LSi.io interviews Plan B’s Donald Clark: Universities and humanitarian organizations in the Age of Disruption

Reda SadkiEvents, Interviews

Donald Clark is an education innovator with no institutional ties to refrain him from telling it like it is. He answers three questions from LSi.io‘s Reda Sadki:

  • Zach Sims at Davos referred to university brick-and-mortar structures as the “detritus” of a bygone area. Agree or disagree?
  • We all remember Sebastian Thrun’s predictions about the impending concentration of higher education. Why does it feel like it’s just not happening?
  • A key insight about MOOCs is the significance of suddenly connecting millions of adult learners to faculty previously bunkered down at the top of their ivory towers. Can you tell us more about your analysis on the significance of MOOCs?
  • The humanitarian sector faces growing challenges, yet we continue to train like it’s 1899. How would you approach such a ‘wicked’ learning problem?

Interview recorded at the Second European MOOC Summit at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland on 11 February 2014.

The MOOC Tornado

European MOOC Summit: What looks tasty – for organizations thinking about transforming how they learn

Reda SadkiEvents, Writing

This is a quick overview of what I found of interest for international and non-governmental organizations in the program of the Second European MOOC Summit – possibly the largest and probably the most interesting MOOC-related event on the Old Continent – that opens tomorrow at Switzerland’s MIT-by-the-Lake, EPFL.

The first interesting thing I found in the program is that it includes an instructional session, titled “All you need to know about MOOCs”. Indeed, the more I meet and talk to people across a variety of international and non-governmental organizations, the more it is obvious that the so-called “hype” has remained circumscribed to a fairly narrow, academic circle – despite international media coverage and a few million registered users. That makes it both smart and relevant to offer a primer for anyone attending the conference who is discovering MOOCs, before they get plunged into the labyrinth of myth, paradox and possibility that is the future of education. Where the most current knowledge about MOOCs changes too rapidly for any one individual to keep up, it’s now possible to break down the basics – never mind that it might all be very different a year from now.

Now, my beef is that the raging MOOC debates have been focused almost exclusively on higher education, and been restricted to academic and edutech circles. That is changing – just look at George Siemens’s prediction that “corporate MOOCs will be the big trend of 2014”. I’m still not sure what “corporate MOOC” means but I’m assuming we’re talking about workplace learning, which meshes nicely with what I’ve been arguing all along: continual learning in organizations is a key driver for organizational performance, and only the affordances of technology can make this strategic (ie, help to realize the mission). This is true for the humanitarian sector (where I’ve worked for 21 years, and where I’ve just started LSi.io) but really extends to any mission-driven, knowledge-based organization, irregardless of whether profit is the motive.

First, some blunt (and possibly caricatural) ideas. Traditional learning and development is dead or dying, one face-to-face workshop (or one behaviorist, compliance click-through e-learning module) at a time. In the United States, the majority of higher education students are already “non-traditional”, ie they are working or looking for work, adults with family and professional lives alongside the need or wish to learn more. In Western Europe, unemployment for under-30s is structurally high, with many twenty-somethings spending years as “interns”, exploding the baby boomer model in which affordable university leads to job security. Learning looks like it’s going to be lifelong, as the EU keeps proclaiming, but not necessarily by choice… Last but not least, in the BRICs and other connected countries in what was known a long time ago as the Third World  (sorry, nostalgia of sorts), educational opportunities and social mobility may not be uncoupled (yet), but most middle-class professionals see continuing education as a key to their development.

For international organizations  and NGOs, the stakes are high. We know that traditional higher education produces young people without the practical skills, competencies, or critical thinking capacity to do the work of 21st century humanitarians. Worse, most of our own organizations’ training efforts are still premised on unscalable, expensive face-to-face training – training as if it were 1899. And from educational technology we have, so far, retained only the most reductive, behaviorist kinds of click-through e-learning, using it to transmit information in “pre-work” before the “real learning” can start in the classroom. (Of course, there is a more optimistic story to tell, given the number of brilliant humanitarians leading innovative efforts around learning – just drawing the broad, pessimistic strokes here).

 These complex issues are most likely to be addressed at least implicitly in the Summit’s Business Track, where on Tuesday at 11h00 IMC’s Volker Zimmermann will moderate a session on MOOCs as “training instruments” for employees and partners. So that’s where I will go. Nevertheless, in the Experience Track, there is also a session on SPOCs (small, private, online courses – think Moodle on MOOCs) which could be useful to learning contexts where small-group work is a key to success.

I’m betting that Tuesday afternoon’s session on MOOCs for online external corporate training and communication will turn into a showcase for new companies trying to corner the corporate MOOC market. So off I will go to listen to Barbara Moser-Mercer’s talk on MOOCs in fragile contexts, which include refugee camps.

On Wednesday morning at 9h00, I will moderate a small-group discussion on MOOCs for international and nongovernmental organizations, hoping that MOOC providers and academics will attend in sufficient numbers to hear about how badly we need solutions to transform the way we do learning, education and training.  IGO and NGO online learning pioneers Sheila Jagannathan from the World Bank Institute, Dominique Chantrel from UNCTAD, and Patrick Philipp from IRU will be sharing their early experiences. Let’s hope that the folks who build, sell, research and think about MOOCs will be listening.

Reda Sadki

Corrected on 11 February: the session on MOOCs for IGOs and NGOs starts at 9h00!

Alligator trumps turtle

Learning beyond training, to survive and grow

Reda SadkiWriting

Humanitarian organizations already organize and deliver training on a massive scale. For example, the Red Cross and Red Crescent train 17 million people each year to practice life-saving first aid, in addition to the training of its 13.6 million active volunteers. Training has been tacitly accepted as the primary mechanism to prepare volunteers and staff for humanitarian work, from the local branch (community) to the international emergency operations (global).

However, the humanitarian sector lacks a strategic approach for learning, education and training (LET), despite a widely-acknowledged human resource and skills shortage. In addition, the sector is deeply ensconced in face-to-face training culture, with many humanitarian workers earning at least part of their livelihood as trainers, and training events are key to developing social and professional networks but not necessarily to developing key competencies needed in the field. Whatever its merits, this approach to training cannot scale up to face the consequences of climate change, deepening gaps between rich and poor, or other growing humanitarian challenges.

Also, the sector suffers from high turnover, lack of standardization in training practice, proliferation of education programs with no measurable benefits or relevance to operational needs, and a dearth of evaluation of learning outcomes. There are several cross-sector initiatives that are trying to address these problems, but these initiatives have ignored the potential relevance for the humanitarian context of both the rapid change in workplace learning and the disruption and potential transformation in higher education through educational technology and 21st century pedagogy.

First, a reductive focus on formal training is unlikely to lead to improvements in service delivery.

Second, the strategy should leverage both innovation and history to do new things in new ways, mobilizing multiple appropriate technologies to accelerate all dimensions of learning, and updating them whenever this demonstrably improves outcomes. It should rely on rational experimentation linking research with learning, even when this may involve a risk of failure.

Third, this strategy needs to conceptualize learning from a global perspective, and provides solutions to both scale-up (take a successful local innovation and increase its impact so as to benefit more people) and scale- down (localize and adapt to local knowledge and needs) to foster policy and programme development on a lasting basis. It should provide practical solutions for staff and volunteers from the periphery (branches, village) to develop, peer review, improve, and circulate their own knowledges, in addition to harnessing, remixing and augmenting knowledge from the center (headquarters, capital city).

Fourth, knowledge will be characterized as a process (“know-where”), not as a reservoir (“know-what”), and the strategy will serve to connect with others to cull out the most current from the flow of knowledge, however rapid its pace. An adaptive, individualized lifelong learning strategy should encompass accretion (learning is in the network), transmission (learning as courses), acquisition (self-motivated learning), and emergence (learning as cognition and reflection).

Fifth, learning analytics (scalable, continual analysis and feedback loops learning outcomes), leveraging the affordances of technology, should feed research and drive innovation and improvements in delivery science.

Sixth, the learning strategy should address not only the levels of action (from local to global) but also the connections between them (ex: how local volunteers and global teams learn from each other before, during and after emergency operations). Leadership and team work development (ie, nodes and networks) will be recognized as cornerstones to learning in our hyper-connected world.

Like the outcomes it aims to produce, the strategy development process should be practical, agile (iterative), adaptive, evidence- and results-based, and demand-driven. New, practical approaches to learning (ex: George Siemens’ connectivism, Bandura’s social learning, MOOCs) first theorized less than ten years ago can already deliver a KISS (Keep It Simple Strategy) with scalable solutions effective in both outcomes and cost.

At the end of the day, a learning strategy needs to be laser-focused on a single question: how to further learning in all its forms to leverage an organization’s (or sector’s) mission. Building on the already-central role of learning, education and training, a learning strategy is urgently needed for the sector to survive and grow. We need to do new things in new ways to deliver on our mission faster, better, and further.

 Reda Sadki

Photo credit: Claus Wolf/flickr.com

Street view in Oxford

Learning Technologies in London and European MOOCs in Lausanne

Reda SadkiEvents, Thinking aloud, Travel

My feet hurt. I’ve just returned from a week-long trip for LSi.io pounding the pavements of London and Oxford, meeting 26 humanitarian, academic, and corporate people in four days. I wish to thank every organization and individual who took the time to welcome me and share thoughts, insights, and experiences. The common thread is that all these amazing people are working on the same wicked problem: how to transform learning in the crazy VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world that we live in.

Right after leaving IFRC, I tried to formulate the problem statement to a potential partner. Excerpt:

Currently, the humanitarian sector has no global platform for learning, education and training (LET), despite a widely-acknowledged human resource and skills shortage. In addition, the sector is deeply ensconced in face-to-face training culture, with many humanitarian workers earning at least part of their livelihood as trainers, and training events are key to developing social and professional networks but not to developing key competencies needed in the field. Whatever its merits, this approach to training cannot scale up to meet growing humanitarian needs. Also, the sector suffers from high turnover, lack of standardization in training practice, proliferation of education programs with no measurable benefits or relevance to operational needs, and a dearth of evaluation of learning outcomes. There are several cross-sector initiatives that are trying to address these problems, but these initiatives have ignored, so far, the disruption and rapid transformation in higher education through educational technology and its potential relevance for the humanitarian context.

Tomorrow, I’m headed to Google HQ in Zurich and, next week, will be attending EPFL’s European MOOC Summit.


Photo: Hitting the pavement in Oxford, 29 January 2014.

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.

The significance of technology for humanitarian education

Reda SadkiPublished articles

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

Since the rise of the internet in the early 1990s, the most obvious benefit offered by educational technology has been its potential ubiquity or the ability to learn anywhere, anytime. In development contexts, sceptics have asserted that the ‘digital divide’ restricts this benefit to the privileged few, as only 40 per cent of the world’s population is online. But such analysis neglects the rapid pace of change in extending mobile (and mobile, 3G-based broadband networks) access in low- and middle-income countries.

In many nations, the majority of web users use only mobile phones; the countries with the highest rates include Egypt (70 per cent) and India (59 per cent). In Africa, 85 per cent of the mobile-only web users access the internet with a ‘feature phone’, a device offering some but not all of the features of a smartphone. In high-income nations, a large minority of mobile web users are mobile-only, including the United States (25 per cent). Where, in many low- and middle-income nations, the mobile-only tend to be aged under 25, in high-income countries, particularly the United States, many mobile-only users are older people and many come from lower-income households (ITU, 2013). These statistics imply that for educational technology to be deployed effectively in the contexts of low-, middle- and high-income countries, a mobile-first strategy building on open, low-cost standards and tools is needed.

Education researchers Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis (2012) have described the ways in which technology transforms the economy of effort in education, enabling us to afford (both literally and figuratively) not only to make learning available anywhere, anytime, but also to provide learners with formative assessment and recursive feedback as they work. In this economy of ‘new learning’ (see figure), learners use technology actively to construct knowledge, designing meanings using multiple media at their disposal. By working together collaboratively, every learner is also a peer and teacher contributing to collective knowledge and intelligence that can be used to further thinking and action as well as encouraging ‘metacognition’ (thinking about thinking). Unlike education in the industrial age, which levelled ‘one-size-fits-all’ assumptions, new learning can afford to differentiate based on pre-existing knowledge, competencies and skills.

Figure 1 principles of online learning

In a new learning system, learners create together, giving each other feedback (and even feedback on feedback), sharing their inspirations and discoveries. Within their knowledge communities, they are connected and can work at their own pace, according to their own interests and capabilities. They are inspired to create through embedding sound, image and video within their texts for digital storytelling, situation reports, operational plans and more. This collaborative, flexible, motivating, participatory and supportive approach is not simply a nicer, kinder and gentler form of learning. Its pedagogical patterns closely emulate the core competencies of 21st century humanitarian workers, who are expected to be able to manage complex, overlapping knowledge flows, to work in networked configurations (rather than command-and-control structures) and to use participatory methodologies to partner with affected populations. If the ways humanitarians teach and learn do not explicitly develop these competencies, then formal education efforts will become increasingly ineffective. The amazing economy of effort afforded by educational technology is the only sustainable way to transform learning systems to meet the challenges of today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

Written by Reda Sadki. First published in the World Disasters Report 2013: Focus on technology and the future of humanitarian action. Photo: Buddhist monks on a slow boat at the Mekong River near the border of Laos-Cambodia, during a workshop to increase awareness regarding dolphin and fish conservation. There are only 12 dolphins left in this area and a few more further down stream. The temples of Laos were once seen as “universities” for monks. Lao monks are highly respected and revered in Lao communities. Photography © Ben Thé Man/Flickr.com.

Ancient Mayan port city of Tulum, Yucatán Peninsula. Personal collection.

Community health into the scalable, networked future of learning

Reda SadkiWriting

Preface to the IFRC Global Health Team’s Training Guidelines (2013) by Reda Sadki

“At the heart of a strong National Society” explains Strategy 2020, “is its nationwide network of locally organized branches or units with members and volunteers who have agreed to abide by the Fundamental Principles and the statutes of their National Society.” To achieve this aim, National Societies share a deeply-rooted culture of face-to-face (FTF) learning through training. This local, community-based Red Cross Red Crescent culture of learning is profoundly social: by attending a “training” at their local branch, a newcomer meets other like-minded people who share their thirst for learning to make a better future. It is also peer education: trainers and other educators are often volunteers themselves, living in the same communities as their trainees.

Although some National Societies have been early adopters of educational technology to deliver distance learning since the early 1990s – and IFRC’s Learning network has scaled up global educational opportunities since 2009 –, such initiatives do not appear to have changed the local, community-based, face-to-face training processes that start in the branch-as-classroom.

Quality in the history of Red Cross Red Crescent learning, education and training (LET) has been based on this combination of practical knowledge you can use, building social ties through face-to-face contact, and leveraging the power of peer education to learn by doing. No other humanitarian organization has ‘brick-and-mortar’ structures on a massive scale to embed public health education in each and every community.

The global volume of health training delivered by the Red Cross Red Crescent is indeed massive. For example, every year, 17 million trainees learn first aid skills face-to-face programs run by National Societies. These trainees then use their first aid skills to provide assistance to 46 million people.

In 2011, IFRC’s research into the social and economic value of its more than 13 million global volunteer workforce concluded that, while many volunteers work across multiple fields, the most volunteers – and the greatest proportion of value – are related to health promotion (IFRC 2011:7). Although the Red Cross and Red Crescent is “known mostly for its role in disasters”, this study highlighted that “the area in which most volunteers are engaged is health.” (IFRC 2011:8)

The social value of the health services delivered by Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers is particularly poignant in the context of a global, critical health workforce shortage. However, the recognition of our unique volunteer workforce is premised on our continued ability to ensure that they continually improve skills, knowledge and competencies to contribute to strengthening health systems.

In 2012, IFRC’s secretariat spent 18,485,821 CHF on a budget line titled “workshops and training”, roughly equivalent to 360,000 hours of in-person training – nearly a thousand hours per day. Every subject matter expert in IFRC’s Global Health Team includes the delivery of face-to-face training in his or her work plan, and many also develop training materials in the form of printed manuals or, more recently, online courses for IFRC’s Learning platform.

With the publication of these guidelines, the Global Health Team aims to recognize the significance of the pedagogical dimension of these training activities as the key determinant of quality in training. Indeed, it is only with a clear framework for how we teach and how we learn that we may know how to measure the learning outcomes, impact and effectiveness of such activities.

These Guidelines for face-to-face training provide detailed instructions first in how to assess learning needs to determine whether these can be addressed by face-to-face training. Only once this is established should training be developed using a rigorous methodology based on available evidence of how adult volunteers learn in Red Cross Red Crescent contexts. Last but not least, training activities should be evaluated not only with respect to improved knowledge and skills, but also improved performance for both the individual and the organization.

By adopting an approach based on needs analysis, these guidelines also highlight the potential for innovative approaches to training that leverage the amazing economy of effort achieved by appropriate use of educational technology and broadened approaches that synergize learning and education with training. A paradigm change is needed for training if it is to remain relevant to delivery science, primarily because of the changing nature of knowledge in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

In 1986, according to research by Robert Kelly of Carnegie-Mellon University, 75% of the knowledge needed to do your job was stored in your brain. By 2006, Kelly’s research found that this percentage had dropped to 10%. 90% of the knowledge we use depends on our connections with others. This is in part why, more than ever before, most of what people do in their jobs is currently acquired through experience, regardless of the amount of formal training received. If learning is less and less about recalling information, what then should training focus on?

This dilemma is compounded by the diminishing half-life of knowledge. As learning theorist George Siemens explains, “courses are fairly static, container-views of knowledge. Knowledge is dynamic—changing hourly, daily. [This] requires an understanding of the nature of the half-life of knowledge in [a field, to select] the right tools to keep content current for the learners.” (Siemens 2006:55). How do we train when knowledge flows too fast for processing or interpreting?

If improving performance of health workers in a rapidly-changing world rested solely on more structured, better-designed curricula, this would primarily reveal the underlying assumption or notion that the world has not really changed. Attempting to do more of what has been done in the past is not the answer. We need to do new things in new ways.

As acknowledged in IFRC’s Framework for building strong National Societies (2011), “in a world of changing needs, expectations and opportunities, our knowledge, skills, and competences must keep up to date to meet new demands. We need to address familiar problems by being more proficient in applying what works as well as by using the innovations and insights from new research and technologies that have the potential to bring better results.”

Traditional approaches are unlikely to be scalable. With 13.6 million Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers, no classroom is large enough. No individual is smart enough to tame the knowledge flows, no intervention is complete enough, no training program lasts long enough, and no solution is global enough.

The skills and processes that will make us health workers of tomorrow are not yet embedded in our educational structures. We do know, however, much of what is needed: The capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known. The ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.

These guidelines recognize the value of existing local knowledge, practices and understanding, and that incorporating them into the learning experience is a key challenge. Our local branches form a vast, global network of brick-and-mortar structures which can be used to anchor public health activities, but they currently reside at the bottom of each National Society’s top-down vertical pyramid. They are rarely linked to each other.

Strategy 2020 calls for IFRC to “draw inspiration from our shared history and tradition” while committing to finding creative, sustainable solutions to a changing world. Meeting the challenge in the future – to reinvent Red Cross Red Crescent health education in order to strengthen National Societies – may well depend on connecting branches to each other to extend our learning culture’s social, peer-based learning to form a vast, global knowledge community. In the 21st Century, such connections may no longer be a ‘nice-to-have’, and may well prove indispensable for anyone working for change at the community level, most obviously on global public health issues with local impact and consequences.

Branches connected to each other could support new forms of community-based public health practice in which local volunteers are linked to international delegates and public health and medical expertise in fluid, real-time, two-way knowledge conversations. Such networks will open new possibilities for a new learning system where community and global health workers create together, giving each other feedback (and even feedback on feedback), sharing their inspirations and discoveries. Within their knowledge communities, they will work at their own pace, according to their own interests and capabilities. They will use digital storytelling to explore and implement solutions, embracing complexity and adapting to volatility and uncertainty in ways that rapid health assessments, operational plans, and other current tools simply cannot. We will be lifelong learners, teaching each other practical skills and refining not only the methods but also the conduits for teaching and learning through constant practice.

These collaborative, flexible, motivating, participatory and supportive approaches are neither wishful thinking nor simply a nicer, kinder and gentler form of learning. Their pedagogical patterns closely emulate core competencies of twenty-first century humanitarian workers, who are expected to be able to manage complex crisscrossing knowledge flows, to work in networked configurations (rather than command-and-control structures), and to use participatory methodologies to partner with beneficiaries.

By asking questions about why we do training, by exploring why and how training can improve performance, these Guidelines represent a milestone on the road to the reinvention of the Red Cross Red Crescent delivery science that underpins how we service the health needs of vulnerable people.

Preface to the IFRC Global Health Team’s Training Guidelines (2013) by Reda Sadki

Image: Ancient Mayan port city of Tulum, Yucatán Peninsula. Personal collection.

View from the Learning Executive: Reda Sadki

Reda SadkiAbout me, Interviews

This article was first published by the ASTD’s Learning Executive Briefing.

By Ruth Palombo Weiss

Reda Sadki is the Senior Officer for Learning Systems at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

Q: Why do you think the Red Cross Movement has a deeply rooted culture of face-to-face training for its 13.6 million volunteers?

A: There is a deeply rooted culture of face-to-face training at the Red Cross because of our unique brick and mortar network of hundreds of thousands of branch offices all over the world. What drives people to the branches is that they want to learn a skill, such as first aid, disaster risk reduction, and we’re really good at teaching those things.

In the future, educational technology might enable us to connect branches to each other. Imagine what the person in Muskogee, Oklahoma, can learn from the Pakistani Red Crescent volunteer who lived through the Karachi, Pakistan flood in 2010, and who participated in the recovery efforts afterward. That sharing of knowledge and skills would be an enriching and valuable experience. Technology will enable us to put such connections at the heart of the volunteer experience.

Q: What are the challenges in connecting the 187 national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies and using social, peer-based learning to link them to each other in a vast, global knowledge community?

A: In the 21st Century, such connections may prove indispensable for anyone working for change at the community level, most obviously on global issues with local impact and consequences, such as climate change. We need to improve lateral connections by bringing technology into the branches. We also need to find ways to reassure the headquarters of each of these national societies that local, community-based, volunteer networks are a good thing and not threatening to existing hierarchies. Currently, our web-conferencing still feels like a sub-par experience compared to getting volunteers together.

We’re waiting for web-conferencing to create a presence similar to the power of face-to-face training. Google engineers have been trying to recreate the fireside chat with Google Hangouts. What makes the branch experience so powerful is you get to know people and spend time with them after the training is over. Some of the challenges are parallel to those of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and on-line education. Part of what’s at stake is can we recreate not only the knowledge transfer, but improve on the advantages of face-to-face encounters.

Q: Tell our readers about the online courses for specialized disaster response teams, how they are formatted, and how effective they have been.

A: The recruitment and preparation of IFRC’s specialized disaster response teams have ramped up their use of educational technology in the last three years by developing online courses. In 2009, we launched our first online CD-rom course: The World of Red Cross/Red Crescent. The intent was to show that eLearning was a serious thing. It’s a very information-heavy course in which there is little for the learner to do except try to retain enough information to pass the quiz.

We’re now doing scenario-based online courses where people have to problem-solve, make choices, and see the consequences of those choices.  We have moved to a technology that uses HTML 5 and responsive design, a technology that enables a course to reformat and resize, so it can be used on a tablet, smart phone, or desktop screen. The pedagogy is based on things that connect to our learning culture. The technology is based on the reality that people in emerging countries, if they have access to the Internet at all, are accessing it through a mobile device. For example, in Egypt, 80 percent of people have Internet access only though their cell phones.

Q: How has this pioneering use of online education as didactic prerequisites to lessen the information load during face-to-face training led to a broader conversation about the purpose of training and questions about the quality of current learning systems?

A: In 2010, the IFRC spent almost $24 million dollars at the Secretariat in Geneva on workshops and training, almost all of which were face-to-face. Initially, people questioned the legitimacy and efficacy of online learning. Then we realized we had never evaluated our face-to-face training. A big part of our efforts involved comparing online and blended learning to face-to-face learning. We referred to two meta-analysis studies published in 2010 comparing online with blended learning. These studies found that online learning gets a slightly better outcome, and showed no benefits from blended learning. Such evidence helped us shift the debate. There are many more complex and interesting issues we can explore, but the argument of which modality is better has been settled.

Now we can focus on when there is value to moving bodies and materials at high cost: what materials do we move, and what do these bodies do once they’re there? Our emergency health public coordinator has explained that when volunteers are in training, they hang out, get to know each other, and become friends. In the heat of an operation, when one volunteer has to tell someone that he is doing something wrong, that is likely to be accepted because of the friendship. So the question is how do we build such connections using educational technology.

Q: How has the Red Cross Learning Network stimulated new thinking in the humanitarian and development field and increased the magnitude, quality, and impact of humanitarian service delivery?

A:  To start, it has enabled volunteers to tap into a global knowledge community with no intermediaries prescribing or circumscribing what they should learn. We have found there are increasing numbers of people on our learning platform and those numbers are growing every month. There is a dynamic through which national staff and volunteers all over the world discover the learning platform on their own, and they see value in it for themselves. We have a completion rate of over 50 percent for the information transmission modules.

The learning platform tries to do two things. One is to encourage those who are eager to learn, to manage their own learning. That is at the heart of social learning. At the same time, we’re looking at helping learning and development managers to be able to use these tools. The message I give when I go to the various Red Cross headquarters is your staff and volunteers are already completing courses: would you like to know which courses they’re taking and how well they’re doing?  Would you then like to be able to prescribe a learning focus for teams that have performance gaps? We need both a structured and managed approach to learning as well as a people-driven approach.

Q: Are your new eLearning platforms cost-effective and how well do they work?

A: To deliver one-hour of training online through the learning platform costs a licensing fee of $0.50. Delivering one hour of face- to-face training is roughly $50 USD. Clearly, it’s 100 times cheaper to deliver learning online. This is the argument which gets senior management’s attention. It’s cheaper, but can it possibly be as good?  Because we haven’t in the past evaluated the face-to-face training, there is no secretariat-wide effort to evaluate training for all 187 headquarters. Comparing online to face-to-face is tough, and we are currently building an evaluation framework for both kinds of learning, where all new courses are required to include a follow-up evaluation.

The cost effectiveness is complicated, because the development of an online course is more expensive than that for face-to-face. With face-to-face, someone develops a power point, we give him a plane ticket, and he gives the lecture. You can have multiple branches funding that kind of training, and it can be spread out over time, so any time a national society has a budget, they organize a new training module. However, over time the cost really adds up.

On the other hand, if you want to design a new online course, you have to think through the pedagogy, the technology, the content, and that’s all front-loaded work. Finding the money for that work on the promise of effectiveness has turned out to be challenging. We want to keep all of the good things about the face-to-face culture, but we also need to make sure every dollar is used to maximize the services to vulnerable people, which is the heart of our mission.

Q:  How might a collaborative learning community be developed for volunteers across language and other barriers?

A:  Crowd sourcing is the easy answer. We already have virtual volunteers doing amazing things, such as crisis mapping, entirely online.  An example is the Haiti earthquake. There were thousands of people online (such as rescue teams) who voluntarily collected and analyzed data. There is a lot of debate in the humanitarian world as how to use that, and one of the problems is that we need to be massively multi-lingual. Our learning platform is being translated into 38 different languages, and we’re using a needs-driven approach. When a Red Cross unit says they need a course in the local language, then we’ll mobilize resources to provide the content.

Q: What were the results of the pilot “new learning” program, based on research on open learning and MOOCs, to promote global, open, active learning (GOAL)? 

A:  The Global Youth Conference brought together in Vienna, Austria, 155 youth leaders from all over the world. We had 775 people from over 70 countries working together online – four times as many learning online as gathered for the conference events. The Vienna event lasted three days, whereas online, people worked together for six weeks on the same four thematic areas. We asked people to self-assess how much they learned, and 58 percent reported working consistently on the open learning activities. We had more than 40 percent who spent at least one hour each week on the learning activities, and 58 percent reported they had learned a lot. Many of those people have kept the connections they’ve established during the program. We are now seeing young people organizing their own learning activities on issues such as nuclear disarmament, using the tools they discovered in the GOAL program.

Reda Sadki is the Senior Learning Systems Officer in the Learning and Research Department of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

Source: http://www.astd.org/Publications/Newsletters/LX-Briefing/LXB-Archives/2013/08/View-from-the-Learning-Executive