Friday, Jan 29, 2016  






What do NGOs need to consider when scaling learning outcomes through technology?


By Heather Shapter, Bluedrop Learning Networks With perspectives from CARE Canada


This article asks five key questions for NGOs to consider when exploring the use of learning technology for development initiatives. The responses incorporate the perspectives of CARE Canada of what it takes into account when exploring the role learning technology can play in helping it fulfill its mission and Bluedrop's expertise in this area. As mentioned in my previous article “Scalable Learning Solutions: 5 Challenges NGOs Face and What to Do About Them” one of the biggest hurdles that I see NGOs face in taking the plunge into e-Learning is the fear of the unknown and the fear of failing. However, while we understand that this is a completely natural first response, we believe the tide is beginning to turn with the number of successful e-Learning programs available.


To explore this further, I sat down with Joanne Owens, Senior Manager for Women’s Economic Empowerment and Alexandra Crofton, Program Officer for Women’s Economic Empowerment, both of CARE Canada.

Question #1:A key starting point for NGOs as they look to the expanding offerings of learning technology is to first consider what do they want to accomplish with its use? This leads us to the question of what do we mean by learning technology?


Definitions: For the purposes of this article we are referring to the following:


Learning: The kind of learning that contributes to skill building for adults in the areas of starting a business, making money, getting a job or keeping a job.


Technology: Mobile technology, e.g. tablets and stationary computers such as laptops and desktop computers. Mobile phones (SMS, MMS, or EMS) are complementary technology in this equation, but not the primary learning vehicles. This is because learners in general do not use their mobile phones to complete courses, even when course duration is as short as 15 minutes.



Learning Technology: There is a range of options of how much of the learning is experienced through technology. At one end of the continuum, 100% of the training can be technology based. For example, a female entrepreneur could learn how to complete a business plan on her tablet all on her own. At the other end of the continuum, in-person instruction could account for the vast majority of training. Online components would be few in number and would be undertaken in a computer lab/centre with in-person facilitators still present. For the purposes of this discussion, we are mostly considering a blended learning experience - one that is a mix of in person support/instruction with some online or computer-assisted components. This mix is a powerful way to introduce learning technology to populations that have low levels of both alphanumeric and digital literacy and who are also learning in environments that have low bandwidth, spotty Internet or even electricity access. As an example, we look to one of our clients: DreamBuilder. DreamBuilder provides a unique online business training program to help women build their dream of starting or growing their own business. After their blended learning experience, English and Spanish speaking DreamBuilder graduates reported their self-confidence was improved by 92% and 93%, respectively. This result was one of many important factors that attested to the success of the program.


Like many International NGOs (INGOs), CARE Canada focuses on building the capacity of local organizations in developing countries to deliver difference making programs for vulnerable women and girls. For women, the outcomes CARE’s Women’s Economic Empowerment team and its local partners are out to accomplish include:


  • Increasing women's access to financial services and control over assets.
  • Prosperous entrepreneurship.
  • Dignified working conditions.
  • Women's entry into more lucrative markets and value chains.


As CARE Canada and other INGOs consider learning technology options, they look to where and how it can help them to accomplish these outcomes better, faster and for more women than traditional in-person approaches.


It is important to note here that digital technologies can empower women economically and socially. Because social norms, time and mobility constraints are often more severe for women than for men, women could benefit greatly from technology, which requires shorter timeframes, can be done on a flexible schedule and locally, thus enhancing the likelihood of women being able to attend eLearning training sessions. (World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends).


QUESTION #2: Is technology really an asset?


Technology is an asset, just like land or money. Thus, it is important to consider who has access to it and when. CARE Canada’s Joanne Owens points to the importance of addressing gender barriers to asset access and control when considering learning technology initiatives. If a woman is given a tablet from a local organization, for example, but has no access to use it in her own home because of husband/wife dynamics, there is minimal benefit. If the woman does not have any control over the income she earns from the training she took on her tablet, then again learning technology benefits will be stunted.

When these issues are not integrated into program planning, the introduction of technology can actually be damaging and cause greater gender inequality. It can also mean that it is less effective in reaching the overarching goal of poverty reduction in the long-term. 5As the international development community has learned over the last several decades, if men are not brought on board with women having increased access to land, money, training or economic opportunity, intended results can backfire. CARE Canada has anticipated this as its local partners have a long track record of successfully engaging men and other key stakeholders in transformative initiatives. Thus, the potential benefits for the whole family can be seen - even when there is fear of change.


Question #3: What about the buy-in of the women themselves?


The potential benefits of learning technology are abundant:


Typical in class knowledge retention is 15% after 3 weeks. E-Learning is proven to increase retention from between 25-60%.


Delivers innovative, mobile friendly content in low bandwidth environments.


Offers the opportunity for both face to face and online learning.


Supports multiple languages and varying literacy levels.


Scale and sustainability: 85% of in person training is spent on its delivery. E-Learning eliminates these costs. Once learning is built, the cost of delivering the training for one is the same as delivering the training for hundreds of thousands of learners.


While these potential benefits may appear compelling, they cannot be realised unless there is genuine buy-in from the women themselves. They are also easily matched, if not overtaken, by barriers of anyone looking to use technology for the first time. Add to this equation women learners who are illiterate, living on less than two dollars a day with multiple children to care for and extraordinary daily demands for survival. In rural environments, electricity is often sparse or nonexistent. In urban centers, internet access and bandwidth options may be better, but then affordability is the barrier. From a sociocultural perspective, women, particularly older women, usually look to learning technology as something for the young or the domain of men only.


But…. never underestimate the power of a mother to do the extraordinary, especially if she sees a pathway to having her children have a better life.


When CARE Canada was looking to support local partners in Pakistan to stimulate new economic opportunities for women, they worked together to identify how could women participate in a very non-traditional income generating activity such as roadwork. For many rural women in this part of the world, this kind of public work outside of the home would take immense courage to engage in. In this case, an economic incentive of a weekly paycheck helped the women to overcome the barriers they faced. The initiative has been transformative and a great success.


Road Maintenance Team (RMT) worker Kosar Parveen (35) has opened a grocery shop with her savings (Punjab province, Pakistan) ©Wolfgang Gressman

In other cases, having a local female leader champion for the use of new technology has supported participation.


Bluedrop Learning Networks has also found that leveraging social networks for support and accountability can breed transformational results with low-income women who have never before turned on a computer. For example, in many developing countries women come together on a regular basis - often twice a month or more to deposit savings, get or repay loans, receive training and for peer support. This weekly or biweekly meeting provides an excellent vehicle to keep learners accountable when completing certain learning segments in between meetings, to answer questions and in some cases to engage in group-based computer-assisted learning.


Bluedrop's instructional design team also points out that because the learning technology itself shows a clear improvement over their current approach to learning or training, it gives the learner an incentive to try a new way of doing things. Imagine a woman farmer who has to wait on the veterinarian extension worker to make his rounds to get assistance with diagnosing the unusual symptoms that her goat started manifesting overnight. If the farmer can turn to her learning tablet and identify what ails her goat and how to treat it through a set of audio and graphic-based instructions, then there is immediate benefit to the farmer. With the right initial support to get that farmer comfortable with the technology, the positive ripple effects of on-demand access to learning are inspiring. (Note that this scenario includes downloaded instructions so internet access is not required. A charged tablet is required however, and mobile entrepreneurs that offer charging sites from village to village is becoming increasingly popular in remote areas).


Question #4: How could an NGO pick where learning technology can make the biggest socio-economic difference for marginalized women?

We will break this out into a) Learning Content and b) Technology

A) For choosing the most impactful “Learning Content”, Bluedrop advises its partners to consider:

What sectors have the biggest labour gaps? Labour market data conducted by national governments, by the International Labour Organization or the World Bank can help focus on certain sectors. Even if rural women won’t ever directly work on, for example, large urban construction projects, increased demand will reverberate across the value chain and can show up in solar panel installation and maintenance training demand - a skill that can be built anywhere.


Don’t reinvent the wheel: In your environmental scan, discover what learning curriculum may already be in the works to address workforce gaps.


Form partnerships with industry associations in those sectors that are growing: Integrate industry partners into curriculum development so the learning programs are meeting their needs on an ongoing basis. Employer endorsement of skill building programs are also a big motivator to the learner - she knows that if she takes those online courses, she will increase her chances of getting a job.


Consider learning themes that cross multiple sectors: CARE Canada points to the opportunity of scale learning in the crosscutting areas of entrepreneurship and financial literacy as the launch pads for women’s advancement in much of the developing world.


b) Technology: Where to begin?

There are several aspects that need to be explored prior to implementing learning technology:

Internet availability, speed and coverage.

Device usage:
What technology is currently available to women learners? How can this technology be leveraged/integrated into technology solutions?

Cellular networks: What cellular networks do women use in a particular area? How can their current usage be leveraged? Incorporate communication costs into program design so this is not a barrier to access.


Policies and Regulations: Understand how legislation can impact e-Learning or blended learning offerings including internet control as well asset ownership for the women learners themselves. Organizational capacity for program delivery and ongoing maintenance of both hardware and software components.  

When considering geographically where to implement learning technology programs, CARE Canada has an interesting perspective to bring to bear. CARE responds to dozens of natural and manmade disasters every year with much needed humanitarian assistance. In some cases, people lose everything. As they rebuild their lives (often from scratch) adversity can be an opportune time to embrace new ways of doing things, including e-Learning.  


CARE Canada stresses the importance of looking through a gender lens for every aspect of learning technology initiatives.


All stakeholders - government, civil society organizations, technology partners and women’s groups themselves - have a role to play in leapfrogging years of entrepreneurship and employability skills’ building - at scale.
CARE was founded in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II when it began delivering the original CARE packages to needy and vulnerable families in Europe. True to its mission so many years ago, CARE Canada today continues to work with the poorest individuals, families and communities, with a special focus on women and girls, to save lives, defeat poverty and achieve social justice. CARE focuses on women and girls because they are disproportionately affected by poverty and discrimination, and empowering women’s self-reliance offers the greatest opportunities for families and communities to break the cycle of poverty.

CARE Canada video link:

Bluedrop Performance Learning Inc. (BPL) is the publicly listed holding company for its two wholly owned operating divisions, Bluedrop Training and Simulation Inc. (BTS) and Bluedrop Learning Networks Inc. (BLN) to which it provides management oversight and shared corporate and financial services. Founded by majority shareholder and CEO Emad Rizkalla, BPL’s mandate is to lead and dominate niche markets where technology and learning can deliver new levels of operational success and improve and save lives.


1231231243            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.