Transitioning to online learning - opportunities and challenges

Transitioning to online learning - opportunities and challenges

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Date: 18th August 2020
Author: CDKN Global
Type: Feature

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher level educational institutes around the world have had to rapidly adapt their methods and offer courses online. Lucia Scodanibbio of CDKN talked to Ingrid Gevers and Matilda Rizopulos from Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI) about their experiences.

This is the second blog in a CDKN series sharing lessons from organisations working in the development and climate sector on the rapid transition to an online world.

“If you don’t need to change, you generally don’t, as learning curves are uncomfortable. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to jump on the speed train and it has forever changed the way we look at learning. Three months of internal training this year have shown us that online learning can also be exciting and fun, which was an ‘aha’ moment for most of us.”

That’s one of the insights from Matilda Rizopulos of the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI), which runs specialised and customised training courses and programmes. WCDI’s trainings are aimed at mid-career professionals working towards inclusive and sustainable food systems in low and middle income countries.

In the past few years, some pioneers at WCDI saw the opportunity to increase the use of online learning. Given the fast-changing world and the varying competencies, needs and digital realities of learners who come from all over the world, it was clear that there was a window of opportunity to be smart and strategic in this arena. As a start, WCDI experimented with online design and development, such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Soon it was clear that internal training was needed, so that the WCDI team would be better equipped to deliver online learning effectively.

Now, with management backing, WCDI staff has undergone full training for this new way of working and is transforming a dozen of its courses to be taught and facilitated online. The team has worked out how to create generic modules to plug into multiple and diverse learning events, which can be tailored by individual course facilitators, as needed.

The changing role of facilitators and the nature of learning

It is expected that course facilitators will increasingly take on the role of curating valuable online learning material and resources, and so creating a launchpad for interactive discussions and assignments.

“At WCDI, we’ve put in place a buddy system for facilitators to support each other with creative ideas, and to ensure the sessions remain sufficiently interactive and flow well”, said Matilda Rizopulos.

WCDI facilitators are also aware that one of the ways in which most learning occurs in their courses is through the ‘pressure cooker effect’ of convening participants from varied cultures and backgrounds to experience intensive, interactive ideas exchange together. Transferring this learning environment to online spaces is very challenging.

“Realising attitude change online is difficult and takes time,” says Ingrid Gevers, one of WCDI’s course trainers. “I believe making them as comfortable as in a real-life setting will not be possible to the same extent, when we are working online.”

“For example, we are thinking of designing online case studies. We can provide all the relevant background information, video interview stakeholders, and let the learners do an analysis. Small groups can then interact and reflect with facilitators on their work. This will probably lead to different insights compared to face-to-face courses.”

“Online, you cannot totally oversee the group dynamics and respond and contribute in the same way to ongoing discussions. Really challenging participants to ‘dig deeper’ and question why they do what they do and what they can change in their own behaviour and practices is difficult when you are not in the same physical location.”

The added value of having participants from different continents travel to The Netherlands should also not be underestimated. “When participants from different cultures come here, they realise that though different, we all have similarities,” adds Gevers. “Here they create new networks and make friends for life. For many, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which in many cases inspires their professional outlook forever”.

WCDI hopes that social learning - where participants learn, share and interact across the globe – can also be central in the online courses. The internet has helped many people to open doors to new knowledge, networks and careers. While the experience of physically visiting another country is currently not possible, the question is: how many of the interactions and meaningful exchange of participants' challenges and experiences can be successfully facilitated online? WCDI will soon find out: the first purely online courses start in September.

Blending online and face-to-face learning

In the longer term, when travelling and social interaction are once again possible, WCDI’s aspiration is blended learning. For WCDI, this implies a combination of several elements:

  • An integration of online, offline and face-to-face learning experiences. The latter may happen in The Netherlands, or in-country, where regional face-to-face elements would ensure the field component and cross-cultural interaction is successful.
  • The use of different teaching strategies, methods, technology, delivery channels and media.
  • Synchronous (i.e. at the same time) and asynchronous (i.e. in one’s own time) work to enable flexible learning experiences.
  • Individual, group, one-on-one and community activities, according to the social context.

“When moving to blended learning there is so much potential to make learning more effective” says Matilda Rizopulos. “In the past, however, there was little incentive to change because of the way our courses are generally designed and run, in a very participatory fashion, and where a large measure of success hinges on the energy, network building and fun experienced in the face-to-face setting”.

An effective combination of online and in-person modules gives learners the opportunity to learn over a longer time period, apply learnings directly to their work and at the same time get feedback and additional inputs. Blended learning can also help to create more connected networks in the longer term. Once participants have become used to engaging with each other online, it is more likely that they would continue, even as the courses end.

A different economic model for training providers

The development of online courses is initially more expensive per participant. One day of learning requires approximately two to four days of development, depending on the content and facilitation. This is to fit multiple learning styles and to ensure clear instructions for the content and material (e.g. in the assignment instructions, as much more can be lost in translation when not in the same room).

“I feel a lot of enthusiasm to start doing online courses, but there is lots to learn still about online design and facilitation. We need time to get familiar with different online tools and programmes, and we would like to work with creative people who can help build fun, funky online modules. And there are also still many uncertainties. Online design is costly - are donors ready to support this shift? They are moving at a different speed and do not always seem to be as familiar with what effective online learning entails. And as an organisation, are we fully onboard with this shift? As with climate change, we still face many uncertainties,” concludes Ingrid Gevers. The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought these challenges and opportunities to light.  

Contact the interviewees

Contact Matilda Rizopulos, Ingrid Gevers and Mirjam Schaap to exchange further ideas, by emailing:

WCDI is also planning to share more insights on their learning journey about delivering online-offline blended learning. Watch this space!  

Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation is part of Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. 

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