Thursday, January 31, 2013

New ways of learning about the new Africa- an online interactive learning trajectory

An interactive online learning trajectory for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
A blogpost written in collaboration with Charlotte Staats, Sibrenne Wagenaar and Robert Dijksterhuis 

When you think about Africa do you think about lions, hunger, poverty and war? Africa is one of the poorest regions in the world, while Africa is the continent with 6 countries in the top 10 fastest growing economies. Within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is important that officials dealing with Africa have actual knowledge of this continent that is developing rapidly. A training day is easy to organise, but potential participants for precisely this subject work at embassies around the world ...  

How to support organisational learning in this case? Fortunately, modern technology is making it possible now to remotely communicate with one another. The Learning and Development Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was this time convinced that online learning should be organised. E-learning? An individual learning approach was not favored and besides, current developments and policy issues are changing constantly, think of the fact that we have a new government in the Netherlands. Experiences with traditional e-learning modules have shown this approach is too static, videos, descriptions and assignments. In the case of "The New Africa" however, it was of great importance to be able to adjust content easy and to co-create new insights with the specialists in the Hague and the embassies. 

Online, interactive and up-to-date In 2011, the Ministry organized a training day on 'the New Africa': 1 trainer, 20 participants, a physical space and a clear program of presentations, assignments, dialogue and two case-contributors. The day was well appreciated. But looking at the potential audience it seemed valuable to try and offer this training online and at a global scale. To this end, the Ministry organised a four-week online training. Important principles
  • easily accessible online from all over the world
  • Participants work within their own time to the training, within certain time period;  
  • Group assignments to promote the group feeling and engagement 
  • Once per week a synchronous activity to stimulate dialogue and engagement
  • Content easy to adjust depending on learning needs of the group; 
  • Objectives to be achieved through discussion and interaction  
  • Didactics tailored online learning: visual and interactive; 
  • Also available for local staff at the embassies: in English.

Design of the online training  moodle
We used Moodle as the main platform, it is an e-learning platform already available within the Ministry, however, it had never been used interactively. An important advantage of Moodle is that the online learning environment is quite easily to adjust without having any specific IT expertise. The team consisted of: a content expert- the strategic policy adviser Africa, an adviser Learning and Development from the Ministry and two external online facilitators who have experience with online learning (myself and Sibrenne Wagenaar). 

We found it important to offer a clear structure: what is the theme, what do we ask from participants because participants were not accustomed to online and self-directed learning. The design was eventually composed of four weeks, with each week having a specific theme. Each week started on Monday with a 10-minute explanation by video by the content expert. Participants could then exchange questions and ideas with each other on the forum. On the second day of every week there was a light exercise offered, such as a quiz where the participants were given a particular graph and had to guess what the graph was about. The third day of the week was reserved for a webinar at a fixed time. This webinar had a guest speaker from practice. The webinars were recorded so participants who could not attend the webinar could watch them afterwards. In addition to the weekly themes, the participants worked in groups on a specific theme of interest, during the last webinar they had space to present their findings to the rest of the group.

And how did it work out? 
A design is always beautiful, but practice is more complicated unfortunately :). A call via the communications channels of the Ministry got a number of 45 participants registered. An excellent start when it comes to interest for this new type of learning, compared to 10 to 15 participants who come to a training day in the Netherlands. Ultimately 30 of the 45 participants (a third from embassy, ​​a third from the Ministry in The Hague and a third from AgentschapNL) participated very actively during the four weeks online. Organizing the webinars took quite some acrobatics - because of the firewall of the Ministry and differences in time zones. As a solution we recorded all webinars, the first webinar got 31 views and the first video 78 views. Online learning is very demanding on the self-directed and self-organizing ability of the participants. The webinars are planned and you can put them in your agenda, but the other learning activities need protected space (time) to participate, which is difficult in the bustle of everyday life. This means that we in the design have deliberately chosen to work on an assignment, a group assignment which calls on mutual responsibility for a successful conclusion. This worked partly. For some it was a good stick and the last 3 days before the webinar a lot of activity was noticed. Others did not succeed in finding sufficient time to engage. In the design and supervision of this type of group assignments we would suggest some improvements for next time. In the evaluation the trajectory scored an average of 8 out of 10, which is actually quite high for the critical civil servants: "Actually it was the first time as I had such a course, I would say That it was more than I expected. It was interesting, interactive and very informative. I liked it. "" A very stimulating way of taking time to look into eevelopments in the most fascinating continent in the world and realizing, that you should more often take that kind of time. New developments put in perspective, That invites to further Top reading ". The design was very well appreciated as well as the expertise of the content specialist and the facilitators. At the lower end, someone who gave score of 6.5 for the course. 'Technology takes too much time "and" for me it was unfortunately very hard to combine with my other work. " It remains a challenge to learn and work online.


What contributed to the relative success of this trajectory? 

One of the factors was cooperation between a content expert from the Ministry of experienced online facilitators. Where the expert was interested in working online, liked to make videos and was involved in the online discussions. The facilitators had affinity with the subject and could so easily think along with the content to offer and questions to ask.Charlotte Staats, Senior Advisor Learning and Development: "My responsibilities as an advisor Learning and Development includes the design of e-learning. If potential participants have little experience with e-learning, it is difficult to determine how and where to start. A breakthrough was the understanding that sometimes you may not from the task side ("developing e-learning") but on the side of cooperation. I knew Robert Dijksterhuis was inclined to learning with social media and that he was eager to try something new. I also knew that the two external facilitators had a background in the field of Development. And my expectations came tru: the collaboration was a nice synergy, which iyielded a great pilot. "A second factor is that we had a fairly large group of participants worked, resulting in online discussions sufficient "mass" was to really make something happen. A large proportion of the participants worked at an embassy, ​​and this group, perhaps because they are quite used to it, had a high tolerance level for technical problems. Robert Dijksterhuis, content expert: "I thought it was a great challenge to start this online training. When you are dealing with a group can see your audience and during your presentation you adapt your speech to the reactions of the participants. This is not possible while preparing videos. This meant that we had to think longer about the presentations, the exact content and the possible questions that they could evoke. Once started, it was very interesting to see the discussions of the participants in the online environment. Nice to see that there really was extensive interaction, including space for critical reflection and deeper discussions. One advantage of online was that more people could participate in the posts, including local staff who rarely if ever participate in training in the Netherlands. Feedback from their daily practice was the route more depth. It would not surprise me if participants would remember this content better than after a days training, partly because it is offered in smaller chunks" Charlotte Staats:" Most important was how the participants experienced the end result. I received many enthusiastic responses ranging from "Finally a course tailored to the embassy! 'To' I learned more online than I thought." I think it was mainly the accessibility of the learning environment and the availability of teachers and facilitators which were the success of this pilot. '

Tips for your own design 

If we could do this online training again, we would have keep many of the design elements: clear rhythm, online discussion, substantive startup, facilitate working in groups. Looking back, there are also improvements to suggest. We formulate them into the tips below.
  • Make explicit that there are different ways to participate online. From very heavy involvement to lurking and reading only what you can use for your practice. Participants felt guilty if they could not participate online "Sorry for the silence but I was in the Netherlands and still have no blackberry / access to email." "Unfortunately I came only yesterday at 1 am home the airport. Online learning is different and thus makes it possible to invite different levels of participation, as in communities. A condition is that there is a large group of participants (30 +) so that there is sufficient activity.
  • For people who participate in a webinar for the first time a lot is happening at once: a conference, a presentation and a chatbox to watch, including the technique which occasionally fails. Attention to this aspect remains important: use the same tool every time, appreciate that everyone succeeds participate, facilitate very clearly all interactions, and during the webinar make a clear distinction between talk about content and technology.
  • Working online in groups deserve extra attention. It allows participants to get to know each other better, and that creates some responsibility. However, it is important to think about the guidance of this group work: to ensure that group members quickly find eachother and take off, facilitate online decision-making processes as much as possible, plan synchronous meeting  moments topdown for the groups.

To end an amusing anecdote of one participant: "I'm going to miss the weekly video on Monday! I really looked forward to it watching the video... while enjoying a cup of coffee! Good start of the week that was! "


Nandy said...

Moodle is a great tool for online/distance learning and helps engage the shy social networks users-
It has also greatly transformed the health sector in Uganda too one of the countries in Africa for example. Here a number of organisations in the health sector are using Moodle to train lots of healthcare workers online using Moodle, thus; engage these healthcare workers in continuous action education along with their experiences while maintaining their knowledge and skills without necessarily leaving their workplace.

Thank you Joitske for sharing-

Joitske said...

thanks Nandozi! Any links to experiences in Uganda are welcome!

Jaspreet Singh said...

technology really changing the world its nice now more and more people are connected with each other and learn new things