Learning and knowledge sharing for developing countries


Dr Monika Weber-Fahr is a manager at the World Bank Institute (WBI), heading up the Institute’s efforts in the multimedia arena and in coordinating the World Bank’s engagement with Global Development Learning (GDLN). The WBI is part of the World Bank and focuses solely on designing and delivering learning and knowledge sharing activities for developing country participants. The Institute reaches about to 100,000 people annually, most of them professionals in government agencies, NGOs, and private firms through programmes that cover a wide range of development-related topics. At  Online Educa Berlin 2006, Monika has hold a keynote in the plenary on “Future Perspectives”, talking about perspectives for eLearning from working with developing countries. Beate Kleessen spoke to Monika Weber-Fahr about WBI’s activities.

eLA: The World Bank is one of the key players in development. What are the main activities of the World Bank Institute and of your division specifically?

Monika Weber-Fahr: The mission of the World Bank Institute – or WBI – is to enable the World Bank’s clients, people in developing-country government agencies, NGOs, civil society organizations, and businesses, to acquire, share, and apply global and local knowledge to solve problems, make informed choices, and identify priorities for planning and implementing policies, projects, and programs. The Institute accomplishes its mission by helping its counterparts develop capacity at the individual, organizational and institutional levels through thematic learning events, technical assistance, and analytical economic and sector work, all amplified through the use of interactive technologies and an extensive network of partners.

WBI’s Global Development Learning Network (GDLN) and Multimedia Division help the Institute’s learning teams in finding the appropriate multimedia solution for their work in the different sectors and facilitate collaboration with partners around the world who know how to apply these e-learning and videoconferencing solutions.

eLA: Education is one of the most important factors for development. What is the role of eLearning in the various activities of the WBI?

Monika Weber-Fahr: WBI began using eLearning tools about ten years ago, initially on a pilot basis but more systematically over the last four or five years. Learning events or dialogue processes delivered with the help of e-learning tools either complement face-to-face and videoconferencing-based learning activities or are “stand alone.” Increasingly, the Institute tries to blend or combine different media, also as we see more traditional eLearning tools and videoconferencing tools “growing together”, but true “blending” is not yet widespread.

In terms of numbers: About one sixth – or fifteen percent – of WBI’s learning activities use either eLearning or video-conferencing for delivery. In terms of “Participant Days” – an indicator that multiplies the time spent in interactive learning with the number of participants – the share is about one third.

eLearning tools, both in the narrow and in the wider sense such as the use of interactive websites, learning libraries, online webcast repositories, and CD ROMs and DVDs, play an increasingly strategic role for our work. This is not just because our counterparts in developing countries are “far away” from us in terms of geographic distance. The strategic importance is based on the fact that the knowledge these partners need increasingly rests with their peers in other countries. Many eLearning platforms that incorporate dynamic learning tools, collaborative spaces, and community spaces are designed to allow types of knowledge exchanges that are suited extremely well for such situations.

As access to the Internet increases in developing countries, eLearning tools are also an important way for WBI to disseminate and share our knowledge more widely. The Institute’s websites complement our formal training and knowledge-sharing activities and are an important tool for us to reach activity participants as well as our clients more widely. The amount of “knowledge” downloaded by WBI web users in 2006 was about 2.1 Terabytes and was equivalent to 700 million of A3 pages of text. More than 160,000 people visit WBI site in an average month, and more than 60,000 of them are returning visitors, which significantly exceeds the number of participants in WBI’s more traditional learning activities.

WBI’s work itself is of course only a very small piece of the bigger picture of education for development. At WBI, we focus on decision makers and so-called “change agents” who are – or will be – engaged in relevant projects and programs. In this area, there is a clear role for e-learning. In the bigger picture, the relevance of eLearning is also growing – as access to electricity, to computers and the internet grows. Here, the role of eLearning will probably be pushed by the users more than by relevant institutions. In the developed world, the picture is the reverse: There, specific universities, corporate environments, or sectors push the use of eLearning “onto” their clients – many of whom have to learn – or do not learn – to handle the learning opportunities in the e-learning environment.

eLA: Concepts of efficiency in development work change. Has the rapid growth of information technology in almost all sectors of society affected the work in development?

Monika Weber-Fahr: Yes and no. In most sectors, the application of technology, particularly eSolutions, has critically changed the way development can be approached. Development agencies are working with different realities in terms of accessibility, scalability and transparency with the increasing availability of web-based approaches to learning and knowledge services, governance, decision making and public procurement in areas such as education, health, private sector development and infrastructure. The World Bank Group alone has provided more than US$3 billion in the field of information and communication technologies (ICT) over the past five years – and that does not count ICT components of projects in many specific sectors.

I am saying “no” because organisations and agencies working in development are often somewhat behind in using advanced eLearning and systems-based tools and applications that would make the provision of development assistance and advice more efficient and effective. Few agencies have “Technology Strategies” as comprehensive as those of private sector organizations. Even fewer are comprehensively using ICT tools to encourage communication and learning in as broad a way as these tools potentially allow (beyond giving their own employees email and Internet access of course). “eLiteracy” among development agencies is probably higher than in your local grocery store but perhaps somewhat lower than in most internationally competitive firms, and certainly lower than in some of the advanced and innovative firms operating in developing countries themselves.

eLA: How can technology support development work? Can you give some examples?

Monika Weber-Fahr: One of the most important principles in development is that to reduce poverty effectively, people must learn to help themselves. In many cases, this has been possible when people learned how to use technology informally – some figured out ways to use a new technology to improve their lives while others adapted technologies innovatively to suit local needs. In some cases, the actions and investments were preceded by learning that was more formally structured through courses offered face to face, via the Internet or videoconferencing. The speed of eLearning in developing countries is therefore growing rapidly, not necessarily through formalised learning systems supported by large organisations but also through self-taught small steps by the poor and disadvantaged.

An outstanding example is the growth of microfinance using mobile phones to generate income for low-income entrepreneurs, as the Grameen Bank experiences have successfully demonstrated in Bangladesh. These initiatives have led to millions of poor women taking their families out of poverty by managing their finances and marketing the produce better.

There are other situations in which eTechnologies are helping to reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth by improving the flow of information to the poor, eventually enabling them to make more informed choices. For example, community radio services in many African countries have transmitted messages on family planning, maternal health, environmental hygiene, and HIV/AIDs prevention to housewives who are unable to get out of their homes. The E-Chaupal internet kiosks have helped villagers in hundreds of Indian communities become active traders in commodities markets, rather than being dependent on intermediaries. Telemedicine has greatly enhanced the ability of a paramedic to stabilise complicated medical cases before more sophisticated medical support arrives. Also, interactive computer models help farmers and water planners share and manage scarce water supplies in Tanzania.

With the advent of open source applications and related developments, ICT and eLearning tools are bridging the gap between corporate applications and “applications for regular people”. Many small businesses and poor consumers are now taking advantage of the “e” infrastructure – through mobile phones, broadband access, cheaper computer solutions and so on. In addition, the more traditional forms of wireless communications continue to spread: community radio and cable TV have dramatically increased access to information in even the most remote villages of the developing world.

eLA: What are the current and future challenges to education for development?

Monika Weber-Fahr: The challenges continue to be vast and broad. The most critical is to ensure literacy across all population segments in the world, particularly among girls as many of the community and family decisions in terms of agricultural production, family nutrition, and health are made by female household members.

Let me share a few examples of challenges in simply applying technology applications in education in developing countries.

  • Systematic use of ICT tools for learning and information sharing among developing country agencies and organizations. Partnerships like the Global Development Learning Network (GDLN) are dedicated to serving developing-country agencies and organisations that seek to learn from other countries’ experience in implementing specific development programs, learning from local innovative uses of technology, and by creating a supportive environment with capacity building and coaching components to scale up small innovations. However, to make this actually happen, more changes in heads and mindsets are as important as more and better tools and more funding when decision makers seek to learn from other countries experiences for their own innovations.
  • ICT infrastructure in some low-income countries. Challenges here relate mostly to energy and transport – as preconditions for successfully building and maintaining a good ICT infrastructure. The necessity to be creative and keep looking at what works in local cultural contexts and in resource-constrained environments with frequent power outages is likely to contribute to new and innovate applications and infrastructure developments.
  • Absence of standard methodology and indicators to measure the impact of ICT. We still have no convincing and standardized methodology to measure and attribute changes in poverty profiles and economic growth to investments in ICT infrastructure. Unless this issue is addressed, it will continue to be difficult for development agencies and organizations to justify investments in these areas.
  • Collaboration among various donor agencies and local institutions to ensure long-term sustainable results. ICT developments take place too quickly and are too interlinked to withstand the often parochial approaches of agencies involved in development vis-à-vis projects that they seek to finance or countries they like to support. Unless these agencies begin to take more regional and more integrated approaches, their support to ICT developments will not be as effective and as efficient as it could be.

eLA: Ms Weber-Fahr, thank you very much indeed.

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