by Brooke Prater Larson
Over the course of the almost ten years that we have been operating the Parliamentary Strengthening online learning program, we have seen a variety of responses from our participants. Approximately 60%  of participants over the years are active, meaning that they read the material online regularly, respond to the forum questions, engage with their peers, and complete thoughtful, relevant, useful and well-researched final projects. And 60% is a really good figure! The average drop-out rate for typical online learning is 70%!
Our program was developed following a call that we continue to hear from parliamentary staff to learn to more effectively fulfill parliament’s roles in promoting good governance, budget oversight, poverty reduction, democracy and public participation in the policy process. We know this is all something that is needed and desired by our target audience. Likewise, the evaluations we receive after the courses are complete are generally very positive, and the long-term evaluations show real impact being made.
We are happy that we far outpace other e-learning programs out there, but we still wanted to know: how could we better engage the remaining 40%? To do this we needed to determine both the reasons that cause registrants to never become participants, as well as why some begin but do not complete the course they’ve signed on to take.
Busy, busy, busy
Our participants are some of the busiest people out there. Sometimes our participants are so busy in their daily work that some weeks there simply are not enough hours in the day to complete their professional work and their professional development work. Choices have to be made, and we do not want participants to neglect their professional responsibilities for our courses. But we are flexible on timelines when we need to be. Almost always, with a little nudge participants are on board again, later in the week, actively debating with their peers and considering the practices they’ve learned in their own parliamentary system.
One of the most common explanations for underperformance that we hear is that participants have lost internet access, either by losing electricity or connectivity. In those cases, we recommend that participants download the material first, prepare their answers offline and have them at the ready for the discussion forum when access is restored. Even when access is interrupted, however, we have noticed that the vast majority of our participants can access the internet through their smart phones, mobile devices or a personal computer. This is reflected in independent worldwide data on access to telecommunications services—did you know that over six billion people have cell phones? We are, therefore, in the process of adapting all of our courses to become smart-phone ready, so when participants do not have access to electricity or a computer after they have left the office, they can continue to learn through their device.
There may also be a cultural disconnect. For some participants, it takes a lot of encouragement and hand-holding at the start of these courses to get them into a rhythm and comfortable and trustful of the process enough to fully engage. Some come in believing that they need to do very little to participate, and still expect to walk away with a certificate, or they do not realize that our virtual learning courses involve quite a bit of moderator (teacher) and peer interaction. We have people across the globe who are vested in the outcome of the learning of each of our participants. We are always here to help, and do not let anyone without a very good excuse fall through the cracks. We like to believe that the people running the courses are not only experts in the field, but good instructors who are driven by the altruism of international knowledge-sharing above all, and have the ultimate goal of locally empowered people.
Finally, we are always trying to make things more interesting to keep our participants engaged. New this year, for each course we have a self-moderated quiz so participants can test their knowledge and check where they need to learn more. In addition to the open-ended discussion questions, participants will be required to provide 1-2 paragraph weekly summaries of what they feel to have been the most important points covered in the course that week and relate this to their national and work environment for each course. Moderators will review the responses and guide participants to not just rehash what has been taught, but to analyze how the material they were taught can be applied to their own situations. Except in very sensitive situations, this is shared with peers online.
Each course has a mandatory peer review. Moderators are being asked to pair students up to consider each other’s responses and provide critical feedback. Participation in the peer-to-peer review is compulsory and may occur in the form of interviews, problem solving, or case studies.
Moderators may provide listening exercises, in which students view or listen to recordings of speeches by policymakers, multilaterals, CSOs, private sector reps, unions, constituents, etc. and make a comparison of points on the discussion. The comparison is made public and a discussion follows.
If there is a relevant current event happening, moderators may keep things current by directly asking participants to answer discussion questions about it and ask participants to take on the role of some stakeholder regarding the issue. Or participants themselves may be asked to make a video with a peer in responses to a news article, acting as the newsperson and the various people involved in the issue/crisis/debate.
And we are suggesting to some very motivated moderators to incorporate problem solving exercises using data or qualitative analysis collected using sources such as the WDR, EdStats, or USAID, for example.
Distance learning requires quite a bit of motivation from the students. It is our job to help them remember why it is important and to keep the course content and learning experience as compelling as possible. We must be flexible on time lines with all of our students, and continue to attempt to use innovative ways to share knowledge among participants. For critical thinking, this learning program continues to be one of the best and most in-demand learning programs for parliamentary staff for a reason. We are committed to keeping it interesting and keeping our parliamentary participants engaged so that we can collectively achieve long-term impact in transforming parliaments.