Peter Paul Rubens. From 1577 to 1640. Antwerp. Medusa's head. KHM Vienna.

Experience and blended learning: two heads of the humanitarian training chimera

Reda SadkiDesign, Events, Learning design, Learning strategy, Thinking aloud

Experience is the best teacher, we say. This is a testament to our lack of applicable quality standards for training and its professionalization, our inability to act on what has consequently become the fairly empty mantra of 70-20-10, and the blinders that keep the economics (low-volume, high-cost face-to-face training with no measurable outcomes pays the bills of many humanitarian workers, and per diem feeds many trainees…) of humanitarian education out of the picture.

We are still dropping people into the deep end of the pool (i.e., mission) and hoping that they somehow figure out how to swim. We are where the National Basketball Association in the United States was in 1976. However, if the Kermit Washingtons in our space were to call our Pete Newells (i.e., those of us who design, deliver, or manage humanitarian training), what do we have to offer?

The corollary to this question is why no one seems to care? How else could an independent impact review of DFID’s five-year £1.2 billion investment in research, evaluation and personnel development conclude that the British agency for international development “does not clearly identify how its investment in learning links to its performance and delivering better impact”… with barely anybody noticing?

Let us just use blended learning, we say. Yet the largest meta-analysis and review of online learning studies led by Barbara Means and her colleagues in 2010 found no positive effects associated with blended learning (other than the fact that learners typically do more work in such set-ups, once online and then again face-to-face). Rather, the call for blended learning is a symptom for two ills.

First, there is our lingering skepticism about the effectiveness of online learning (of which we make demands in terms of outcomes, efficacy, and results that we almost never make for face-to-face training), magnified by fear of machines taking away our training livelihoods.

Second, there is the failure of the prevailing transmissive model of e-learning which, paradoxically, is also responsible for its growing acceptance in the humanitarian sector. We have reproduced the worst kind of face-to-face training in the online space with our click-through PowerPoints that get a multiple-choice quiz tacked on at the end. This is unfair, if only because it only saves the trainer (saved from the drudgery of delivery by a machine) from boredom.

So the litany about blended learning is ultimately a failure of imagination: are we really incapable of creating new ways of teaching and learning that model the ways we work in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) humanitarian contexts? We actually dialogue, try, fail, learn and iterate all the time – outside of training. How can humanitarians who share a profoundly creative problem-solving learning culture, who operate on the outer cusp of complexity and chaos… do so poorly when it comes to organizing how we teach and learn? How can organizations and donors that preach accountability and results continue to unquestioningly pour money into training with nothing but a fresh but thin coat of capacity-building paint splashed on?

Transmissive learning – whatever the medium – remains the dominant mode of formal learning in the humanitarian context, even though everyone knows patently that such an approach is both ineffective and irrelevant 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. Such approaches do not foster collaborative leadership and team work, do not provide experience, and do not confront the learner with complexity. In other words, they fail to do anything of relevance to improved preparedness and performance.

If you find yourself appalled at the polemical nature of the blanket statements above – that’s great! I believe that the sector should be ripe for such a debate. So please do share the nature of your disagreement and take me to task for getting it all wrong (here is why I don’t have a comments section). If you at least reluctantly acknowledge that there is something worryingly accurate about my observations, let’s talk. Finally, if you find this to be darkly depressing, then check back tomorrow (or subscribe) on this blog when I publish my presentation at the First International Forum on Online Humanitarian training. It is all about new learning and assessment practice that models the complexity and creativity of the work that humanitarians do in order to survive, deliver, and thrive.

Painting: Peter Paul Rubens. From 1577 to 1640. Antwerp. Medusa’s head. KHM Vienna.