Overcoming Distance by Learning Online

Jared Ford discusses the implications of distance learning on international development

Training citizens is a critical, but often challenging, part of NDI programs. With the rise of smartphone technology in recent years, some barriers can be overcome through remote, or distance, learning. In one recent example with the Zambia election process, NDI hosted in-person trainings at major cities in the provinces. In-person trainings are a common, but extremely costly, methodology, often demanding over half of a budget. In circumstances where money is either limited or nonexistent, but the Internet works, we can connect with, interact with, train and learn from people online.

Distance learning is critical in closed societies where NDI may not be able to provide democratic training in person. The alternative is flying trainees out, which is expensive and time-consuming. Face-to-face training is always the gold standard, but the high expenses mean limited reach. Distance learning provides NDI or our partners the potential of working with far more people, although in less depth, and over a longer period of time. We recognize that the distance learning online platform creates political opportunities in places where money and politics are a constraint.

With NDI diving into this new approach to deliver time-tested content, I discussed this new focus with Jared Ford, NDI’s Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation, and program manager of our distance learning initiative.

What makes distance learning stand out from other approaches to strengthening democratic processes?

Most online groups and social platforms are focused on organizing groups of individuals. Distance learning, on the other hand, specifically aims to transfer skills to citizens, political party members, and elected officials. Moreover, distance learning allows us to reach individuals in countries with closing political spaces and circumnavigate expenses associated with in-person trainings.

What are examples of successful distance learning programs?

The highest profile initiative recently within NDI is the Tech For Accountability Lab, which has been in the works for over two years. The success of online open courses like this one is often determined by the preparation of the project, which involves gathering and synthesizing useful content. The Governance team and partners at Stanford did an excellent job sourcing experts in technical areas and selecting materials for participants.

Tech For Accountability also created a second phase of the course to incentivize collaboration between students and promote mentor relationships. This phase will match mentors with students, incorporate project assignments, and provide forums to brainstorm and pitch ideas. These community building opportunities will also provide incentive for performance, and provide ongoing and interactive training and support, which often is lacking in distance learning courses.

Another great NDI example is Talam Sharek (translates to “learn-engage”), which houses a wide range of useful manuals, training guides and other materials for democracy, governance and human rights projects across the Middle East.  Talam Sharek works with advocates in the Middle East and North Africa who help citizens build their civic and political skills across a range issues revolving around democratic development.

What are the challenges distance learning faces to become more effective?

In every country, we cannot assume a high base level of technology. Assessment must be conducted to determine the infrastructure that is available to our target audiences. If one is targeting urban youth, these individuals may be accessible in 2016. If instead you are focusing on rural women, tech penetration will be far different. The requirements on the learner to absorb content from an online environment can be higher than face-to-face sessions with all the built in feedback that comes with in-person learning.

In-person training cannot be simply translated into the online world; it requires teacher expertise, strong investment in the targeted audience, a fostered group dynamic, and customized feedback. These trainings will provide metrics with which we will measure and compare success online versus in-person.

NDI is not an academic institute. Our goal is to develop a set of standard methodologies for online courses that can be tailored in across different countries and scenarios. For example, Red Innovacion provided networking opportunities between political party leaders and evolved to encompass civil society leaders in Columbia. They have lead over half a dozen courses on governing, transparency, and organizing, which requires a facilitator behind-the-scenes who prepares materials and coordinates with the experts to engage in across regions and countries.

Where is distance learning heading?

Blended learning - combining brief in-person trainings with longer-term distance learning - is only going to increase in frequency and usage. Both young activists and older leaders are recognizing that more business and personal connections are evolving over the internet, which  sets the precedent for moving training and skill-building into online spaces.

Globally, closing online spaces is an increasing problem. In too many countries, we see democratic pushback where the freedom of voices on the Internet is stifled. This has serious implications for distance learning, particularly as courses on human rights or democratic organizing can be perceived as threats to authoritarian regimes.

Skills cannot be effectively shared simply by osmosis. In order to reap the benefits of virtual learning, participants must actively integrate the information into their daily life practices. Distance learning can remedy divides if the actors involved are dedicated and if the instructors provide students with constructive feedback. Furthermore, distance engagement is not limited to individual learning - it promotes collaboration and forms bridges over regional and international gaps. The implications of this initiative extend beyond the classroom to international development, which is why we look forward to seeing how distance learning promotes democratic practices and strengthens the voice of the people.

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