My Experience in the UNC Global Health Learning Program
March 2011, Phnom Penh
Dennis Barbian is a German national who has been working in the social development sector in Cambodia for the past 3 years. Here, he works for VBNK, a leading Cambodian capacity building institute that provides organizational development consulting services for local and international NGOs, and government agencies. In his role as a Marketing Advisor, he supports VBNK in its business development by devising targeted marketing and funding strategies. In addition, he supports the internal learning of the organization.
- Project Management for Health Projects
- Monitoring & Evaluation for Health Projects
I participated in the Global Health Learning Program's (GHLP) module on "Project Management for Health Projects" from May to July 2010, and in the module on "Monitoring & Evaluation for Health Projects" from November 2010 to February 2011. The GHLP was intended to enhance the management skills of health professionals around the world by offering practical, facilitated learning units through distance education.
The reason for my participation was two-fold: First, I wanted to experience distance learning first-hand to see which benefits it can bring to my own professional development. Secondly, I was at the time part of a VBNK working group that had set out to explore creative uses of technology for learning facilitation, and how these could be adopted in the Cambodian learning context.
My own experience in the GHLP
Prior to my participation in the GHLP I had never been involved in a learning program purely based on distance learning approaches. As probably many people would, I had initial concerns about how useful and effective such a distance learning program could possibly be - given that I would not be able to interact in person with the learning instructors and fellow participants, and that I would not be able to attend classroom sessions. Despite these concerns I was excited about being able to experience what was "a new way of learning" for me, and my curiosity "to see what it would be like" boosted my motivation.
Fairly quickly into the first module my initial concerns became redundant. Right from the beginning I felt as if I had been "sucked into" a deep learning process. The learning process was well-designed and thought-through, and accomplished to make me think "deeply" and reflect on the concepts and theories presented. I believe that the way in which the learning process was carefully designed had a tremendous impact on my learning and managed to shift my thinking about the two subjects. In hindsight, I could have never anticipated that a distance learning process can be as effective as the GHLP proved to be. This has made a lasting impression on me and changed my perception of distance learning approaches entirely for the better.
For both subjects - project management and M&E - I had no prior formal training, and I feel that the GHLP helped me synthesize my professional experience into a more coherent understanding of the two topics. I was able to take something away from each learning unit that I can use in my work. Whether intended or not, I feel that the program offered many "quick wins" - learning that can be applied to real work situations immediately. This way I feel that the learning from the program has already improved my professional practice. I now can approach project management as well as M&E in a more structured way, can replicate what I learnt in the modules, and all this makes me a better manager.
For example, I particularly appreciated the lessons on time and budget estimates when planning projects (including the critical path method) as this is very relevant to my current job. Another lesson that resonated well with me were the inputs around team management, as I constantly try to improve my practice as a people manager. I also feel more confident in analyzing, monitoring, and managing project risks. The WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) I can now use in any project design phase and better delegate work packages to project team members. As a result from the M&E unit, I believe that for example I have enhanced my ability to define measurable indicators, to use project log-frames, and to communicate findings clearly to intended stakeholders. This learning I was already able to apply back to VBNK which recently set out to strengthen its Design, Monitoring & Evaluation (DM&E) Framework.
The components that made the difference for me
As I was impressed by the impact the GHLP had on me personally, I began to reflect on and dissect the learning process to better understand which individual components made program such an effective way of learning for me:
The courses used Blackboard Academic Suite as a course management system and the UNC instructors provided the participants with an introduction to the system - via telephone conference and written manual. The Blackboard system was easy to use, even for those who are less internet savvy. It was the central location where downloadable course materials were stored, where individual assignments had to be completed, where online discussion with fellow participants took place, and where instructors could be reached for support.
The design of the learning modules consisted of a main PowerPoint presentation ("Student Guide") for each learning unit through which the participants had to work through, and which linked to relevant articles, templates, web resources and videos. I found that the selection of these materials was well-rounded, up-to-date and relevant to my work practice. The materials also showed applications of the theories in real-life scenarios. Overall, this way it was possible to accommodate a lot of content and the learning resources made the learning more interesting. The transferability to my own work practice led to some quick-wins - improving my work practice immediately.
The online discussion forum was helpful in establishing a sense of community with the fellow participants. It was useful in connecting to the fellow participants who underwent the same learning process, to share knowledge, and to hear about others' application of their learning in their work places or about their difficulties thereof. I find that learning from others simply through conversation can be very impactful and a source of new perspectives, and therefore I appreciated this opportunity for discussion. The idea around online discussion forums and learning from others was later taken forward by the UNC instructors who started an online "Community of Practice" (COP) at the Wiggio web-service.
Mobile phone text messages were used to supplement online discussion forums. The messages were used to send reminders about assignment deadlines, to provide tips on content, and to ask short questions to move discussions forward. Personally, I found this additional engagement (in addition to individual assignments and online discussions) in the learning process very helpful. It prompted me to think about the state of Project Management and M&E in my organization and to provide short concise answers.
In all activities the instructors remained involved, directed the learning process, and helped participants to keep their motivation high.
Can such a program contribute to capacity building for the global public health workforce?
As mentioned above, one of the reasons for my participation in this distance learning program was to explore how creative uses of technology can be used in learning facilitation in developing countries, particularly in Cambodia. I believe that such a distance learning program can have many positive outcomes on the global public health workforce and capacity building for any other target group, and that the impact of digital technologies on pedagogy will increase more in the future and already offers many advantages to learners.
Some of the advantages of a distance learning program are obvious, such as being able to learn through the program at a time most convenient for the participants, such as on weekends or after work, and also not having to travel or be away from one's workplace for an extended period of time to attend a school or learning facility in person. The use of online tools such as online discussion forums or the Community of Practice (COP) in the GHLP showed impressively how technology can replace physical meeting points. This can lead to cost savings that can make capacity building more affordable and also more accessible for marginalized groups such as females.
Technical challenges may have to be considered (e.g. affordable internet access, basic computer skills), but as the GHLP demonstrated internet access is not required all the time (materials could be downloaded in advance). Additionally, specialized learning facilitation skills are needed for the instructors who design and moderate a distance learning program. Guiding the learning of participants through digital means may pose different challenges to those in a traditional classroom- based training setting. Instructors also need a good understanding of how to get the most out of the technologies available.
I also believe that participants new to a distance learning approach may have high motivation to participate as learning through such a program is a completely new, previously unseen experience for many and therefore boosts curiosity. It may also prompt participants to take the idea of creative use of technology in learning facilitation forward and explore other ways of facilitating learning in their home countries.
Despite the wealth of factors of a distance learning program that contribute positively to the capacity building of the participants, I do believe that it is important to design a distance learning program in a way that it addresses the specific needs of its learner target group. That is, a program that may work with one target group may not work with another. Learning styles also vary heavily by culture. A learning program must "pick-up" the participants where they are at in their development.
While the learning process in the GHLP managed to make me think deeply about the topics presented, I believe one of the reasons why this happened is because I took responsibility for my own learning, and in a self-directed fashion explored the topics more deeply until I felt confident to complete the individual assignments or to participate in online discussions. Not every participant may have the capacity to direct their own learning. In Cambodia, many are used to a rote learning approach in which the teacher is responsible for the participant's learning. The participants learn by heart the theories presented, and their ability for transfer to work place situations is limited. I do however believe that distance learning programs have the potential to break through this attitude and can encourage critical thinking, also about improving one's own professional practice. The quick-wins I noticed during the program may provide an entry-point for this, and I also believe that the text messages managed to encourage critical thinking about one's own situation.
The concept of online discussion forums may be well understood in the west, but for many in developing countries it may be their first participation in a discussion forum and may therefore need an introduction on how to use it. That is, not an introduction to the technical side of it, but more to the "discussion culture" that is expected in online discussion forums. A quote from one of my colleagues exemplifies this. When asked why he did not participate more in the forum he responded: "There were no questions by the instructors, so what was I supposed to write about?!" This may indicate a reliance on the instructors' inputs and a limited understanding of how speaking to fellow participants may also increase one's own learning. Cambodians are also not accustomed to voice their opinions in public, and opposing opinions are to be avoided. This defeats the idea of learning from different perspectives. Cambodians are also fearful of "saying something wrong" which makes them overly shy - consideration of how to create a "safe learning environment" is required. The GHLP instructors addressed this by encouraging all participants to bring forward their own ideas and experiences and to think for themselves and to trust their own experiences rather than to wait for others to provide "correct" answers. The instructors also actively addressed the gap in "discussion skills", for example by providing helpful phrases that can be used to introduce one's idea to others or to follow-up on what other participants contributed to the discussion.
The positive and rich experience of participating in the GHLP has led my team and me to become advocates for this "new way of learning" and we have already started educating our colleagues and friends about the many benefits of distance learning. As resource persons and early adopters we are now helping other learning facilitators at VBNK in using technology to support their training activities.
We believe that the impact of digital technologies on pedagogy will increase in the future, and we are committed to continuing building our own capacity in this field. Technology supported learning can offer many advantages to building the capacities of the global health work force and to the capacity building of other target groups in developing countries.