Three things you won’t expect when facilitating a distance blended learning course

FROM: Antonia Does, Franz Thiel, Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 25. September 2019

If you’re thinking of facilitating a distance learning course, but just don’t have a clue on how to effectively conduct it, then fear not! For ten weeks, we – Antonia Does and Franz Thiel – jointly embarked on a learning journey with the course participants on results-based project cycle management for Helvetas staff. Some things turned out as we expected; others were a bit of a surprise…

Taking or providing a training course is one of the most favourite topics in development cooperation. Yet, for those who took or provided a training, it’s rare to reflect, with the exception of often dry and boring evaluation sessions at the end of the course. 

The other day, when we bumped into Zenebe Uraguchi in the cafeteria at Helvetas, he asked us how the course went, and we realised there were three things we didn’t expect when facilitating a distance blended learning course.

By blended learning, we mean learning and teaching that combines individual learning (self-study; asynchronous) with face-to-face and virtual learning (meetings online or in person with other students or facilitators; synchronous). Delivery can use different mechanisms or processes – ranging from traditional lecture (documents and webinars) to self-directed and peer learning (discussion groups), online tutorials, coaching and feedback sessions (personalized).

Now to our three unexpected learnings….

Even great online meeting software can fail you

Throughout the ten weeks, we got together five times in virtual classrooms to exchange and discuss certain contents of the various modules. Starting off, we used the built-in online meeting software of our learning platform. The recording function worked, participants were able to join, the recording was automatically saved on the learning platform for participants to access it. So far, so good.

One week further into the course, the recording disappeared from the learning platform; we weren’t able to retrieve a back-up. The recording function from the software itself was also gone. We regretted telling the participants: “all recordings will be available even after the virtual classrooms for you to go back in your own time.” 

The next virtual classroom was just around the corner. We didn’t have the luxury of waiting and hence decided to try different online meeting software suitable for interaction with the participants: Direct polling? Raising your hand? Interactive whiteboard use by all call attendees? Voting on a specific question?

Unfortunately, we experienced yet again technical glitches – our web cameras didn’t transmit the videos, some participants were unable to open their microphones to speak and the desktop-sharing function wasn’t enabled, which was very practical when you are conducting a virtual quiz and would like to show the questions and answer options.

Yet, we didn’t think that this was the death knell that would turn off the participants’ interest to continue with the course. Rather, we were really surprised to find out that:    

  • Participants were more involved and eager to make things work. For example, by putting their contributions as comments instead of speaking, by listening attentively as videos didn’t work and their winning of the quiz did depend on them properly understanding the question and answer options.
  • Facilitators stayed flexible and got creative on the spot. There’s nothing one can change to make things work that aren’t working while the virtual classroom is taking place. This helped us find alternative ways of making the virtual classrooms useful, interactive and interesting.
  • Sometimes less is more or it’s better stick to what you know best. In the last two virtual classrooms, we went back to our good old conferencing software that everyone knows well. Although it doesn’t have all the interactive and fancy features that the other two had, it worked well and reliably, participants were able to join in and speak and desktop-sharing worked seamlessly.

Exchange doesn’t happen automatically

Helvetas has approximately 1,450 staff working in more than 30 different countries. For obvious practical reasons, these individuals don’t all know each other, and cannot all be connected.

We had 15 participants in the course that work in eight countries and in eleven different projects. Our aim was fostering experience-sharing, discussion, exchange and interaction. Yet, we noticed that exchange doesn’t happen automatically – concrete points of interaction and opportunities for exchange need to be provided and encouraged – even more so with a course taking place at distance.

The course design had already foreseen some of those points of interaction with group exercises. Participants teamed up in pairs or groups of three and connected remotely to work on a specific exercise. The virtual classroom provided further opportunities. Encouragement from our side was helpful throughout the course for participants to make use of these opportunities. In fact, one of the anonymous inputs we received from one participant underlined this point:

“It is good to encourage participants to help each other, and share ideas, not only with the active participants but also [with] the inactive ones."

Over 70% of the participants thought that the group exercises with colleagues from other countries were ‘very useful’; over 90% considered learning from their colleagues’ experiences as ‘extremely useful’ or ‘very useful’; and around 35% wished they had had more time for such exchange.

Participants said they learnt but gaps also remained

The trap of training in development cooperation is that it can become a never-ending process. Sometimes, you see also contradictions in the learning achievements of participants. Here’s an example.

  • Over 80% of the participants stated that they achieved their overall learning objectives of the course
  • 90% answered that they deepened their knowledge in the domains they defined for themselves at the start in April
  • 72% still identified gaps in knowledge or skills remaining after the course

When reviewing the anonymous course evaluation and feedback, we were surprised about the inconsistency between the participants’ gained knowledge and completion of their learning objectives, and gaps that they identified. They suggested, for example, taking another course on the topic, re-reading the materials, practice, learning, asking for feedback from team members, and self-development.

For six months after the course (until the end of 2019), participants can benefit from individual coaching and can ask for feedback on application of any of the course materials in their daily work. Practicing, learning and digging deeper in the materials will likely enable them to close these gaps – and encouragement to make use of these opportunities available to them will be a part of it, too.

“What I particularly liked about the ten-week project cycle management course was to what we, as a value-based organisation, pay particular attention to and what makes us special as Helvetas. As part of my job as Regional Fundraiser Mekong, I was particularly interested in the topics of project planning and enjoyed taking advantage of the offered coaching. The facilitators from the Knowledge and Learning Team coached me enthusiastically in development of logframes, both during and after the course, which is especially important at the beginning for project planning.” -- Julia Thienhaus, Regional Fundraiser Mekong at Helvetas

We will keep working on these points of interaction and opportunities for exchange and learning with all participants – regardless of whether active or inactive – until the next course. We will keep an eye open for new technology that has the potential to improve the learning experience for participants. After all, these unexpected realizations help us learn how we can enhance the upcoming 2020 version of the blended learning course.

Additional sources


Cover picture: Brooke Cagle

Advisor Network Knowledge & Learning
Programme Coordinator, East and Southeast Europe, Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies