Partner Spotlight: Building Global Classrooms with eCornell

A cross between the founding principles of eCornell, Cornell University’s online-learning arm, and LINGOs, a global development capacity-building consortium, might sound something like “All the world is a classroom.” For NGO staff working around the world, however, learning can be impacted by issues of internet accessibility and dangerous working environments, not to mention distance between offices. As LINGOs’ longtime partner, eCornell is changing the stakes by affordably delivering eCornell courses to NGO learners wherever they work. In the last five years, over 2,200 NGO staff in 120 countries have furthered their professional educations through eCornell, and their numbers are only growing.

eCornell’s generous partnership gives LINGOs’ 80+ Members – all development, humanitarian, or conservation organizations – access to eCornell courses at highly discounted rates. With courses in topics ranging from management to accounting, human resources to plant-based nutrition, eCornell has spurred an enthusiastic response from LINGOs Members, whose staff have taken over 10,800 courses since 2010, at a combined retail savings to their non-profits of over $6,000,000. For Paul Krause, eCornell’s CEO, the partnership “has been a great way for us to provide premium Cornell courses and professional certificate programs to those engaged in the important work of NGOs.”

Learning for a Stronger Sector

TechnoServe, a new member of the LINGOs community, began offering eCornell courses to its staff in May 2015. Since then, enrollment has accelerated. “It’s a combination of a huge demand for learning and just the right type of courses,” says Agnieszka Zieminska Yank, Vice President of Human Resources at TechnoServe. By the end of 2015, more than one hundred TechnoServe staffers had already enrolled in over 460 courses, in topics like “Project Teams: Mining Collective Intelligence” and “Dealing with Difference.” In all, over 90% of TechnoServe staffers surveyed reported that the courses met their expectations “very” or “extremely” well.

“It’s the design of the courses that sells them,” says Libba Ingram, Senior Learning Specialist at Management Sciences for Health. eCornell courses are rigorous and short (most take just two weeks to complete), with no fixed class times, so learners can easily jump into discussions and submit project work from any time zone. Katie Taylor, a Talent Development Specialist at MSH, adds that eCornell is covered as a benefit in employee onboarding, but says word-of-mouth has been a major driver of its success at the organization. Case in point? “Nigeria,” she says. As it turns out, although MSH works in over 65 countries, approximately half of its eCornell enrollments in 2015 came from staff in Nigeria – the result, Ingram and Taylor surmise, of a communication line between colleagues.

For staff looking to deepen their perspective or shift to new roles, eCornell’s certificate programs have proven to be a popular – and global – credential. Certificate programs, usually comprised of five or six courses in a given subject (although master certificates can require twice as many courses, or more) culminate in most disciplines in a certificate from Cornell University. In the past five years, the University has awarded over 700 certificates to the staff of LINGOs Member organizations.

For Francis Rogers, a capacity building coordinator at ACDI/VOCA who recently earned a certificate in HR, eCornell bridged the distance between Ithaca and Liberia, where he’s based. “I do not know whether I would have had the opportunity to attend an Ivy League university had ACDI/VOCA not provided that means,” he writes. To Ross Coxon, Director of LINGOs’ Learning Collaborative, eCornell’s generosity gives LINGOs Member NGOs another way to invest in their own top talent, and more: “The effects of high-quality learning reach not only the staff of LINGOs Members, but also the communities they serve,” he says.

Sergey Hayrapetyan, Senior Advisor (Operational Excellence) at Catholic Relief Services, has completed ten certificates and master certificates through eCornell. In many cases, he says, his coursework has been a lens for approaching his concurrent work with CRS. In a course on scenario planning, for example, he used the homework exercise to develop and apply real strategic objectives for his country program at CRS. “So I was not making anything up,” he says.  “I was doing the real thing.” Not only that, but his class discussions and projects incorporated the new perspectives of classmates who came mainly, he says, from the for-profit world.

The Global Classroom

In addition to developing individuals, eCornell is also impacting NGO learning at an organizational level. While the skills training offered by eCornell might not be specific to the non-profit sector, “we’re still an organization. We still have to have people well-versed in skills like HR, management, and accounting, whether they’re HR professionals, or senior leaders, or project staff,” says Bridgett Horn, Learning Manager at The Nature Conservancy.

For NGOs operating between far-flung offices, eCornell can provide a creative means of fusing teambuilding with learning. Catholic Relief Services offers its staff some dedicated eCornell sessions – courses just for CRS learners. Jean Marie Adrian, Senior Advisor (Leadership and Career Development) at CRS, notes that for LINGOs Members facing the cost of gathering staff for trainings in Nairobi or Dubai, eCornell is a clear alternative: “For the price of one airfare, you can train everyone in-depth [through a dedicated session] for two weeks.” Adrian also notes that the cross-section of CRS learners is larger and richer in the eCornell sessions than is often feasible in an onsite: “You have mid-level managers taking a course with country representatives, or higher-level managers,” he says. “The mix is very, very interesting.”

Chris Proulx, LINGOs’ CEO (and formerly of eCornell), is not surprised by the positives that CRS and other LINGOs Members are seeing. He says that “eCornell has had a model for now 15 years that has always been social in its construction, yet it’s not what people normally think about when they think about social learning.”

And although the type of social learning happening with eCornell “isn’t taking place in 140 characters,” Proulx continues, “it’s helping people to exchange knowledge with peers and colleagues who they may not otherwise have had an opportunity to connect with.”

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