Friday, Jan 29, 2016  
  Heather Shapter NGO Capacity Building Specialist, B.A. (Psychology), MBA    


For over twenty years, Ms. Shapter has been building NGO capacity throughout the world to further her commitment to end poverty for vulnerable populations. She has held leadership roles in some of the world’s most respected International NGOs in such diverse environments as the Caribbean, eastern Africa, Russia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Ms. Shapter is currently VP, Non-profit and CSR Partnerships with Bluedrop Performance Learning (TSX-V: BPL). There her focus is on finding scalable technology solutions to empower women’s entrepreneurship and youth employment in developing countries. Ms. Shapter has a Masters in Business Administration from Queen’s University in Canada. She has been recognized nationally and internationally for leadership in service of others.

Scalable Learning Solutions: 5 Challenges NGOs Face And What To Do About Them


Technology may seem ubiquitous but two-thirds of the world’s population does not yet have access to the Internet. In these developing countries there is an enormous opportunity to reach hundreds of millions with just-in-time training for employment and entrepreneurship. So, how do we get the right learning technology in the hands of the poor?          

One of the fastest ways to reach the masses (who remain isolated from training technology) is to provide access to distribution networks and capacity builders from civil society organizations (CSOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). CSOs and NGOs have incredible reach, as millions of new organizations have emerged in the last ten years to aid marginalized youth and women in developing countries (World Economic Forum, The Future Role of Civil Society” January, 2013).Some CSOs and International NGOs are certainly blazing a trail on the learning technology front - Education for Employment and DreamBuilder- are cases in point. However, as powerful as learning technologies can be for equality in these countries, major challenges do, in fact, face the majority of CSOs. 

1. Poor Technology Infrastructure <>

International NGOs (INGOs) have legitimate concerns about how their operating environments can support scalable learning solutions. Access to computer equipment, unreliable electricity, low or poor connectivity and low bandwidth all present pervasive constraints to INGOs. It is expected that innovative technology will eradicate these issues. Google’s Project Loon is but one of the innovations under way to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters. One of our Clinton Global Initiative fellow members, SES Satellites, is using solar kiosk technology in the Middle East to provide internet connectivity for teachers. Viable hardware options for learning technology are also becoming more accessible and affordable. Android tablet prices are falling rapidly and most of the planet, including the developing countries, have simple cell phones with basic SMS text capability, a powerful complement to the more interactive, tablet-based learning curriculum.

2. Client literacy levels
Alphanumeric and digital literacy levels are quite low amongst clients. This is a prevalent concern for women entrepreneurs in the developing world but less so for youth who are entering the workforce in these same geographical contexts.  There are a myriad of ways to address these barriers and still have the learner gain the skills they need:

  • Blended learning:
Computer assisted or online learning can be supported by facilitators who can lend a hand to help learners get acquainted with this new form of training. We have developed many programs for learners who have not only never turned on a computer before, but were also sure that it would explode if they touched it! With often minimal support, these learners turn their insecurity into pride as they complete their first e-learning module and print out their first certificate. These same learners then naturally support others through on and off-line communities who face the same literacy barriers.

  • Motivation:

It is surprising to me how often this is overlooked in e-learning programs in today’s marketplace. Including short video testimonials from program graduates or employers are proven to be a great way to incentivize learning. Any learner, in particular those who have barriers to overcome, needs to know that it's going to be worth their while to engage themselves in the curriculum. When I worked in Bangladesh during the advent of the cell phone, many thousands of illiterate women clients with GRAMEEN Bank started to sell phone time to rural businessmen. Creating a link of communication from rural areas to the capital city, that would otherwise take a day of travel... This meant illiterate women needed to be able to read the English words that flashed across the digital display and calculate fractions of minutes. They had a powerful motivation: improving the lives of their children. That was all they needed. These “Phone Ladies”, as they were affectionately termed, had jumpstarted a booming business, granting them financial success.



  • Learning Content:

It is important to allow a seamless experience for those who find it challenging to use technology.  'Three clicks and you are in' is one rule of thumb we use for our programs that target individuals with lower literacy levels. Basically, eliminating as many stops from A to B as possible. There are countless ways to design content that can galvanize learning even among the lowest literacy users including how audio, video and animation are creatively leveraged. In one program, we found that daytime dramas were a compelling tool to help women and youth with low literacy levels learn how to set up a business. See this short video for an overview of this program.

3. Inflexible financing models

When it comes to INGO adult training programs in the employability and entrepreneurship spheres, funding agencies are accustomed to paying almost equal shares annually for a three to five year period.
Per training session, this covers the costs for trainers to develop and deliver curriculum, facility and hospitality (e.g. participant food/beverages) expenses as well as sometimes including expensive transportation costs for trainers or participants or both. About 85% of in person costs are spent on the delivery of the training itself. 

This cost structure is inverted with eLearning. The majority of costs are up front in the development of the content and technology platform itself. Once the upfront investment is complete however, ongoing marginal costs can almost go to $0, as what has been developed for one woman or young person can potentially be available for thousands or millions of learners. Further, the NGO or CBO network can retain Intellectual Property rights so the online curriculum can become a source of additional revenue – contributing to organizational sustainability - which is a key concern for funders today.

            Despite the return on investment from eLearning programs, many NGOs have been challenged by the inflexibility of their funding partners to shift how they allocate training dollars over the course of a Development Program. Worse, some funders will lump eLearning into the administration portion of a project budget (under technology). NGOs face immense pressure to keep administrative figures down so the chances of being able to get innovative computer- assisted training financed are quite low.

What can NGOs do about this? As more eLearning success stories from the South are shared around the world, the risk of doing things differently for funders will decrease. Funding agencies also look to NGOs more and more for direction on scalable innovations worth investing in. There is an opportunity for NGOs to step further into this leadership role. Finally, we encourage NGOs to explore capitalizing eLearning as an asset – just as a farmer invests in a tractor, NGOs must invest in tools for their computer.

4. Picking the right eLearning technology partner

It’s not quite the Wild West when it comes to eLearning partnerships for NGO employment and entrepreneurship programs – but it’s close. One of our learning technology consultants recently counted over 500 Learning Management Solutions that are in the marketplace today.


Here are some things to look out for in picking the right eLearning technology partner:


· Is the content and the Learning Management System SCORM compliant?: SCORM stands for “Sharable Content Object Reference Model”. It is basically a set of technical standards developed for eLearning software products. At its core, SCORM allows content authors to distribute their content to a variety of Learning Management Systems (LMS) in an efficient manner. If a system is NOT SCORM compliant, then only that single company’s content can be available to learners. Think of having one TV channel or one radio station when thousands of quality viewing and listening alternatives are available to the audience.


· Course completion rates: This is a good measure of how engaging and useful content is for the learner. A few years ago, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for example, stood poised to overturn the century-old model of higher education. Their interactive technology promised to deliver top-tier teaching for free via the Internet to thousands or even millions around the world. Yet, today’s completion rates for MOOCs are documented at between 4-10% (The IEEE Roundup, “Low Completion Rates for MOOCs”, February, 2014). With the right approach to partnership, shared goals, a learner-centric rubric for just-in-time demand driven online content, completion rates should be significantly higher. As one example, the completion rate for Bluedrop’s custom content hovers around the 70% mark.


· Real-time feedback to content authors: Look for a quick and easy way for learners to rate and provide feedback on their experience. This demonstrates a commitment to keep content fresh and prioritizes the learner’s input. · Third party assessments and track record: This recommendation isn’t specific to eLearning but its utility is worthy of note here. Has the organization under consideration won awards for their programs? Who are their current and past clients? Have they competed and won in regional or global competitions that emphasized criteria important to your NGO? What associations or accreditation bodies do they participate in or fit into? <


5. Fear of the Unknown

The biggest hurdle that I see NGOs face in taking the plunge into eLearning is the fear of the unknown and the fear of failing. While we understand that this is a completely natural first response, we believe the tide is beginning to turn with the number of successful eLearning programs available. In one particular case, we were even willing to underwrite all of the financial risk for an INGO but were ultimately told that because 70% of all technology projects fail, they weren’t willing to proceed. This is unfortunately a common sentiment from my conversations with NGOs. We are talking about changing the way training has been done – in some cases for generations – and incorporating the unfamiliar world of technology into that change.  This is a double whammy for many well-meaning eLearning organizations full of brilliant and dedicated development professionals.            

‘Seeing is believing”: Development professionals test drive the eLearning content and system for themselves can address a lot of the discomfort that comes with bringing the technology and NGO worlds together. Funders that incentivize innovation in learning technology can light a much needed fire for NGO engagement as well. Encouraging NGO and Technology  Leaders to discuss what the landscape in learning technology will look like in 5 to 10 years usually results in relief and excitement about the future. Taking the necessary risks and bring that future into reality is incumbent on civil society and funding organizations. They can take the risks that the people they serve cannot. 

What are your NGO challenges for adopting scalable learning solutions?

How have you dealt with them?