Hub and spokes by Robert Couse-Baker

Against the hegemony of the ‘International Trainer’: Transforming learning to decolonize global health

Reda Sadki Writing

If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break. When the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay. – Led Zeppelin

While the International Trainer lands at the airport, is chauffeured to her hotel, and dutifully reviews her slides and prepares her materials, a literally and figuratively captive audience has been herded at great cost to that same hotel, lured in by a perverse combination of incentives. The costs are mostly related to the incidentals of travel and accommodation, but the stakes are significant. Never mind that the outcomes are unlikely to be evaluated in any meaningful way. The symbolism of such ‘learning theater’ is well-rehearsed. Its funding is seldom questioned. In any case, questioning its value does not seem to slow down expenditure, much less lead to meaningful change in practice. 

The whole affair is a fascinating microcosm of the broader power relationships that underpin global development. Let us explore how this could be, from the vantage point of the International Training Specialist.

You love training. It is indeed a powerful experience to be the ‘sage on the stage’, presenting, explaining, and demonstrating. Nowhere is that power more evident than in the architecture of an international training. It is power, and in fact it is by analyzing the imbalance of power that we are more likely to make sense of the peculiar role ascribed to the International Trainer in global health.

Bringing knowledge to those who are assumed not to know, to lack capacity, feels rewarding but is based on an assumption of superiority over others. Yet, it feels like you cannot possibly be doing anything wrong. How could teaching be harmful? You are here to help them, after all. For you, it is a profoundly humanizing experience to spend quality time with a small group, at great cost. You are intuitively convinced that it is time and money well-spent. You have observed your trainees’ eyes light up with the knowledge you have given them. They are consistently grateful. You love training. And you are convinced that they love being trained. Here they are, lined up in neat rows or – if you are a progressive trainer – circles, smiling and seemingly eager to receive your expertise.

Yes, there are lingering questions about outcomes. You seldom hear how things turn out after flying back to Atlanta. Your job, you tell yourself, is to deliver training. Mission accomplished. Measuring learning, you tell yourself, is difficult. But this does not worry you. You feel that it is working, and that is good enough for you. No one is really questioning your work, anyway. Every project has a budget line to cover travel, accommodation, and per diem. Job security seems guaranteed and lifelong. What a wonderful business to be in: a cost center that is tacitly accepted as necessary.

Empowered by such convictions, you are offended when you first hear about teaching machines. The idea seems simply absurd. You do not take it seriously. Its advocates are outsiders to the ‘training space’ that is your preserve. They are a strange bunch, seemingly passionate about things that make no sense to you. It sounds like they want to replace the complex human experiences that you love with something else. And that you may not be part of that ‘something else.’

You scoff at the potential use of technology to support learning. “They [your trainees] will never have access”, you exclaim. “It is too expensive and they do not even have X.” (X will first be electricity, then wifi, then mobile connectivity, but you dismiss the fact that things are changing quickly.) The proponents of digital learning obviously do not know everything you know about the reality of work and learning in the field.  You do not question how you know what you know. Your assumptions form blinders that you do not know you wear.

Managers and donors may occasionally challenge you. You have become quite effective at advocating for more training. Managers, you say, need to support staff development by accepting that people should stop work in order to learn. You have persuaded donors that training is the solution, even though you add that it is not always that. They have invested hundreds of millions of dollars, with no evidence of impact, but, curiously, remain willing to blindly invest more. You feel that this is an accomplishment, evidence of the validity and success of your craft.

You do not, by any means, feel responsible for the lack of evidence. Your experience, on a personal level, is sufficient. You are an International Trainer. Let the evaluators deal with that. Change at the level system, you think, is above your pay grade. You have no incentive to question your role in that system. You get paid at the end of each month, no matter the outcomes.

For as long as you can, you deny that meaningful learning can happen online. You ignore the conclusions of the two largest meta-analyses comparing modes of learning (face-to-face, blended, and online). 

Because you sit in an institution that is a key player in global health, your denial does have consequences. Your “expertise” results in startlingly ineffective and improductive investments. Yet no one is holding you accountable for your convictions, your priorities, or your disregard for evidence. Your seniority leads others to consider you as the authority in your domain of expertise. You wield authority without accountability, with all the risk that entails, but somehow manage to remain unscathed.

Denial becomes harder to maintain over time. Reluctantly, you timidly recognize that perhaps online learning may be used to transmit information, albeit in limited ways. You become an advocate for click-through e-learning modules that are proliferating in international organizations, often promoted by human resources departments. Once again, you disregard the evidence already available about the limited effectiveness of this kind of “e-learning”. In a way, the inefficacy of such modules is your job security. At best, your teaching methods are being mimicked in an inferior digital format. That is reassuring. The technology is so imperfect and frustrating, you tell yourself that a machine presenting slides will never be as compelling as you can be in that hotel auditorium. And good luck getting the participants to show up and pay attention online, while your audiences remain captive.

Peer learning scares you. Experts teach. Not everyone can or should. Peers can, at best, share their experience. You are convinced that this should not happen without proper supervision. If peers support each other in a country in order to get something done, but there is no International Trainer present to observe, assess, or validate it, how could it be making a difference? More generally, you dismiss self-reporting as unreliable, doubting in both your trainees’ honesty or perhaps their intellectual ability to describe or analyze what they are doing or how they are doing it. You are the only one who can truly know. You are the International Trainer.

As donors timidly begin to question the value of your model, you double down on training as you have always done it. You look for arguments to undermine emerging approaches. Some are fragile innovations being offered by new entrants no one had ever heard of. Like the earlier proponents of digital learning, their mental models are completely foreign to you. You are convinced that your prevailing model is correct and therefore does not need to be questioned. When they present promising results, you either dismiss them or look for limitations and frailties. The latter are inherent to any innovation, but you use your established institutional position to dismiss, undermine, and marginalize. You believe that is your role. Your ability to influence is primarily negative, because the approaches you have advocated have so clearly failed. In fact, you hope that no one will start to ask questions about your outcomes. And, luckily, no one does.

Scaremongering does seem to work with your global health colleagues. Innovation may be a buzzword but it is nowhere in their work plans or performance objectives. They are already risk-adverse in order to keep their jobs, even those who have “innovation” in their titles. It is implicitly an existential question: if people in countries turned out to have indigenous expertise of their own contexts, and global knowledge is increasingly available through digital networks, this would threaten a number of prevailing assumptions about why and how the International Trainer is needed.

Then came the pandemic.

Don’t cancel or postpone your conference, workshop, or training – go digital

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar, Events

How we respond to the threat of a disaster is critical.

Organizations planning physical-world events have a choice:

  • You can cancel or postpone your event OR
  • You can go digital.

Why not go digital?

  • You think it cannot be done.
  • You do not know how to do it.
  • You believe the experience will be inferior.

It can be done. You can learn. You are likely to be surprised by how much you can achieve.

The Geneva Learning Foundation is inviting conference and other event organizers to a Special Event in which we will share how you can rapidly move or ‘pivot’ your events online.

What is The Geneva Learning Foundation?

The Geneva Learning Foundation is a Swiss non-profit with the mission to develop trial, and scale up new ways to lead change to tackle the challenges that threaten our societies.

We are purely digital. This means all of our operations and activities take place online.

  • Nearly every day, we organize and facilitate one or more digital events that convene hundreds or thousands of participants from all over the world.
  • We want to help other organizations by sharing our experience and know-how.

Why are we doing this?

  • We believe that the digital transformation can strengthen the resilience of our societies.
  • Cancelling or postponing a conference weakens ongoing work that may be significant or important.

Why attend this Special Event?

If you are planning a conference:

  • During this Special Event, we will share the critical success factors for digital events. You are likely to be surprised by what we have found makes the greatest difference.
  • Attendees will receive an invitation to join our #DigitalConference short course, in which you actually build a practical plan you can use to go digital.

If you are an event organizer, we know you may be already facing severe consequences.

  • If you have experience in providing services to design and run digital events, we invite you to share your services with participants.
  • If you have been primarily focused on physical-world events, we invite you to share how you are adapting.

Here is a case study.

We just organized a conference that was attended by more than 1,700 participants from 95 countries, including those hardest hit by COVID-19.

  • This conference ran in English 3-13 March and in French 16-30 March.
  • World-class presenters shared their expertise with practitioners.
  • Dialogue was constant – 24 hours a day, given participants spread across time zones.

We were awed by the number and diversity of participants and the quality of their contributions in this Pre-Course Conference.

How do we compare digital and physical? It is comparable?

In the past, our partner had organized three successive face-to-face events in Barcelona and Dar Es Salaam.

  • Each event was attended by around 80 people.
  • Each event was well-planned and executed.
  • Each time, 80 people went back to their countries with new knowledge and relationships.

After the third time, our partner was ready to go digital.

Previous conferences were limited to around 80 participants.

  • They required everyone to stop their work in order to travel.
  • This is the hidden opportunity cost of face-to-face conferences.
  • It often adds up to far more than the actual expenditure on the event itself.

What about the intangible serendipity of a conference?

We know the real value of a physical event resides in the impromptu meetings of minds and bodies on the conference floor.

  • Sharing a drink or a meal provides the occasion to establish or strengthen informal relationships.
  • Yes, there are dozens of digital tools that can match individuals and organizations, schedule ad hoc meets, and stir idea generation and serendipity.
  • Yet, it is undeniable that some aspects – and the ones that matter – are difficult to replicate.

Conversely, you may discover new ways of doing new things in a digital conference that can accelerate and multiply serendipity.

If you cancel or postpone, you will get nothing.

Is it expensive?

  • No. You can make an awesome event digital using only free tools.
  • You can also hire people and providers with the right combination of tools, talent, and vision.
  • The secret sauce is in the know-how required: not to use the tools, but to figure out how to both replicate and augment the experience you wish to create.

This is where organizations and service providers with experience can help.

Is it difficult or time-consuming?

No. If you already have an event scheduled, there is a simple method to:

  • Identify what is the value and significance provided by the event – including the intangible, serendipitous bits
  • Think through how to recreate and augment this value
  • Convert everything you planned into a digital format


Pros and cons of online courses

Reda Sadki Writing

“Please, I need someone to enlighten me on the pros and cons of online courses for active learning and professional development.”

There is quite a bit of contextual information missing to decode what is really being asked. We only know that it is an individual professional from an anglophone country in Africa. Still, I can think of at least three ways to answer this question.

Answer #1. Wrong question.

This is the wrong question. Pros and cons depend on the quality of the pedagogy, the teaching and facilitation team, the resources, technologies used, context, learning and learner objectives… everything except the medium.

Review a course against criteria like the above, not as an abstract consideration. Define your own goals. What are you hoping to achieve?

What is the relationship between perceived quality and cost?

The residential experience is still perceived as the gold standard for education. And it tends to be the most expensive.

To what extent are your choices driven by an economic imperative?

Are you considering an online course because you cannot afford a residential experience or it is otherwise not feasible (lack of time, inability to travel)? Are you assuming that lower cost signifies lower quality? What kind of credential will have value that you are willing to pay for? Will potential employers recognize this credential?

Answer #2. The research says digital is better.

Years ago, Bill Cope pointed me to the two most comprehensive meta-analyses (here and here) comparing online, blended, and face-to-face learning outcomes. One way to summarize these studies? Since 1992, people who learn online get slightly better learning outcomes than those who learn face-to-face, after leveling for all other differences. Furthermore, there appeared to be no benefit from blended learning, except for the fact that people tend to spend more time learning because they do more work, tending to repeat practice online with practice face-to-face.

Of course, it is much more complicated than that.

People fear losing per diem (receiving cash for attendance), the ability to create new relationships and see people they know and work with remotely, travel and other perks, time away from work… that is usually where resistance to digital learning comes from. There is also a lot of really bad, ineffective digital learning that is very damaging, replicating the worst of face-to-face methods and practice.

Learning outcomes are often just one goal being sought through training. (Conventional instructional design sees this as a problem. In fact, it is an amazing opportunity for those of us who are interested in education as a philosophy for change.)

Access to opportunities, professional network development, credentials of value, and many other goals may actually be more valued by learners than the knowledge acquired. Knowledge acquisition is likely to be the least valuable part of learning beyond the basics.

Adapted from: Staton, M.P., 2013. Unbundling Higher Education, A Doubly Updated Framework.

Answer #3. It’s all digital, now.

The key consideration is the rate of change of the digital transformation that is sweeping across our societies. This has enabled new ways to work and learn remotely. For example, coaches and mentors will hold Skype calls without even realizing that they have gone “digital” and are now practicing digital learning. They may in fact still be adamant about their skepticism that it is possible “learn online” and remain attached to sharing physical space to practice their craft, oblivious to their own dependence on technology and the way it benefits them.

The change is profound. Technology is embedded not only in our every day work but in the fabric of our lives and cultures.  

Almost a decade ago, Nathan Jurgenson coined the term digital dualism, “the habit of viewing the online and offline as largely distinct.”

“But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say ‘IRL’ to mean offline: Facebook is real life.

Of course, digital learning is imperfect. It remains horribly clunky, ironically difficult to use, and mired with the legacy of transmissive lectures, an obsession with summative assessment, and a foggy nebula of evidence. Yet that it beside the point. Why? It is very early days and what matters is the accelerating pace of change: everything in digital learning is changing all the time, with new tools, platforms, processes constantly improving.

With face-to-face training, the rate of change is, to put it politely, slow. Face-to-face is a wonderful medium. Sharing physical space is our most familiar gateway to intimacy. It is an “always-on” experience, rendering isolation from other humans painful in some instances and a relief in others. However, the use of physical space for learning has finite limits, as some of the basic constraints of physical space are immutable. For example, simultaneous dialogue in which everyone has a voice is difficult to achieve in a physical space. (It’s called ‘everyone’s yelling at each other’ in a room and the chat box in a digital space.) It works best in formats that are low volume due to high cost, and the most effective formats are difficult if not impossible to scale.

The possibilities with digital seem endless by comparison — despite the current clunkiness, limitations, and frustrations that face-to-face trainers may feel because they lose the familiarity of experience that they are used to, digital means are enabling new ways of doing new things. And that is what we need because it is obvious that the conventional means we have been using are failing to deliver the outcomes we need.

What does this answer mean to the potential purchaser of education? If digital is the new default, quality and value in education are in flux, more than they have been for centuries. There are new factors to consider in the complex equation of when and how to invest in one’s professional development. The medium is just one consideration, but may not be a matter of choice.

Image: International fruit combo. Personal collection.

Inside a lava tube on Hawai'i (Personal collection)

Ashes to ashes

Reda Sadki Writing

L&D is dead.

Pushing us down the blind alley of technological solutionism, the learning technologists have demoted learning to tool selection.

  • Microlearning reduces the obsession with knowledge acquisition from a one-hour video to 60 one-minute videos.
  • Gamification is lipstick on the pig of behaviorism.
  • xAPI and other “X”-buzzwords are just the latest tin con by desperate LMS vendors.
  • Fantasizing that VR or AR will save us perpetuates the persistent confusion between tools and process.

As ‘learning leaders’ we are condemning ourselves to irrelevance by chasing ephemeral fads, investing in empty gimmicks, and embracing bearded gurus spouting non-sense.

  • ‘Learning in the flow of work’ is a successful consultant’s buzz word, but will not help us any more than 70-20-10 did.
  • Leadership ‘development’ remains about pampering a few executives old enough to appreciate cushy hotel and conference rooms.
  • Kirkpatrick died, replaced by a coterie of rabid Kirkpatrick wannabes frothing at the mouth about their new, convoluted learning ‘measurement’ systems, pretending they are now driven by research, in denial that evidence for education in general – and for learning and development in particular – is pathetically weak.

Clutching the pearls of ‘strategic relevance’ to the business supported by pseudo-studies to measure ROI is, at best, a tenuous proposition when every choice in the labyrinth of possibilities leads to the dead end of a cost center in perpetuity.

How could the role of education for the future be limited to providing better tools, in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution or Second Machine Age, in which a range of new technologies are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds?

It is mostly a failure of imagination. That is the only reason to shed a tear.

Image: Inside a lava tube, Kazumura Cave, Pahoa, Hawai’i (Personal collection).

Diving platform on Graveyard Hill in Kabul from TV-Hill, Afghanistan. Sven Dirks, Wien

The significance of digital platforms to the business

Reda Sadki Learning strategy, Thinking aloud, Writing

Business gets done by groups in workshops and meetings and by individuals in private conversation. There is an undeniable cultural advantage for diplomacy that comes from looking your interlocutor in the eye.

Emerging digital platforms are in the margins of this business.

The pioneers are creaky in their infrastructure and, ironically, playing catch-up. They have long lost the initial burst of enthusiasm that led to their creation. Yet they are still here, alive and kicking with funding that can support, in principle, their reinvention. For this, they need courage and creativity, especially if they function in a bureaucratic environment.

Then there are new platforms in search of purpose and the users it would bring. Sometimes, it is the other way around.

No platform is perfect. All of them have strengths, experience, insights, and the potential to be more in the future than what they are now. Some have already achieved individual impact and continue to do so.

There is no doubt in my mind that, sooner than we think, our platforms – or the ones that will replace them – will be core to achieving the strategy being defined now for the coming decade.

Digital transformation has swallowed enough industries that we now understand how it works.

If you think about the newspaper industry, their web sites started in the margins too.

Digital technologies provide a new economy of effort. In our context, we now have the means to address professionals working in the very communities where targets are either achieved or not. In fact, two-thirds of our cohorts do not work in the capital city but in the regions and districts.

Bypassing established gatekeepers and pyramidal hierarchies to go “straight to the customer” undeniably brings new challenges.

What is the incentive for collaboration between digital platforms? We are all competing for the same resources, jostling for recognition, striving to demonstrate that we are contributing to the business.

There are practical, operational reasons to share content, ideas, lessons learned. This can help each platform improve, for the benefit of the network that we all want to serve. Such service improvement is necessary and important.

We can imagine a collective effort in which platforms rally around a shared goal and establish a shared measurement system to track progress.

Yet, this too would be short-sighted.

Yes, through a process of accretion, digital platforms will move from margin to center. They will not only be relevant to the business, they will be the business.

The opportunity is for us to harness this process and accelerate the transformation so that it serves the strategic goals that are being defined today.

To seize this opportunity, we need to start with the reality check:

  • Access is no longer the problem. (There is still a border beyond which there are no cell phone towers, but this border keeps receding.)
  • Digital literacy is the problem.

Many learners in these platforms are discovering key online resources, available for years on the open web. A small but significant proportion may be part of the next billion of Internet users, joining to learn, not to surf.

For this, we need a “no wrong door policy”. Wherever people enter the system, they need to find the pipes or pathways that will connect them to the destination that will help them solve the problem they are tackling. This is not about finding content, but the process of discovery that comes from connecting with others.

The quality of the pipes will determine how quickly platforms become core business, rather than a nice-to-have.

Image: Diving platform on Graveyard Hill in Kabul from TV-Hill, Afghanistan. Photo by Sven Dirks, Wien.

From knowledge to impact

Think and do

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

The assumption that countries have the capacity to take on recommendations from the best available knowledge, achieve understanding, and turn them into effective policy and action, leaves unanswered the mechanisms through which a publication, a series of meetings, or a policy comparison may lead to change.

Technology has already transformed the ability of international organizations to move from knowledge production and diplomacy to new forms of scalable, networked action needed to tackle complex global challenges. This has created a significant opportunity for leaders to deliver on their mission.

Some organizations are already offering high-quality, multi-lingual learning. Many are using digital technologies to scale, often at the cost of quality, helping large numbers of learners develop competencies. On their own, these are no longer innovative – much less transformative – goals. Several international organizations have built corporate universities and other types of learning functions that remain confined to the margins of the business and under threat from the next restructuring. None of these initiatives have moved the needle of impact.

At the Geneva Learning Foundation, we have developed a low-cost, scalable package of interventions for international organizations to leverage digital transformation to: (1) bridge the gap between thinking and doing at country level; and (2) foster the emergence of country leadership for positive change.

In our first three years, we have worked with partners across several thematic areas, developing this package to translate global guidelines into effective local action, to support capability development from competency to implementation, and to perform multi-country peer review at scale.

This package can complement or replace existing low-volume, high-cost face-to-face workshops and conferences that are difficult to scale and measure.

It is entirely digital (motivating participants without offering travel, hotel, or per diem) and embedded into work (participants do not need to stop work), significantly reducing both expenditure and opportunity cost, while improving efficacy.

It has fostered the emergence of informal, self-led and motivated groupings of professionals operating across agencies that may provide a different kind of lever for systemic change than traditional top-down approaches to addressing challenges and can replaced failed, conventional training-of-trainer and “cascade” models.

Recognizing the value of such emergent dynamics creates authentic opportunities to accelerate the transformation for impact.

Fostering such emergence is the hard part.

Last but not least, our business modelling demonstrates that, if the organization has healthy relationships with its stakeholders, financial sustainability (cost recovery) can be achieved within three years, so this is not one more mechanism dependent on donor good will.

As we have seen existing partnerships leads to promising results – above and beyond our own expectations – we are slowly growing in confidence about the strengths and sustainability of what began as a series of small-scale pilot projects and experiments.

Along the way, we have also learned how difficult it is to find the right mix of ingredients to move from ideas to successful execution to develop such a programme if it is to contribute to systemic change.

Image: Labyrinth in Trigonos, by Reda Sadki.

Walled garden

From ivory tower to walled garden

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

Question: “So what learning platform do you use?”

Answer: “The Internet.”

I first remember hearing the phrase “Everyone hates their LMS” from a defrocked priest of higher education.

That made so much sense. At the time, I was wrestling with a stupid, clunky corporate learning management system designed for the most paranoid kind of HR department, touting its 10,000 features, none of which could do what we actually needed. Moodle seemed equally clunky, its pedagogical aspirations lost in the labyrinth of open source development.

The first breakthrough happened when, inspired by connectivist MOOCs, I figured out we could run an open learning journey without an LMS, using nothing more than a blog and a Twitter account. (That defrocked priest dubbed it “FrankenMOOC”, but he was also trying to sell me on using his preferred LMS.) There was something profoundly liberating about working outside the confines of a platform. However, the connectivist ideal proved to be a different kind of labyrinth, with only a chosen few who enjoyed wandering around or getting lost in it.

Digital market share is often measured by the size of your walled garden. By that measure, Facebook rules them all. In education, Moodle must certainly have the largest, albeit balkanized, walled garden.

This is not about the merit or demerit of an LMS or a learning theory. You are missing the point. And my vantage point sits outside of higher education.

Google’s ubiquitous search provides an interesting exception. By default, its “garden” is the entire Internet. This is how I understand the failure of Google+ as a missed opportunity. Why build a wall when search results could have gone social? (There are smatterings of this in search, for example when results show you reviews or enable you to connect with your search results.)

There is no parallel to this in higher education, where the market is driven by aggregators who partner with universities to leverage, as Burck Smith summarizes it, the “‘iron triangle’ of input-focused accreditation, taxpayer subsidies tied to accreditation, and subjective course articulation”.

It is a fundamental mistake to start building a digital learning system with the choice of platform, for at least two reasons.

First, there is no one platform that will do the job. This is especially true if you are interested in doing more than offering “high-quality learning” and competencies but want to fully leverage the potential of the digital transformation to drive change to tackle complex, global problems. The “course” is the commencement, not the end point. Implementation and impact are no longer the horizon. They are the rational goal that justifies investment in professional education.

Second, focusing on the platform inevitably devolves a learning initiative into a technology project. This is what happened to Moodle. It is akin to e-learning development in which media production metastizes into costly bells-and-whistles.

I know of only one platform that is the pure implementation of a strong pedagogical model. Unfortunately, despite the relevance of its pedagogical model for our future, its technology framework was also built on assumptions of the past, and it is just as proprietary as otherwise inferior commercial platforms.

What few saw coming was the digital transformation that, ironically, has made learning technologists and their learning platforms obsolete.

As technology embedded into the fabric of our cultures, it makes increasingly little sense to refer to a learning initiative as “digital” or “online”. It is just learning. The platforms used to support it should be either those that are already embedded in daily work or whatever the best available product happens to be at the moment, except where specific processes can be automated or facilitated by a specialized tool.

So, what about assessment, credentialing and record-keeping?

The first two benefit from being uncoupled from the process that supports knowledge acquisition and capability development. Sure, we can build separate assessment and credentialing based on direct observation and other forms of testing. This is where subject matter experts can be useful. However, dedicating resources to assessment in an artificial environment may not be nearly as good as figuring out how to do assessment in situ, in line with a philosophy of education that is about fostering leadership and innovation to drive change. Getting results and achieving impact should be the new credential of value.

Why are badges and other forms of micro-credentialing going nowhere fast? First, cracking the armor of accreditation is difficult given the capacity of higher education to resist change. Second, credentialing skills, knowledge, and competencies is no longer the signal that carries value.

The last one is a data problem. Build a modern database. Figure out how to get the data you need in and out. You do not need a learning management system to do that.

Image: Walled garden. Personal collection.

Subject matter experts as a learning problem

Reda Sadki Writing

Copenhagen. I chat with two “learning consultants”, whose job it is in their respective universities to help faculty improve how they teach.

Much to my dismay, I understand that their role is perceived as being about the adoption of new tools (“Should I use Adobe Connect or Zoom?”). Yet they are a case in point that learning technologists provide a rare opportunity for university faculty to think through how they teach.

In such institutions of teaching and learning, guess who is paid more?

Cue Felder’s infamous quote: “College teaching may be the only skilled profession for which systematic training is neither required nor provided – pizza delivery jobs come with more instruction.”

Subject matter experts are a problem.

They are expensive. If they are good, they tend to be too busy to contribute.

They often confuse knowing with teaching.

Their best intention is to transmit what they know.

They are disappointed and stymied by the apparent passivity of learners. “I wish my students would participate more!”

This problem is compounded by peer learning. It is legitimate to yearn for validation from an established expert. However, the shining light of expertise can blind learners to the potential of what they might achieve together.

What if we flipped convention on its head? Subject matter expertise becomes one input. An important one. But it is pedagogy in the driver’s seat. How we come to know trumps what we know. (What we need to know changes so fast, the former is more important than the latter.)

Renewed relevance of subject matter experts may be in supporting implementation and progression to impact, not in teaching and learning. The expertise that matters is in knowing how to get business done, how to get to a result, how to negotiate the context.

But, then again, teaching and learning that is relevant should encompass that journey to implementation and impact.

If it does not, it is not teaching and there is no learning.

Photo: Bryggerness Plads, Copenhagen (March 2019). Personal collection.


Reda Sadki Writing

We struggle with the measurement of learning.

Elaborate frameworks compete for attention. The sophistication of complexity theory or fractals, the business speak of ROI, levels, pyramids, concentric circles… every learning guru peddles a model to describe and diagnose the effects of what we try to do – and what learners actually do most often on their own.

How can we possibly describe the complex chain of correlation and causation between a learning intervention or incident and an outcome?

Is there an important distinction separating knowledge or skills “transfer” from the progression to implementation and, ultimately, impact? How much of a difference can we actually make on performance outcomes or human capital development, when so much is related to the environment’s learning culture?

I described a few of the outcomes we are observing for our most advanced global programme. Learners are transmuted into teachers, leaders, and facilitators. In some countries, learners are self-organizing to take on issues that matter to them, evolving course projects into a potentially transformative agenda.

“What you are doing is magic.”

Some are afraid of magic. Others try to mimic it, trying to replicate the secret sauce.

We are not, in fact, magicians. There is no secret sauce. The tool does not enable the process.

It is not about the platform, nor about the network. These outcomes result from modestly intersecting the science of learning with real, lived learning culture and from reframing education as philosophy for change in the Digital Age.

That, and a lot of elbow grease. Also known as execution.

Impact becomes something tangible once we start connecting the dots between course, context, and individuals.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” states the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws.

So maybe we have discovered a corollary law about “sufficiently advanced” learning.

Image: The 600-MeV Synchrocyclotron, which came into operation in 1957, was CERN’s first accelerator. Personal collection.

Humanitarian Leadership Academy merges with Save the Children UK

Reda Sadki Writing

I asked three questions, four years ago, as a sympathetic observer eager to see a learning organization – launched with much fanfare and 20 million British pounds of DFID support – help improve humanitarian work.

Never really got an answer. Until today.

It turns out that the Humanitarian Leadership Academy is being absorbed into the UK’s largest international NGO. (Save the Children originally lobbied for the Academy’s startup funding and hosted it, yet never entrusted the Academy with its own training…)

The Academy consistently touted the snake oil of gamification or fads like the “Social Age” under the guise of “innovation” (often seemingly for its own sake), fig leaves for a startling lack of strategic thinking and an eerie vacuum of learning leadership. Never mind the questionable donors, it is now clear that the Academy’s roots in charity and “free training” made it mission impossible to not just explore but invent and then execute new business models to generate revenue from training. However, the worst contradiction, in my view, is that the Academy chose to focus on transmissive learning models (such as “click-through” e-learning, known to be ineffective, limited to improving recall, which may be one of the least-needed skills needed by humanitarians) aimed at cramming global knowledge down the throats of local actors… while preaching the localization of aid. This was unlikely to lead to a sustainable approach, to put it politely. (Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such poor choices will be reconsidered in the merger.)

It requires a leap of faith to hope that the many strengths of the UK’s Save the Children might enable what is left of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy’s mission to find more productive paths to make a difference, given these choices of the past.

I wish Saba (a brilliant Save the Children career executive who, in the past, excelled at navigating its internal politics) and her team (those that remain, as the smarter senior managers jumped ship early) the best and continue to fervently hope that they will find productive ways to advocate for the strategic relevance of new ways to learn in order to achieve impact.

Photo: Inside the Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland. Personal collection.