E-learning in the development sector should be grounded in social constructivism

So far this year our team has developed more self-paced e-learning modules (we use Articulate StoryLine) than eWorkshops for the development sector. I can’t bite the hand that feeds us, but it saddens me.

Don’t get me wrong – I love being part of a team that develops Articulate modules full of great real-life scenarios with clever decision-making opportunities. It’s smart and creative. Yet, it leaves me with a “yes, but” feel at the end.

It doesn’t help that many of the large multilateral development organisations and NGOs still don’t have a proper learning management system (LMS) or use one that has limited functionality, i.e. focus on content instead of learning. Why are some of the key players in the sector still working with content management systems (CMS) and wondering why their (real) learning online hasn’t taken off?

But let’s leave the technical issues aside for a moment. They are important hurdles – often caused by poorly informed past decisions – yet the easiest to solve. Changing to another platform isn’t as dramatic as people tend to believe.

Now the tricky part. What kind of learning is most relevant in the development sector? And what type of e-learning does that best?

There is very little need for straight-forward compliance training in the development sector. Work and work environments are complicated and what is successful in one place fails in another. There are very few right and wrong answers. Learners’ work contexts define extensively how the skills and knowledge can/will be applied. Yet, development practitioners – regardless of their role – appreciate tremendously any opportunity to solve problems together with other people having similar jobs in different regions/countries/continents (and while doing so, hear their stories, their challenges, the details of their solutions and what it took to get there). Making a difference in the field requires deep and challenging learning, well beyond concept mastery.

This type of learning really can’t be packaged into one-hour e-learning modules, not even by the best instructional designer out there. This shouldn’t even be ‘instruction’. Do we really think that staff who has worked in refugee camps for years need ‘instruction’? I believe the instructivist learning philosophy used in almost all the e-learning developed for this target group is doing the sector a disservice.

It is the social constructivist approach that we should be using instead.

What is social constructivism?
Numerous theorists have contributed to the development of constructivism over the last century (e.g. Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, Ernst von Glaserfeld), and several approaches or ‘brands’ are recognised in the domain (e.g. cognitive constructivism, social constructivism, radical constructivism). Regardless of the focus, constructivism essentially maintains that people learn by constructing their own knowledge on the basis of their experiences. Constructivist learning theories recognise that everyone’s framework of prior knowledge is unique, thus they have their own needs, goals and contexts. Social constructivism is the variety that emphasises the collaborative or social nature of much learning.

Social constructivism is grounded in a profound respect for learners’ experiences and personal knowledge, and thus respect for adult learning principles. Learning activities are designed to tap into these experiences and knowledge. Not by adding a ‘share if you care’ discussion forum at the end of a list of links to a link of resources (or even self-paced e-learning modules). That really doesn’t result in any deep learning.

Problem-based learning is a constructivist approach that organises the learning around carefully crafted ill-structured problems. Combined with a strong social component and expert e-facilitation (true ‘guides on the side’ instead of ‘sages on stage’), we really have all the elements for a learning environment tailored for the type of learning needed in the development sector. Designing engaging and smart team tasks to drive these courses is at the core of their success.

An example may add some perspective here. We have developed a number performance management courses over the past few years, tailored to the respective client organisations. All but one were developed in Articulate. For the Australian Council for International Development, we developed a 5-week (20 hour) eWorkshop instead. This eWorkshop is for managers of Australian NGOs, 25 per cohort. In the workshop they solve real performance management problems in teams. They tap into their own experiences to do this and explore tools provided (which may or may not be new to them). None of the suggested solutions are ever the same. The group ‘shapes’ the learning. Along the way they value the great international networking opportunities (amazing how people bond when they solve problems together rather than just ‘chat’). This is where we see truly exceptional shifts in attitudes and understanding (in this particular program a 360 degree feedback process is carried out after completion).

We often develop e-learning for complex and sensitive topics. The over-simplification required to be able to ‘package’ these into Articulate modules reduces the opportunities we are giving the learners to engage in deep learning which is meaningful in their specific work places. Concept mastery – achieved through self-paced e-learning – can only address the lower level outcomes. The use of true social constructivist principles is essential to have a real impact on professionals’ work in these challenging environments. A combination of both e-learning approaches might be the answer – an example of such program offered by UN Women is described here.

There is hope. I was heartened to read that UNICEF is adopting their new LMS as we speak: Agora, which is based on Totara LMS, a distribution of Moodle, which is the ideal platform to support constructivist approaches. Their new strategic direction is clear: more online interactions. Hopefully other large organisations will follow. The next step will be to make sure the interactions are promoted/supported by a constructivist (e-)learning philosophy. This is about so much more than the mere adding of a discussion forum to each course page.

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