around Ebola so far

Reda Sadki Global public health

This is the third 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).

“The responsible use of technology in humanitarian action offers concrete ways to make assistance more effective and accountable, and to reduce vulnerability and strengthen resilience. Distance learning and online education are good examples of technology supporting these goals” (World Disasters Report 2013:10).

There have been a number of online courses organized by humanitarian organizations as well as by higher education institutions. International organizations have developed e-learning courses such as MSF’s Ebola ebriefing and WHO’s Health Security Learning Platform, or leveraged existing online training packages such as IFRC’s scenario-based simulation modules on public health in emergencies.

Some of the transmissive online courses around Ebola

Some of the transmissive online courses around Ebola

American, British, Dutch, and Swiss universities are amongst those who have produced open online courses distributed on MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platforms such as Coursera (Ebola Virus Disease: An Evolving Epidemic), Futurelearn (Ebola: Essential Knowledge for Health Professionals), and France Université Numérique (Ebola: Vaincre Ensemble!). All of these have focused on the transmission of information about the Ebola virus disease for general and/or specialist audiences, including those based in the field and in affected communities.

MSF’s Keri Cohn, writing from the Bo-Ebola Treatment Center in Sierra Leone, provided an account of the challenges she faced in using one such course due to access difficulties.

As an expat doctor, I have found your course […] to be excellent. Our national staff, who are local Sierra Leone nurses and clinical officers, have enrolled in the course on their mobile phone. However, because Internet is poor or not available, they have been unable to attend the course or [view videos]. In turn, with the help of MSF, I have been able to download [the content] and, together, in a group of around forty people, we have completed your course.

This is remarkable testimony with respect to the potential (as well as technical limitations) of online learning to disseminate reliable information to health workers, the ability of organizations to overcome technological barriers in the face of urgent need for information, and the high level of motivation of field-based health workers to acquire new knowledge.

But why should learning be a one-way street? What of the knowledge developed by Sierra Leone nurses and clinical officers through collaboration and engagement with people from the affected communities, peers from neighboring countries, and international staff? There is undoubtedly a massive amount of deep, continual learning happening in such a group through practice and experience, not to mention human bonds of friendship and solidarity, forged in the face of adversity. Learning – whatever the medium – cannot be reduced to the one-way transmission of information.

Many of the online learning technologies of the recent past have been modeled after top-down, legacy training systems. In their basic approach and use in practice, these are heavily weighted to the transmission of centralized knowledge from the center (headquarters, the capital city) to the periphery (the community, village, or clinic). They are frequently ineffective, as the transmitted knowledge is often abstract and decontextualized, while the value of existing local knowledge, practices and understanding is not recognized or incorporated into the learning experience.

Transmissive learning

Transmissive learning

Transmissive learning remains the dominant mode of formal learning in the humanitarian context, even though everyone knows that such an approach is ineffective when it comes to teaching and learning the critical thinking skills that are needed to deliver results and, even more crucially, to see around the corner of the next challenge. The moral economy of such transmissive education and training demands unquestioning compliance in the face of authority, lack of critical autonomy, and an absence of responsibility. Learners are treated as passive knowledge consumers rather than active knowledge producers, clearly out of alignment with both the spirit and practical needs of a humanitarian health crisis and processes of human capacity building in local communities and institutions. Such approaches are unlikely to foster collaborative leadership and team work, provide experience, or confront the learner with holistic complexity of specific sites and cases. In other words, they fail the crucial test of grounded relevance to improved preparedness and performance.

What can education contribute?

What can education contribute to the shape of future global health crisis response? What is the role of technology, beyond improving the efficiency of the transmission of information? Education research in many fields, including humanitarian work, has shown that significant learning, even transformative learning, is usually grounded in and builds upon experience. The educator’s role is to scaffold self-understanding, and to facilitate expansion of that self-understanding.

In our volatile working environment, what we know (usually thought of as content-based knowledge) is replaced with how we are connected to others. That is how we stay current and informed. Learning nowadays is about navigation, discernment, induction and synthesis, more than memory and deduction. Memory has become less relevant in a world where so much knowledge is within reach within seconds. Networks are a powerful problem-solving resource that people naturally turn to when they need help. We rely on small, trusted networks to accelerate problem-solving (learning).

Many new learning practices – through both formal and informal networks – develop organically, in the face of sometimes extreme circumstances. Often, it is exceptional leadership qualities in individuals (and sometimes their organizations) that make up for gaps and limitations of existing learning methods. Nevertheless, although humanitarians may initiate and lead change through their own learning, organizations must create facilitative structures to support and capture learning in order to move toward their missions (Yang 2003:154).

In Thursday’s blog post, I’ll share the experience of a pilot course that sought to overcome the limitations of transmissive learning to support knowledge co-construction by people with experience in humanitarian operations.  


Stocking, Barbara. “Report of the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel.” Geneva: World Health Organization, July 2015.

Sharples, Mike. “FutureLearn: Social Learning at Massive Scale.” presented at the Learning With MOOCs II (LWMOOCS), Columbia Teacher’s College, October 3, 2015.

Vinck, Patrick (Ed.). World Disasters Report: Focus on Technology and the Future of Humanitarian Action. Geneva, Switzerland: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2013.

Yang, Baiyin. “Identifying Valid and Reliable Measures for Dimensions of a Learning Culture.” Advances in Developing Human Resources 5, no. 2 (May 1, 2003): 152–62. doi:10.1177/1523422303005002003.

Humanitarian Health Lessons Learned: Ebola

Why learning is key to the strategic shift in how the world manages health crises

Reda Sadki Global public health

This is the second 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).

“Whereas health is considered the sovereign responsibility of countries, the means to fulfill this responsibility are increasingly global, and require international collective action and effective and efficient governance of the global health system.” (Stocking 2015:10)

“Effective crisis management for health”, writes the World Health Organization in its management response to the Stocking report, “requires a series of strategic shifts” (Chan 2015:5). Calls for substantial modernization of emergency management capacity and preparedness have focused on resources to ensure rapid mobilization for the provision of logistics, operational support, and community mobilization. Yet, “the primary lesson so far has not been about the need for new response methods, but about human resources and coordination”, wrote Anna Petherick in The Lancet in February 2015. “Building new treatment centres,” she concludes, “was an easy task [sic] next to training and supervising people to staff them” (Petherick 2015:592). In other words, how we learn is key to the strategic shift in how the world manages health crises.

Learning is the implicit process required to achieve the capacities sought. In-service training, the most prevalent form of formal learning, is only the tip of the iceberg. Every time we ask “how do we change the capacity of individuals and systems?”, we are asking about how we learn (pedagogy) and how we know what we know (epistemology). For example, learning, education and training (LET) are not mentioned at all in the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR). Learning is the implicit process required to achieve the capacities described by the Regulations. And yet, we leave tacit the processes (the “how”) which enable the acquisition and sharing of knowledge, skills and behaviors (competencies) needed in order for the health workforce and affected communities to face a health crisis.

In Wednesday’s blog post, we’ll review online learning around Ebola so far – and examine whether such initiatives can contribute to the strategic shift in human resources and coordination.  


Chan, Margaret. “WHO Secretariat Response to the Report of the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel.” Geneva: World Health Organization, August 2015.
Stocking, Barbara. “Report of the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel.” Geneva: World Health Organization, July 2015.
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.


Humanitarian Health Lessons Learned: Ebola

Lessons learned from Ebola

Reda Sadki Global public health

This is the first 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).

The unprecedented complexity and scale of the current Ebola outbreak demonstrated that existing capacities of organizations with technical, normative culture, methods and approaches are not necessarily scalable or adaptable to novel or larger challenges. Large and complex public health emergencies are different each time. Each new event poses specific problems. Hence, traditional approaches to standardize “best practice” are unlikely to succeed. What are the appropriate mechanisms for learning from each of them? More broadly, how do we change the capacity of individuals and systems to learn?

“Huge praise is due to those who have responded to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. At the same time, the retrospective analysis that is just beginning has already revealed several glaring lessons to be heeded next time” (Petherick 2015:591).

I believe that we can and should mobilize education and the affordances of technology that support it to tackle three questions:

  1. How do we ensure that lessons learned include the experience and expertise of communities on the frontline of the crisis?
  2. How can we ensure that lessons learned are retained, adapted and used by individuals, teams, and organizations?
  3. How close to the village can an online, distance learning initiative reach?

If we improve access, inclusion and retention of lessons learned, we can then help address the following questions:

  1. What humanitarian health standards and normative guidelines are needed and how can they be developed to stay relevant in the face of increasingly complex crises, when every outbreak is different?
  2. How do we foster an organizational culture of improved coordination, leadership, and preparedness in and between organizations, governments, and local communities?
  3. How do we develop a global workforce with the surge capacity to respond to crises?

These questions have an educational dimension that is not being addressed by current efforts. This is compounded by the fact that current humanitarian health education is mired by transmissive approaches that cannot allow for learners as knowledge producers – and that lessons must first be generated before they can be learned. This is why we urgently need a new education paradigm, supported by affordable, practical learning technologies and pedagogies, to strengthen humanitarian health response and preparedness.

Tuesday, I’ll explore why learning is the hidden key to the strategic shift – called for by the World Health Organization – in how the world manages health crises.

Reference: 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.