Since the beginning of the pandemic, schools have closed for a total duration of 708 weeks in the European Union. To ensure educational continuity, governments were forced to implement digital learning.
NGOs and civil society organizations had to impose similar digitization to their activities, they resorted to information and communication technologies when implementing formal or non-formal education programs. Maintaining engagement in online learning communities appeared to be a significant challenge for both actors. Experiential education suffered a setback at the very moment of its expansion in Europe when the Member States were investing in international volunteering and the European Commission preparing the launch of the European Solidarity Corps. Online learning as a backup, last resort, solution rather than an education methodology is a misconception still deeply rooted. It hinders the investments in digital education by public action.
In this article, Prisma European Network details three recommendations and related activities for NGOs implementing remote education programs or activities endeavoring to gather online communities.
NGOs need first to accept a factual situation: online experiences and learning opportunities can not equal offline experiential learning. Distance-based learning constitutes a new educational paradigm. Online education consequently calls for new strategies, rather than alternatives.
1: TO CREATE A COMMUNITY OF LEARNERS
The program’s beneficiaries must be identified and explicitly referred to as part of a community of learners. The NGO must exemplify how the program will lead to measurable outcomes, as such, the community will share a common understanding of its purpose.
Creating an online-based community requires specific efforts. An online environment must be opened, where the community reunites, for instance, a dedicated forum or Facebook Group. The ecosystem is restricted to the community and the mentors. Information on how to use the digital tools available and rules are easily accessible and accepted by all: participants can be asked to sign a Charter. To kick off the program or activity, a discussion thread allows each participant to introduce themselves with visual contents, preferably a video. Generic information should be provided, as well as more memorable or personal elements: hobbies, ambitions, relevant experiences. Participants have to specify how they envision the learning process in which they are now engaged. Mentors will thus be able to slightly recalibrate activities to better suit the community as a whole. The community has the possibility to communicate: it is recommended to use an instant messaging service (Google Hangout, Messenger, WhatsApp, Discord…). Such channels are not a primary source of information but forums for informal, laidback, discussions. Mentors should encourage peer-to-peer interactions on this channel.
2: TO KEEP THE COMMUNITY INTERACTING
Online activity will not appear on its own, it must be compelled in the early stages of the program. The NGO resources to frequent meetings, creating a fixed routine. Learners can meet once a week in a video call when they will reflect on the week gone by, and the one to come, share achievements, goals, difficulties.
Communication between the mentors and the participants is key. PRISMA recommends that team leaders or representatives be nominated within the community. Responsible for organizing informal meetings, they keep the instant messages platform active, provide an intermediary between the mentors and the learners, gather inquiries or feedback …
An engaged community is supported by frequent interaction. To support this necessity, the NGO should implement peer learning opportunities. Online education uncovered the often-overlooked process of discussing the course material with fellow students as crucial to its assimilation. In that sense, online learning and non-formal education truly can invest in peer learning’s horizontality. Learners are not the passive receptacles of unavailable mentors. Learning activities are reciprocal. Mentors design collaborative exercises valuing the autonomy of the community’s members, and exploit the synergies between diverse professional profiles.
Peer learning will initiate frequent and blended interactions. The NGO provides a list of instructions on how to reach the mentors as well as the community’s members. E-mail addresses are not enough, learners are encouraged to reach out on virtual conference platforms. It is helpful to establish a timeline with the participants’ hours of availability, per time-units (day, week, or month).
If productive interactions are relevant, mentors must relate to the community on a more individual basis. Communities are made up of people: mentors enquire about the learners’ well-being, and open a time of informal discussion at the beginning and/or the end of each session. These exchanges are an opportunity to gather feedback on different activities. The NGO will thus be able to continuously improve the program, and the community will feel valued which heightens engagement.
3: TO MENTOR AN ENGAGED COMMUNITY
Communities are built on shared experiences. Online learning may create these opportunities with experiential learning. Service-learning is a methodology drawing from the learning by doing philosophy of John Dewey. It links the agenda of the learners to the needs of a beneficiary community. Participants address social issues through volunteering. Recently, service-learning has received critics targeting its tendency to disregard the service aspect of the discipline to the benefit of the learners’ necessities. NGOs must implement good practices for experiential education. They have expertise in meeting the actual needs of beneficiaries, and in doing so while respecting the no-harm principle. Moreover, NGOs could design advocacy campaigns in conjunction with volunteering activities. They would challenge the non-involvement of public governance and push for a sustainable, systemic change. NGOs can provide appropriate training where learners will own interpersonal skills and work to set aside their misconceptions on social change or the beneficiaries. E-service learning is a discipline steadily gaining momentum, presenting the advantage of overcoming geographical constraints and allowing volunteers and beneficiaries to exchange on a one-on-one basis, on neutral ground. Joining theory to social impact, volunteering will reinforce the engagement of the community.
A practical recommendation is to design user-centered programs. A deficit of engagement may be caused by scarce interactions, lack of resources, opportunities for personal growth, or visibility. The community must be contained to a small number of platforms. Ideally, the community evolves in a single digital ecosystem offering different services. Some participants may not be digitally literate or have poor internet connectivity, so simple, straightforward, inclusive digital tools are a necessity.
Celebrating progress will invite individuals to engage in the community. Members must autonomously keep track of their achievement, in a KPI table for instance. PRISMA recommends mentors ask the participants to document their own experiences and progress, encouraging personal accountability. The NGO gathers regular feedback, or learners can write a reflection journal. Such initiative may also facilitate the in-depth evaluation of the program, down the line. Sessions kick-off meetings support involvement and revitalize the community. At the beginning/end of the week or month, mentors host the community for an informal and spontaneous discussion where objectives are further explained, deadlines reminded, and events promoted. Mentors use this opportunity to broadcast the accomplishments of the learners, either in the framework of the program or not. Mentors must be engaging.
Routine structures the advancement of the program but change and spontaneity are useful to combat online fatigue, a sense of repetition, and disengagement. The NGO varies the methodologies, by blending formal and non-formal education. The community can celebrate relevant days depending on the nationality, hobbies, or profession of its members. Projections could be organized with an add-on such as Teleparty. For long-term programs, learners should have an opportunity to set up clubs. Mentors could design Serious Games. External contributors could be invited to hold workshops on art, meditation, cooking, public speaking… The community could participate in open calls or competitions. Participants could lead educational activities related to their expertise.
A last piece of advice: mentors have to clarify their role within the community at the very beginning of the program or activity. The Kolb Educator Role Profile offers insights into the different postures that can be adopted.
Mentors are to be exemplary and involved, as part of the community. They build their social presence and enact good practices on topics such as the use of communication channels, punctuality, exchanges with learners, participation in meetings … They do not hesitate to propose video-call meetings whenever a member formulates an inquiry or a difficulty. Mentors must be accessible and signal that they are willing to offer support.
NGO, with online education, proposes a more inclusive educational continuity, something institutional education mechanisms have been struggling with. However, their reach and impact are limited by gender or economic disparities, lack of access to technologies or educational material, lack of digital literacy... Online education must include strategies to overcome these obstacles, in line with the SDG4 and SDG10 of the 2030 Agenda.