Why does it work? – INASP’s approach to online learning

For more than five years, online learning has been an integral part of INASP’s capacity development approaches. Joanna Wild reflects on the role of technology in capacity development and how we go about learning design.

In 2011, INASP’s AuthorAID project began an experiment to help its research writing training reach a bigger pool of researchers by creating an online course. The motivation was the recognition of the opportunity for scalability and sustainability, ensuring that capacity development in research writing skills goes on beyond the lifetime of INASP’s funding of a project. It soon became apparent that not only was this approach a way to reach greater numbers of people but also to broaden participation, to improve gender balance and reach researchers with disabilities and those in refugee situations.

Since that first online course, INASP has run seven research writing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as well as several smaller specialist online courses, that have provided training for over six thousand researchers. Feedback has been consistently favourable, with high completion rates and researchers feeling empowered to go on to publish papers.

But it is not just about one type of a course, one approach or numbers of people. Online and blended learning is a core component of how we work. It is fully integrated into capacity development and informed by educational theory and a principled approach to learning design.

Fully integrated into capacity development

As we discuss in our digital principles, we put learning first and recognize that digital technology and online learning is complementary and enhances other approaches to capacity development. This means that we do not simply seek to replace more traditional approaches such as workshops with online modes of delivery. Instead, digital technology enhances what we do by:

  • Giving extra space where learning can happen in-between and after face-to-face interventions
  • Providing the opportunity to do things differently, to go where a workshop cannot go

To ensure continuity of learning, there needs to be ways in which individuals and institutions are supported in-between face-to-face interventions. New technologies provide a platform that can help us achieve this goal through blended learning. But any online intervention that precedes or follows face-to-face workshops and courses needs to be carefully designed for and facilitated. Such online spaces do not just happen spontaneously; they must be designed for with partners, with clear objectives and timelines, using technology in a way which makes it almost invisible – so seamless to the users that they can focus solely on their learning, with no unnecessary cognitive overload.

Online learning enables a greater participation in our capacity development initiatives, learning at the point of need, and enhanced connections between participants nationally and internationally. We acknowledge that the pedagogies for traditional face-to-face interventions cannot and should not be replicated in an online space.

To design powerful learning experiences online, we step away from the pedagogy of the traditional workshop setting context. We analyse the situation for learning anew with all the new opportunities but also potential barriers to learning that ‘going online’ might introduce. Therefore, there is no single type of a course and no one pedagogical approach we take. Each of our courses is different depending on the purpose, the pedagogic intent and the context, and each has its clear place in the bigger picture of the overall capacity development framework. The learning pathway is purposefully mapped out and we take great care to meet every single person where they are and support them gradually in mastering their skills and capabilities, until they can support others locally. We achieve this by offering a coherent learning experience:

From foundation courses, self-study tutorials and open resources aimed to provide basic knowledge, understanding and an appetite to learn more

Through deepening knowledge and strengthening capabilities in MOOCs; and developing competencies in focused, modular courses aimed at the immediate application of learning to one’s personal or work context

To offering online ‘Train the Facilitator’ courses and strengthening local, national and international knowledge exchange and collaboration through carefully designed online collaboration spaces and Communities of Practice

Online approaches are part of a learning journey, with appropriate signposting to other interventions, and supporting other capacity development approaches.

For example, our critical thinking self-study course is designed to complement face-to-face teaching in higher education, while the facilitated ‘AuthorAID online toolkit’ course provides a step-by-step guidance for those who want to embed our online research writing course locally in their institutions. A ‘learning on the job’ approach is important in our online course on editorial processes which is designed to be modular so that editors can access appropriate training at the point of need depending on what aspect of their journal they want to develop.

Educational theory and learning design

As our online learning moved from an exploratory phase to being fully integrated into our capacity development, finding the right methodology to guide our work was paramount. Our approach to designing online and blended courses is based on educational theory and follows the principles of learning design – a methodology that is participatory, iterative and explicit in nature:

  • We have adopted a team-based approach to course design. We have in-house online learning expertise to ensure that newest trends in education research and practice around course design are integrated to our work. We bring users from the target audience on board at an early stage of the design process to ‘act as critical friends’ and provide feedback on the design and content early on. This helps us ensure that what we develop is relevant to our prospective participants and tailored to their needs.
  • We follow the principle of frequent feedback loops and adaptation. We revise our design decisions with new information and learning coming in. We pilot our courses with a small number of users and make necessary revisions before the full roll out to wider audiences. Monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) is integrated into the design process from the beginning.
  • We use Learning Designer to represent the pedagogic aspects of each course. Learning Designer supports careful planning of learners’ time and activities and helps make the pedagogy explicit by providing a graphical visualization of the balance of the six major activity types: acquisition, inquiry, practice, production, collaboration and discussion. It puts learner experience at the heart of the process and supports reflection, adaptation and refinement.

In my next post, I will share our insights on the key ingredients for success in developing and delivering online and blended capacity development interventions. This blog series forms part of the thinking in the development of our upcoming “Enabling learning pathways: the role of digital technology” publication.

For more information, contact jwild@inasp.info


Joanna Wild
Joanna Wild is a Senior Programme Specialist at INASP.

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