Two steps forward and one step back

Guest post by Roger Steele, LINGOs Senior Project Manager

rsteeleAccording to contemporary wisdom (Wikipedia), my title is a catchphrase about a frog trying to climb out of a well; for every two steps the frog climbs, it falls back by one step, making its progress arduous, but progress nonetheless. The catchphrase feels like a fitting title for today’s post.

While I’m making steady progress in my eLearning journey – it is strenuous at times. Exactly two years ago, I wrote a post on the topic of eLearning in Southern Africa. Since those earlier efforts, LINGOs has expanded its PMD Pro work to over 20 countries all over Africa — one (big) step forward. I also contributed to a recent blog on virtual coaching for graduates of PMD Pro courses — another step forward. Upon re-reading those posts, I’m hoping readers didn’t get the impression that we are making continuously smooth and uncomplicated progress. Probably not – as most LINGOs members are in touch with the “frog’s arduous climb.”

Ok, now you should be asking: “what is the one step back, Roger?”

Allow me to start with a story. Last September, I led a successful face-to-face PMD Pro1 course for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) staff and partners in Zimbabwe. To encourage learning transfer and application of PMD Pro tools to real work, CRS asked LINGOs to conduct five hours of online virtual coaching with the class participants – a couple months after completion of the course. We scheduled four one-hour virtual classroom sessions. The participants, both CRS staff and their partners, were notified in a timely manner and all was ready to go.

That’s when we took one step back – or in a slightly different direction. Apart from the usual challenges anyone faces in first time log in to a virtual classroom environment, the Zimbabwean participants had an extra special challenge. Out of the 30 invited participants, we were lucky to have five online at any single time – with several regularly popping off and coming back on at regular intervals.

Now don’t get me wrong, the participants did the best possible. It was just a matter of internet connections that came and went! Sometimes those in the capital city, Harare, were the strongest. Other times we had great connections from Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo. Somewhat surprisingly, a participant in the remote town of Chinoyi had an almost perfect connection.

The CRS Zimbabwe story is somewhat typical of our PMD Pro online coaching sessions in African countries, largely because the students are dispersed in numerous locations. As described in an earlier post, the HOTspot approach has shown considerable promise in African locations where a strong internet connection can be secured.

Climbing forward …

We did come up with a solution – a time-tested distance learning approach. Using a software program called Camtasia (techsmith.com) that integrates into MS PowerPoint; I advanced slides and recorded my voice as I talked through each coaching presentation on PMD Pro tools. In total, I produced almost 3 hours of video on tools like Work Breakdown Structure, RACI, Issues Log, Risk Register and Gantt. I ended up with 15 coaching videos with an average length of 10 minutes each. I performed one other step — converting the voice to captions. These were burned under each slide and appear in sync with my voice during video play. The jury is still out whether the captioning step was worth the effort. I know my American English accent is hard to understand for many Africans. English is a second or third language for many. The captions can also be easily translated to other languages.

After some editing of both the voice and captions in Camtasia, I produced the videos in WMV (Windows Media Video) format. I also uploaded the videos to the LINGOs YouTube library. Finally, I added the voice transcriptions as speaker notes in the PowerPoint decks – to assist anyone who wants to use them as a guide to their own Face to Face coaching sessions.

Steady progress

I am writing this blog from Tanzania where I am interacting with some of the World Vision East Africa Operations Directors. After doing a demo of one coaching video, they asked that asked for copies of the WMV files. The World Vision East Africa team plans to burn DVDs for physical distribution to the 800 PMD Pro1 graduates in World Vision East Africa’s 9 National Offices. They seem genuinely excited about this solution.  While not what I initially expected, my eLearning success story is distribution of quick-and-dirty videos on DVDs.  What is most important is that the frog is still making overall progress in the climb.

For more information about LINGOs 4-week PMD Pro1 blended learning course, March 4-28,  see http://4weekpmdprocourse.eventbrite.com

Blended approach gets learning to where learners are

Posted by John Cropper, LINGOs Director of Project Services

Training and facilitating used to be so simple. The trainer would travel to a a pre-selected venue, participants would arrive, training was delivered and after a couple of happy sheets and usually a rather nice group meal and photo, everyone departed. Easy!

 

Old School Training…

The costs of this approach are huge. Apart from the travel costs, everyone would be in the training – not actually doing their normal work. So if you had a group of twenty five participants doing a five day course, you used one hundred and twenty five person days. Run two trainings like this in a year and factor in holidays and you would have used up the best part of a person year – and we all think we are understaffed!

LINGOs is all about learning where it really matters. So, to find a way round this, LINGOs has conducted a number of what we call blended trainings on Project Management  (the PMDPro certification)  We’ve tried several approaches and I’ll describe two of them here: First with World Vision International in Southern Africa and second with Oxfam GB in East Africa. The approaches have been different but in both cases, noone had to travel and participants were able to fit the learning around their other work commitments.

In the case of World Vision, we used a “hotspot” approach to ease connectivity challenges. A number of offices were chosen and World Vision made sure that each office had a USB speaker phone and a projector. One computer would be connected and participants would either look at a shared monitor or the screen would be projected onto a wall. Participants were given a clear timetable and instructions about what was expected of them. They had a program of reading through the PMDPro Guide, using the practice exam, webinars using Blackboard Collaborate, a ning social network where they could ask/answer questions and where we could post all the documents and finally there was an ‘instructor’s hour,’ when a facilitator would be online and participants could ask any questions on a one-to-one basis. Each course was scheduled over a two week period.

With Oxfam, we adopted a similar approach but it was much more extensive. The course had the same components but was designed to be taken over a 10 to 12 week period. Participants were advised that they would need to spend 3 to 4 hours each week. No one component was mandatory and they could spend their time on any of the different components. If the facilitator or the Oxfam sponsor thought that a participant was not engaging in any element, then s/he was not allowed to sit the PMDPro exam at the end of the course.

So what?

Well clearly, the blended approach is much more flexible and obviously more cost effective. One additional immediate benefit was a higher percentage of women participants – as described in an earlier post for International Woman’s Day. Interestingly results from the extended, Oxfam approach have been the best with an exam pass rate of 50%. Best of all was to see this post from the Tanzania Country Director, in which he noted his experience of “a case where training has created learning that has turned into change. There is improved quality of work and increased commitment to share one’s learning.”

Clearly this kind of approach can lead to skill transfer and application.

What learning is there from these pilots?

  1. Setting up a hotspot is a considerable investment in time and equipment – but once it is there, it can be used again and again. We have seen staff use the equipment for virtual meetings rather than travel – another great benefit.
  2.  In both cases, it is helpful to have champions and clear leadership – without buy in from the top, any training is more difficult. Participants need to have a clear structure and they need to understand what they are expected to do, when and why.
  3. Participant selection is as important as  managing expectations – participants need to commit to putting in the time over a two/three month period.
  4. The biggest learning I have taken from all this is simple. Blended learning can work and work well. One participant from Tanzania said in one of the webinars, “I need to leave now. I am in a village with no electricity using a 3G connection and the laptop battery is going.”

 I wish I had had a photo! When we think about virtual/remote learning – or whatever we want to call it, perhaps we should stop ask asking “why?” and start asking “why not!”

 

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