e-Learning for small groups: The Diplo Foundation’s experience

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The DiploFoundation is a small non-profit  rganization created by  theGovernments of Malta and Switzerland, co-located in Malta and Geneva. It’s mission: ‘to assist all countries, particularly those with limited resources, to participate meaningfully in international relations. Diplo promotes a  ultistakeholder approach, involving participation of international  rganizations, civil society and other actors in international affairs. Diplo’s activities include education and training programs, research, and  the development of  nformation and communication technologies for diplomatic activities.’ ( Diplo’s flagship course is its one year Post Graduate Diploma or Masters of Art course in contemporary diplomacy and use of ICT. Diplo is accredited by the University of Malta, with EU-wide  recognition. Limited to about 25 participants, the course draws  young men and women from around the world: working diplomats, students of international affairs, those working in international organizations, NGOs and others. Diplo offers scholarships to participants from  developing and transition countries, on the basis of funding from Swiss Aid, and support from entities such as the EU, the Commonwealth and other donors. In addition, Diplo runs an expanding number of short courses (usually of 10-week duration), and a series of programs covering Internet governance, plus diplomacy-related topics, aimed  at single countries, special groups,as also general participants. A common feature is that these courses are either entirely run through the Internet, or are offered as blended programs to participants from Europe, with a strong distance learning component. Teaching methodology The Internet-teaching methodology used has evolved through  experience, and consists of textbased learning, with very limited use of multimedia. A significant proportion of Diplo course users  are based in Africa, Asia, Oceania, places where broadband is still an unrealized promise, and the dial-up  connection, sometimes accessed by  articipants relying upon Internet  cafes is the simple reality. The  underlying  technical system and  the support infrastructure have  evolved over these  years, through  singularly dedicated work by  Diplo’s visionary Director, Jovan  Kurbalija, and his dozen-strong  team, based in Malta, Geneva and  Belgrade.  I   ined the teaching faculty of Diplo seven years back; that story  is one of chance   nd serendipity,  best reserved for personal  conversation! Let me, in this paper, first examine the relevance of e-  learning for  situations where    ntensive   acherstudent dialogue is imperative,  then narrate the  way we use elearning  at   iplo  and describing  another challenge  of e-learning —  the concept of the pure   selflearning’  course,  which some may  regard as the holy  grail of distance  learning, and others may see as   an unattainable goal.  Why e-Learning?  In   ome circumstances, e-learning is more efficient and economical  than   raditional learning, or ‘tlearning’. <!–Ads1–> Foreign ministry  mid-career training (when  most  personnels are on assignment  abroad ) and other ‘continuing education’   rograms, for example,  find a natural fit with the Internet. This method also proves less expensive for training locally the locally-engaged staff working in embassies abroad.  Another characteristic of diplomatic work is that much of it  involves craft skills. When the course participants are people with  many years   f experience, the ‘training’ is actually a mutual  learning process among the  lass,  where the faculty function as discussion catalysts and  facilitators, and   ven have much to learn from the course participants.  The Diplo method Diplo   as evolved its methods over  several years; described below is the current   echnique, in a process  that changes continually.<!–Ads3–> How does  our faculty-led  teaching work, with  a class size of 15  to 25 drawn from  10 or more countries,  distributed around the  world?  A typical module  consists of eight lectures and   wo  assignments, besides a final  exam. Under  universitymonitored standards,   uch a module typically  counts for four   units of postgraduate training. Diplo  uses sophisticated text-based  methods because many of its ‘class participants’,   s Diplo prefers to describe those enrolled in its  programs — do   ot have access to  broadband or multimedia modes.   After reading the lecture  osted on   the class web-page (usually of 3,000 to 4000 words), the  participants highlights some words or part of a sentence from the  lecture text   nd adds his or her   comment on it and the faculty add  his observations. The  lecture thus gets thoroughly reviewed by the  class. One can also view all the comments in their totality (without  opening each text-box), through a  ‘discussion tree’. The participants can also engage in a open-ended  dialogue, or   synchronous (i.e., not  in real time) exchanges, among the class and its   nstructor through a ‘lecture blog’. A part of the  participant’s final evaluation is based on the number and quality of  comment. All the comments are  ublic,  visible to the entire class,  but an option for private teacherparticipant   mment  hrough e-mails is also available.  Real-time online debate on points arising from  a particular lecture is incorporated in the e-learning process as the third major  ctivity     for each lecture. Thus each generation of course  members and  lecturers create a  new layer of meaning and     examples, enriching the initial   text. Unlike comments made in a traditional class, all the ecomments are  accessible anytime,  anywhere, and produce a   ermanent record as well. A  ‘resources’ button on the home page of the e-learning lecture site, takes one to a  ollection texts of   relevant documents as well as links   o other relevant web    sites.  Finally, at the end of a 7-day cycle, the teacher ‘closes the loop’ by  summarizing the key issues that the class discussed, and suggests some themes  hat participants may  wish to pursue on their own. The    iploFoundation’s experience shows that the process create a  sense of  community within this far-flung class which is further  augmented with group work among  class members, such as  assignments and simulated   egotiations. Such    chemistry  among the participants is the key   o this entire process, more so  when learning is no longer a  top-down process of dissemination  of basic  knowledge by the faculty to students, but rather mutual dialogue and shared learning . E-learning has to be supported by a  technical team that continually monitors the systems. A course director provides an extra pair of eyes for observing clas   nteractions, acting as the participant’s ally to resolve technical and other issues.  The self-learning format In some ways self-learning represents the ‘last mile’ of  distance learning, where the essence of a single lecture is  distilled to some 9 or 10 ‘frames’ or slides that a participant can scroll through, at his or her  convenience, with built-in questions and pop-up quizzes that  test the learning accomplished. At the extreme end of self-learning,  there may be no faculty participation at all, though it is quite easy to build in some faculty  supervision, depending on the circumstance.   came upon this method through   the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, Ottawa, who asked me in 2004 to convert a textbook I had written two years earlier into such a self-learning course of 6 lectures. We found that a course of 6  lectures could involve around 150hours of work in developing the formatted script, and an additional 700 to 800 hours to convert that into a full multimedia product,  making the process fairly laborintensive.That particular course took one year’s work. How does e-Learning  measure up? One may legitimately ask, is it really possible to overcome distance, replicating the instant, natural communication of the  traditional format? Can online learning match the rapport that a good teacher establishes with  students and   ce-to-face evaluation? Surely no videoconference or online chat room can reproduce the way a good guru assesses at a glance the class’s absorption of the ideas taught.

At first sight, such e-learning programs miss out on the rich interactivity described above. But in practice, once a self-paced program is designed, it is easy to add on faculty intervention, either in the form of exercises whose results go to a faculty member or  via periodic group exercises or simulations that break the apparent isolation of the self-taught format.  There is only one caveat: the faculty add-on is possible only  with server- based programs, not those distributed on CD-Roms.  As for the faculty-led e-learning programs, like those offered by Diplo, a surprising conclusion is  that in some ways the new format  is superior to the old one. Unlike traditional classrooms where the tutor is able to reply to only a few  queries within a stipulated period of time, e-learning classrooms supports a sustained facultyparticipant  engagement as evident  form the intensive scrutiny that each lecture undergoes.

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A huge advantage is that lecture comments remain available for  subsequent reference or reflection. Moreover, teachers invest on  average 12 to 15 hours per lecture, much more than a traditional  teacher takes to prepare and deliver the face-to-face lecture.  Most of our participants also find that they end up spending more  than the average of six to eight hours of class work that our courses promise. This may be partly due to the keen involvement  that such courses arouse among all. Some e-learning systems also opt  for more asynchronous activities, including group exercises such as  class assignments and use video  links or other multimedia facilities, depending on whether a diplomatic  service can provide broadband connectivity to all its missions abroad. <!–Ads2–> What about a downside? One can visualize a few potential problems with e-learning. First, if the class fails to establish internal rapport, the entire process becomes very mechanical. Second, it is possible that if many  ndividuals from a single organization take part, and if  in addition the faculty is also drawn from the same organization,  here could be some inhibition among the class in setting out their honest views, especially in written format. Third, if the e-learning class is told that their class  performance will be used for major internal evaluations, such as  promotions, one can easily encounter breakdown or reluctant participation. The moral: treat the  new medium with caution, and do not overload it with an excess of  frills or expectations; treat the first experiences as experimental, learn  as you go along! In sum, the e-learning format is a fascinating addition to the  repertoire of professional education. It is a work-in-progress, with each course that is run,  offering new insights for better application of the format. ?

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