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Starting next week, I’ll be participating in TechChange‘s course on Global Innovations for Digital Organizing: Open Data, Good Governance and Online/Offline Advocacy. I’m excited about it because the topics are among the things I’m most interested in, and I think they deserve a closer and more focused look.

I wrote a post back in November 2010 asking “where’s the ICT4D distance learning.” This led me to discover TechChange, and in January 2011 we co-hosted an “ICT4D Distance Learning Tweet Chat.” Since then I’ve been collaborating with the team to input into course ideas. I also participated as a moderator in the Mobiles in International Development course last year.

So after a year of running courses, what has TechChange learned? Nick Martin, TechChange founder, says that online learning needs to be social in order for it to be effective. “Most organizations think of ‘online learning’ as uploading powerpoints or manuals onto their website or hosting monthly webinars for their employees, but it can and should be so much more than this. By emphasizing social elements such as video chats, collaborative simulations, small group discussions and through the use of video game mechanics (point systems, progress bars, and good graphics) we keep participants engaged and connected with one another, not just the content.”

Working across time zones can be a challenge, as I also discovered when moderating the Mobiles in Development course. Scheduling in side chats was difficult, but that’s not something that’s easy to fix. TechChange tries to address this by “combining synchronous and asynchronous learning in the same platform and keeping the balance between a persistent learning network where people can socialize (via video, audio, and text) with each other and experts, and allowing people to get caught up on weekends when they fall behind so that they don’t feel left out,” according to Nick.

One thing the group learned about running this kind of course is that when engaging external experts in webinars and chats, informal-yet-direct interaction is much better than more produced content.

“We tried doing formal studio-style interviews with our experts, but found that most students just tuned out like they were watching a TV show. When the experts were just talking directly to the camera from their laptops, we found students asked more questions and participated more. They really appreciated the access to experts and weren’t particular about the production value of the webcast. Sometimes less is more,” Nick says.

Personal attention can still be a challenge, however. So TechChange emphasizes the role and importance of moderators. Their last Mobiles for International Development course had 70 students from 30 countries (see map below), making moderators a key part of personalization.

TechChange recently ran an online course for Pakistani students in partnership with IREX, where Nick says the challenge was keeping up with the students. “They brought creative ideas from their cultural exchange program with Global UGRAD-Pakistan, so we were always trying to tailor lessons around ways to improve or discuss their experiences. IREX was very focused on using our platform to create a tailored four-week program for the students, so we were able to tweak it as we went along.” (Read more here: TechChange Lessons from Training Pakistani Students Online)

The class with the Pakistani group was based on the Global Innovations for Digital Organizing course. TechChange had information ahead of time on the participant profile (the students were from Pakistan, undergraduate education, good English, decent connectivity), so they were able to maximize the experience by bringing in local partners like Pakistan Youth Alliance and Khudi and targeting youth leaders that they thought would resonate (like Prashan De Visser of Sri Lanka Unites). However, doing a class in Pakistan presented some difficulties, such as rolling power outages and load shedding. “We had to really make sure everything was optimized for low bandwidth and archiving.”

What does the future hold for TechChange? According to Nick, the group is pushing ahead on two fronts:

  1. Working with technology firms to create courses that can help them better engage their user communities
  2. Helping international development organizations integrate online learning into their local capacity building projects.

The open enrollment courses will remain, but the team will be focusing more on partnering with tech/development firms to help them build out their engaged communities. “There’s already a ton of cool tools out there that we love to teach, like Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap, but the biggest challenge isn’t tech–it’s educating and engaging communities of practice. We’re really excited about our upcoming Ushahidi course, which we developed in partnership with Ushahidi (developer Rob Baker will be the lead facilitator), but we see it as the first of many. Developers have great manuals, products, and organizations, but we can often add value by helping them educate their existing audiences and reach out to new ones.”

TechChange plans to work in the area of technical capacity building by developing more custom courses for organizations. “We see our role as changing from being the central learning location for individual students to helping development/nonprofit organizations reach out to their key stakeholders. This fulfills a key part of our mandate. It lets us provide tailor-made courses for organizations in fragile states and countries in transition.” TechChange is also looking to integrate their platform into other online learning opportunities, such as accredited courses and online conference opportunities.

It’s inspiring for me to see how quickly TechChange has built their online learning platform and how adaptable they are to the topics and themes that different people and organizations need to get a handle on in the area of ICTs and development and related humanitarian fields. I’m looking forward to participating (and speaking as a guest) in the Digital Organizing course starting on Monday!

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Almost a year ago, I met Ernst Suur (@ernstsuur) for the first time. We bonded in frustration over the irony of not being able to find any on-line courses to study ICT4D. We each did some research and didn’t come up with much, so we agreed I should write a blog post (See: Where’s the ICT4D distance learning?) to see if we could crowd source anything to help us out. We got some great comments with some good resources for the few courses that do exist or the ones that are in design.

We also discovered TechChange, a newish organization looking to develop some on-line ICT4D courses. We all chatted a couple of times and decided to co-host a ICT4D chat on Twitter to see if we could come up with some additional ideas on what kinds of courses people were interested in. (See the chat summary here). I also had a chance to meet with Nick, Mark and Jordan in their DC office to discuss ideas.

So I’m really excited to see that now TechChange has 3 new on-line courses happening this year:

1) Tech Tools and Skills for Emergency Management from September 5-23.

‘This course will explore how new communication and mapping technologies are being used to respond to disasters, create early warning mechanisms, improve coordination efforts and much more. It will also consider some of the key challenges related to access, implementation, scale, and verification that working with new platforms present. The course is designed to assist professionals in developing concrete strategies and technological skills to work amid this rapidly evolving landscape.  Participants can expect a dynamic and interactive learning environment with a variety of real world examples from organizations working in the field including those involved in the humanitarian response to the Haitian earthquake’

Course topics include: Crisis mapping, human rights violations and elections monitoring, citizen journalism and crowd sourcing, and information overload and decision-making in real-time.

ICT tools covered include: Ushahidi, Quantum GIS, FrontlineSMS, Open Street Map, Managing News.

2) Global Innovations for Digital Organizing: New Media Tactics for Democratic Change from September 26-October 4.

‘New platforms of communication are revolutionizing social dynamics by democratizing access to and production of media. From Barack Obama’s youth mobilization efforts to the ongoing uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, this course will examine how new channels of communication are being utilized and to what extent these efforts and techniques are successful or unsuccessful in a given context.  It will also provide participants with strategies for maximizing the impact of new media and train them in the effective use of a range of security and privacy tools.’

Course topics include: the new media landscape, offline organization and change through online mobilization, data and metrics, censorship, privacy and security.

3) Mobiles for International Development: New Platforms for Health, Finance and Education from October 16-November4.

‘The mobile phone is rapidly bringing communication to the most remote areas of the world. NGOs, governments and companies alike are beginning to realize the potential of this ubiquitous tool to address social challenges. This course will explore successful applications that facilitate economic transactions, support public health campaigns and connect learners to educational content. It will also critically engage with issues of equity, privacy and access.’

Course topics include: mobile money systems, mHealth and mobile diagnostics, data management for monitoring and evaluation, many-to-many communications integrating mobiles and radio, and mobile learning.

ICT tools covered include: mPesa, RapidSMS/Souktel, Sana Mobile, Medic Mobile, TxtEagle and FreedomFone.

Modalities:

Each course costs $350 (or $250 early bird price) and runs for 3 weeks. The courses require a time commitment of at least 6 hours per week in order to earn the certificate. There are also plenty of opportunities for those that want to spend more time to engage with additional materials and students can access content up to 6 months after course is over. The entire course will be delivered on-line ‘involving a variety of innovative online teaching approaches, including presentations, discussions, case studies, group exercises, simulations and will make extensive use of multimedia.’

I’ll be attending the 3rd course gratis in exchange for helping TechChange continue to shape the content and curriculum and providing feedback on the features and content. (Thank you, social media. Thank you, barter system!)

Register for any of the 3 courses here.

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