Quality in humanitarian education

Reda SadkiPublished articles

Humanitarian education is a huge undertaking. Each year, for example, 17 million trainees learn first-aid skills through face-to-face (FTF) training programmes run by the 189 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies worldwide. People of varied educational backgrounds join their local Red Cross or Red Crescent branch because they want to learn how to do first aid, how to prepare for or recover from disaster, or how to make their community more resilient. They also join to meet other like-minded people, building social ties and using the power of peer education to learn by doing.

FTF training has been efficient in terms of preparing volunteers to perform the tasks assigned to them, and social, peer-education training has also been an important component of the identity of volunteers and their sense of belonging to the organization. However, this formal way of teaching reproduces a one-way, didactic transmission of information, in which volunteers are given the knowledge they need to perform pecific tasks. Recent progress in massive open online courses challenge this model, although ques- tions remain about how effective and sustainable such learning approaches are (Daniel, 2012). This trend generates important questions for the IFRC concerning the use of educational technology while maintaining the purpose and quality of humanitarian education (Stracke, 2012).

In 2009, the IFRC published its first online course – World of the Red Cross and Red Crescent – to support the training of its international personnel. Experts developed courses on global health, security and other thematic areas. These courses were delivered through a single ‘Learning Platform’ which became part of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Learning and Knowledge Sharing Network in 2010. The network initially emphasized accredited learning, thus acknowledging that such learning remains the only valid currency in the professional world, even though Red Cross Red Crescent workers have acquired skills and knowledge in the field that deserve recognition.

By May 2013, less than 1 per cent of the world’s 13 million Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers had accessed the Learning Platform. The cost of internet access and the digital divide remain major obstacles. But the number of learners on the Learning Platform doubled in 2012 and its growth rate is accelerating. Users have completed nearly 60,000 online courses since the platform’s launch in October 2009, with more than 5,000 course registrations every month. At almost 50 per cent, the completion rate is a major success compared to the 20 per cent that is considered an acceptable rate in e-learning. Eleven National Societies already have more than 1,000 learners on the platform, with the Canadian, French and Swedish Red Cross among the early adopters. In November 2012, the Australian Red Cross, which had never used online learning in training, became the first National Society to adopt the Learning Platform for training all of its 3,300 staff members. It organized a nationwide roll-out and integrated online education into its workforce development strategy, with research already scheduled to document impact on performance.

For the first time, the Learning Platform enables volunteers to tap into a global knowledge community with no intermediaries prescribing or circumscribing what they should learn. By connecting to the platform, volunteers discover learning opportunities that relate to an essential aspect of their engage- ment: their thirst for learning as the means to changing their reality.

In 2012, following the Learning Platform’s success, the IFRC offered a ‘new learning’ programme using dialogue between learners and peer review to promote open, active learning. In its pilot phase at the Global Youth Conference, 775 people from more than 70 National Societies – four times more than the number of conference attendees – participated in learning ‘missions’ and ‘live learning moments’. Fifty-eight per cent of participants worked consistently on the learning activities, producing more than 140 pages of content. The same percentage said the programme improved their ability to think critically, analyse, evaluate and apply what they had learned about youth issues.

Questions arose about the learning effectiveness and impact of the IFRC’s online courses. Perhaps prompted by the legitimate demand that a new medium demonstrate its value, these questions also reveal an attachment to and assumptions about the comparative advantage of traditional learning modalities. However, researchers completed two comprehensive comparative meta-analyses in 2010. Their conclusions were definitive: since 1991, distance learning has delivered equal or better learning outcomes than traditional FTF programmes (Shachar and Neumann, 2010), while ‘blended learning’ (supplementing FTF instruction with online instruction) has not enhanced learning results (US Department of Education, 2010).

These studies demonstrated that quality is not determined by the means of delivery; however, they did not determine or assess the quality of the pedagogies used, whatever medium or technology. Many online learning technologies of the recent past, including the IFRC’s first online courses, were modelled on top- down, legacy training systems – somewhat like early film-making, which started by recording live theatre. As Bill Cope at the University of Illinois explains: “In their basic approach and use in practice, these are heavily weighted to the transmission of centralized knowledge from the center to the periphery.” They are “frequently not effective” as the transmitted knowledge is “often abstract and de-contextualized”, while “the value of existing local knowledge, practices and understanding” is “not recognized or incorporated into the learning experience” (Cope and Keitges, 2013).

The IFRC is exploring how innovation in learning connects back to National Societies’ rich history and culture, how technology might support learning from the local knowledge of National Society volunteers to strengthen cross-cutting knowledge, skill and competency development, and how collaborative learning communities might be developed across language and other barriers for National Society volunteers. More than 50 online courses destined for the Learning Platform are now in the pipeline, with clearly established, open standards for technology, content and pedagogy, aligned to the ISO 19796-1 quality standard for learning, education and training. Every course is now required to have an evaluation framework in place, to collect data that will be used in an annual review process.

But for humanitarian education to truly be transformed, further pedagogical innovation is needed. For example, online educational resources should also be accessible from mobile devices, notes IFRC’s new guidelines. This opens up new pedagogical possibilities: non-traditional contexts for learning, reaching remote constituencies and allowing interaction both between teacher and learner, and between learners. New courses, like the public health in emergencies modules, use mobile-first responsive technology to deliver an immersive learning experience to any device (mobile, tablet or desktop) with a modern browser. These courses are grounded in the field experience of IFRC experts and the evidence base. The peda- gogical patterns emphasize application of knowledge, analytical skills and the ability to discover, analyse and interpret from a multiplicity of data sources through teamwork.

The ability to recollect information still matters, but developing the skills and competencies that will enable the learner to perform in the face of the unknown takes precedence.

Written by Reda Sadki. First published in the World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action.