E-learning: Value Added or a Fad?


For more than 25 years, the Pan American Health Organization has supported disaster preparedness and mitigation training initiatives throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. This support has taken many forms—from complete or partial sponsorship of selected events, to mobilizing trainers or content experts, to providing technical or training material. As countries have become increasingly self-reliant in meeting their own training needs, PAHO is exploring new ways to reach a broader audience with the “just-in-time” information it needs for decision making and performance enhancement.

E-learning, distance learning, self-paced learning—it has many names—is one option on the horizon, and one that is generating a great deal of enthusiasm. However, convincing the disaster community to step into an e-learning environment will require more than spending large sums on technological innovations and fancy graphics. To compete effectively with the vast amount of information that is already available in traditional learning formats, users must learn to recognize when and how e-learning represents true value added.

E-Learning: Value added or just a fad?

In the last five years, many disaster management e-learning initiatives have been trumpeted as the alternative to costly international courses directed to an elite. Donors, eager to ride the “dotcom” wave, generously funded these projects. Today, most have quietly faded away. A few e-courses are struggling to find paying students to meet their costs, but residential courses, a breed thought to be marked for extinction with the advent of e-learning, are more numerous than ever!

These difficulties have taught us a few things:

  • Converting existing technical content into an electronic format does not automatically ensure that effective learning takes place. Just as with a traditional classroom course, it is important to develop good instructional objectives and figure out how to evaluate the success of e-learning initiatives.
  • As opposed to a traditional learning environment, where a classroom instructor has a pretty good sense of when students have grasped a concept, self-paced or independent learning modules often lack the element of human interaction that makes this possible. In the same way that a videotaped lecture is no substitute for a live instructor, e-teaching must include a great deal of human interaction.
  • No matter how complete or authoritative a textbook or publication is, some concepts will always require an instructor to effectively transform information into knowledge.

The myth: e-learning is economical and easy

E-learning is not necessarily a cost-saving alternative to traditional face-to-face training workshops. It’s expensive to launch this type of initiative and converting content requires special skills. In addition to the costs associated with editing and formatting the content for an electronic medium, materials must be reviewed or redeveloped to provide a structured learning format. In a well designed e-course, the larger the audience, the better the return on investment. E-learning will continue to be costly unless it reaches a large number of students. Is health disaster management a suitable topic for this?

E-learning is not the easiest form of training and learners must adapt to what is still a non-traditional format. E-learning requires a commitment to follow through with a schedule. Participation and interaction are essential, particularly in a group learning environment. Past experience in courses such as LEADERS, which encourages peer interaction, has shown that the knowledge and experience participants bring with them to the course is one of the most valuable resources. Learners must also have a realistic idea of how much time they can and are willing to allocate to an e-course and how soon they expect to acquire the skills and knowledge.

To embark on or embrace this type of learning environment, learners must perceive a real value added. For example, many disaster managers have told us that certification or continuing education credits lend legitimacy to their profession and enhance their status within their organization. Distance learning can be a cost effective way of delivering tailor-made training, backed by a credible institution, to the greatest number of individuals possible.

What’s next?

Just as the radio never replaced books or newspapers and the television did not spell the end of movie houses, e-learning must find its complementary niche among more traditional forms of training. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the time and cost required to set up and launch an e-learning initiative, thus increasing resistance and making it a prospect that never quite reaches fruition. However, by starting small, developing short modules that can be incorporated subsequently into a more comprehensive program, there’s no better time than now to begin.

For example, evaluations from the first four LÍDERES courses (a rigorous disaster management training program that encompasses more than 18 modules over a 13-day period) have revealed particular interest in certain topics. Developing these topic areas into e-learning modules would enable PAHO to deliver the most relevant or popular content to a much larger audience. In doing this, a balanced approach would be best for courses such as LÍDERES, whose on-site costs are quite high. In this scenario, self-paced learning, where a student progresses through material at his/her own pace, would be blended with live e-learning, where tools such as audio or videoconferencing and synchronous events allow greater interaction, all of which would eventually lay the foundation for those face-to-face course modules that do not lend themselves as well to this format.

It’s hard to match the social value of face-to-face learning, which may make some even more resistant to adopt distance learning methodologies. This may suggest that it is best to introduce changes slowly or in stages, perhaps within the context of a traditional training workshop, where an e-learning module could be designed as a follow-up instructional exercise to a traditional training program or as a requirement that participants must complete prior to attending a workshop. In this way, e-learning would support existing traditional learning initiatives without replacing them all together.

While technology itself will never be the driver for developing distance learning opportunities for the disaster community, e-learning initiatives, particularly web-based initiatives that incorporate some form of live interaction that simulates face-to-face encounters, can and are becoming an important component of training strategies. PAHO hopes to help enable the disaster “community of practice” to communicate, collaborate and share knowledge regionwide and to learn and use that knowledge to become more effective—all hallmarks of a learning organization.


Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief

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