With the recent designation of the COVID-19 virus as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization we have seen the rapid adoption of social distancing measures put in place by both governments and the private sector. These measures have also impacted nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) affecting their ability to operate in communities and around the globe. In many cases, NGO’s have adopted their own social distancing policies to protect their staff from contracting and spreading the virus within their own communities and the communities they serve. According to a March 12th article published on DEVEX Mercy Corps, Relief International, Norwegian Refugee Council, Catholic Relief Services, CARE, and Save the Children have announced travel restrictions for staff while also issuing prevention and response plans in impacted and at-risk countries. And just this morning, The U.S. Peace Corps made the unprecedented announcement that it would be evacuating all of its volunteers in the field. That means a lot of grounded aid workers and stalled projects.
The last time a global slowdown in international aid occurred anywhere near this scale was in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis when private and public sector funding was redirected to triage financial markets and many aid budgets dried up or were significantly reduced as a result. During that time, Village Earth and other online training providers experienced increased enrollments from NGO’s seeking to continue their staff training and capacity building while reducing their budgets for international travel. At that time, we also experienced increased enrollments from aid workers seeking to advance their careers during the slowdown. For many reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic could have a much larger impact on the operations of international aid organizations and their staff because of the combined impact of social distancing measures and policies and the high likelihood of triggering a global recession.
Interestingly it was another global crisis, 9/11, that compelled Village Earth to transition from in-person training to online back in 2003. Having been involved in that transition I distinctly remember the U.S. tightening visa requirements how difficult this made it for us to recruit training participants abroad. We realized that while the demand for our training had increased the accessibility had greatly decreased. Furthermore, even before 9/11 we were acutely aware of the great expense of international travel and how this discriminated against the people who requested our training the most. At the same time several of us were concerned that our training couldn’t be replicated online, in particular, the interactive workshops and training we provided in participatory strategic planning. Despite our reservations we decided to start with a limited trial of just two online courses. However, there were a few challenges we anticipated with this transition.
Challenges we anticipated by transitioning to an online format included:
Structuring courses to work across numerous time zones simultaneously
One of the obvious advantages of in-person training (in an international context) is the fact that everyone is at the same place and at the same time. When you try to coordinate an activity online with people in different countries and different timezones the window of availability for people shrinks. Another advantage of in-person training is that people’s schedules become dedicated to that experience and the other demands in life get shut-out (at least partially and less so with the proliferation of cell phones, email, videoconferencing, etc). When you transition to an online format people are able to stay at home and that also means that the training is added to their already busy work and personal lives. For this reason, we decided that the best model of instruction would be asynchronous – this is where people are not required to meet at the same time but instead interact through an online discussion board and/or personal messages. At the same time, we made the decision that we didn’t want the courses to be “self-directed.” Self-directed online training is where students follow a specified learning path where there isn’t a facilitator/instructor. This is how many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are organized. In many cases, students in MOOCs aren’t even part of a cohort and thus never really engage in any sort of meaningful dialogue about the issues.
We decided to structure our online courses in the following way:
Choosing a Learning Management System
As for choosing an online LMS (learning management system) there were not many options back in 2003 and since we had already decided to partner with Colorado State University we used the system they had, which at the time was Blackboard. A few years later CSU switched to using the Instructure Canvas LMS. Technology wise, we have found that both systems are accessible to our overseas participants, many of whom access the courses via internet cafes or with dial-up modems with limited bandwidth. However, we have recently experimented with Moodle, a free and opensource server application that can be installed on your own server, hosted on a generic web-hosting service or through a Moodle managed hosting provider. If your organization is relatively tech-savvy and you do not mind the learning curve, this can be an affordable option for hosting your own courses. There are also numerous third party apps that integrate with Moodle for managing enrollments, matriculation, payments, etc. Additionally, there are a number of web services such as Udemy.com or Teachable.com that allow you to develop courses for a small fee or percentage of your enrollment income.
To ensure our courses were accessible on low bandwidth we ask our instructors to limit the use of videos (or edit them down to the essential nuggets) and keep PDF, Powerpoint, and other files sizes down to a minimum. In fact, we have found it is best to convert powerpoints and other media to compressed PDFs to ensure compatibility, keep files sizes small and make it possible to print-out so participants can read materials at home or on the road. Additionally, it is a good idea to avoid content from sites like youtube.com as many people’s organizations have a firewall that blocks these services.
Ensuring the courses were interactive and that the experience was meaningful
Above all else, we wanted to ensure that the experience was meaningful. While there really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, we felt if we could broader participation and open the courses to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate, that would make up for it. But beyond that, we absolutely did not want our courses to just become certificate factories all too common in the world of international development. Training and our general philosophy are heavily influenced by the ideas of Paulo Freire, in particular, his emphasis on building critical consciousness as an alternative to the “banking” model of education. In many ways online learning through its scalability, by individualizing learning and by limiting (if not completely eliminating) dialogue has a great potential for abuse. For this reason, great care has to be taken in the selection of content and designing courses to ensure that students are not just consuming and regurgitating the content, instead we have found it is extremely important to find instructors that know and care about the content so they can inspire and challenge students to relate the content to their own lived experiences. Asking questions like; What does this mean for you?, how does this influence the way you interact with the community and its leadership? Where do we go from here, what issues doesn’t this address? We do not want students to just adopt our ideas, we want them to think critically and engage in a dialogue about the content presented. It is the facilitator’s job to shape a culture within that online space where all ideas are respected and all participants feel their voices are heard. Along with finding competent instructors, it is also important to get regular and meaningful feedback from course participants and use that feedback to constantly update and improve the courses. The online format makes this extremely easy but it is one thing to collect data, it is another thing entirely to make sense of it and use it to adapt. For this to happen there needs to be a structure or procedure in place within the organization for managing that feedback.
Lastly, it is important to recognize that not all programming can be adapted for online. The success of your transition will largely depend on your decisions about what can and cannot be adapted for online. For example, we have never found an acceptable online substitute for our in-person training in participatory strategic planning – and that’s ok. What would not be ok is if we attempted to teach it online and then told people to go out into the world and do it on their own without any hands-on experience. The important thing is knowing the limitations of online learning and doing your very best within those limitations. For that reason, it is a good idea to start small and learn from experience. Alternatively, you can partner with an individual or organization that has experience in developing online training (as we did when we first started). Another option is to enroll your staff/field partners in training developed by third parties (like Village Earth) or work with third parties to adapt and deliver your content.
COVID-19 presents some serious challenges to the aid and relief community. Transitioning some programs online may be a strategy for NGO’s to continue to provide services and support to communities around the globe. Additionally, the forced “downtime” could also be viewed as an opportunity for NGO’s to focus on building the knowledge, skills and understanding of their staff and partners through targeted online training.