Archive for the 'online learning in Africa' Category

Are NGOs in Southern Africa Region ready for eLearning?

Guest Post by Roger Steele, LINGOs

I answered with a resounding ‘yes’ when I was asked that question about six months ago — perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.  At the time, I had just started managing the LINGOs project to ‘Strengthen Project Management Capacities’ in collaboration with World Vision International’s (WVI) Southern Africa Region. (For background on LINGOs work in cross-cutting area that affects every member NGO, please see the blog post on Field staff capacity building models)

With almost a dozen week-long PMD Pro1 introductory courses under my belt, I still say ‘yes’ – but – you might sense some hesitation in my voice (check out http://pm4ngos.org if you don’t know what PMD Pro is).  Not totally unexpectedly, we have encountered challenges on our eLearning journey.

As I shared here back in September of last year,   the World Vision/LINGOs project has embraced a blended learning approach.  We decided to lead with a combination of face to face and virtual instructor-led courses.  The future blend will incorporate more self-paced learning, small group (hubs of training) and coaching (performance support).  I’ve written about the face to face (F2F) courses in this blog.

Our face to face instructor-led courses have been conducted over a period of 5 days. Each course is delivered in a fairly typical NGO format for the first four days. The facilitators combine techniques to engage participants in active learning to complement lectures that introduce fundamentals of Project Management for International Development.  On the fifth day, Friday, facilitators proctor an internet-based examination that presents 75 multiple-choice questions to each participant. The set of questions has been carefully validated and normed to measure knowledge and comprehension contained in the PMD Pro1 Guide.  A unique feature is that each exam is automatically computer-scored.  Each test-taker is given his/her score and pass-fail result immediately upon exiting the exam.  I was a little surprised that this feature proved so popular with participants.  They love  getting immediate results.

 So far, our team has facilitated the face to face PMD Pro1 courses in five WVI Southern Africa countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, DR Congo, and Malawi.  Without fail, we have encountered significant eLearning challenges during the examination on the fifth day, of the each and every course.

PMD Pro1 Course participant with Roger in Zambia

These Friday problems have always happened in spite of the fact that our team works hand-in-hand with the WVI National Offices to secure reliable Internet connectivity.  In Zambia, our first pilot country, one hotel in Lusaka has hosted all three PMD Pro1 courses over the past nine months.  At the first course, the hotel proved incapable of providing sufficient Internet bandwidth, so the IT office from WVI-Zambia arranged for a dedicated connection from an internet service provider (ISP).  The ISP ran their wires down from the hotel roof and through hallways to our classroom.  Even with that dedicated line, the internet connection dropped numerous times during the exam period causing several test-takers to time-out prior to exam completion.  During the second and third Zambia courses, the host hotel’s internet provider agreed to increase bandwidth on the morning of the exam – but we still experienced connectivity problems and exam delays.  We recently secured approval from the testing authority to increase the total block time from 1.5 to 3 hours as a mitigation strategy for future exams.

 The venue of the one course we completed in Malawi was a relatively isolated hotel on the shores of Lake Malawi.  While the hotel had assured WV-Malawi that a strong and reliable Internet connection would be available all week, the reality was another story.   The hotel’s internet signal was very weak and did not even reach the training room.  Fortunately, the WV Malawi IT department came to the rescue by mid-week.  They were able to set-up a portable satellite Internet system (VSAT) next to the PMD Pro1 classroom – allowing all 23 program managers to successfully complete the examination on Friday.

two participants taking practice exam

I suppose some will say that what I’ve describe sounds quite expensive – and the special Internet arrangements that I’ve described will be beyond the budgets of many NGOs.  I acknowledge this concern, but encourage readers to keep in mind that WVI and LINGOs are operating learning pilots and expect to cultivate efficiencies moving forward. 

In Harare, the WVI-Zimbabwe office hired an Internet Service Provider to set up a fiber-optic connection at a hotel for an estimated US$1400 (5 days).  I had sticker-shock when I first heard this quote – but upon reflection realized that those costs must be put into perspective.  It is significant to keep in mind that 33 WVI program managers were trained and certified during that week.   The cost of Internet could be incrementally assigned to each participant at the rate of US$42 – an amount that was considerably less than what some participants paid for a single night of lodging during the course.  I wish I could report that the fiber optic line we used in Zimbabwe worked trouble-free.  However, after enjoying blazing internet speeds from Monday through Thursday, a scheduled power grid shutdown brought the internet to a total halt for the whole of Friday morning.  Fortunately, the national power grid was restored and the Internet-based exam was completed by late Friday afternoon.

I’m sure some are asking; wouldn’t it be quicker and cheaper to administer a paper-and-pencil examination?  Perhaps it would be in the short-run — but once PMD Pro gets past its pilot phase, LINGOs is expecting scale-up to create efficiencies for both internet instruction and testing.   I recently discovered that a group of researchers have been actively investigating online versus paper exams, with some interesting findings that extend well beyond time and cost considerations.   Check out:  http://research.csc.ncsu.edu/efg/teaching/papers/2010-1150_Online.pdf  

 I’ll write about my experience facilitating the PMD Pro1 course with WVI participants in the Southern Africa Region using the Elluminate platform in a future blog. 

 You might also be interested in these 2010 posts about LINGOs Project Management Work

 Sept 2010: Participation and accountability in face to face training: Lessons from Southern Africa   

October 2010:  Field Staff Capacity Building Models for National and International NGOs” the 4As

 October 2010: PM4NGOs Launched as Independent Organization to Promote Project Management in the Development Sector  


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