Training for Humanitarian Aid: a Learning Challenge

I have the best job in the world: I help others to learn, and make the world a better place in the process. I’m a didactical specialist working with the international aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders. Our assistance to people in distress is first and foremost medical and my role is to train my colleagues in giving the best quality care – as midwife, nurse, doctor, logistician or specialist in water and sanitation, as expatriate flying into the mission from Holland, India or Canada, or as a national staff member in our mission in the Central African Republic, South Sudan or Papua New Guinea. My job is to find out how best to accommodate their learning.

Over the past two years, I’ve participated in a number of MOOCs on education and related subjects. My goal is to deepen my knowledge about theories, methods and best practices in training and leaning and to keep up-to-date with developments in these areas. How do we transfer knowledge, skills and behavior from one person to the other? How do we assess a learning need? How do we evaluate training and learning in systems for formal learning? And is there a way to do so in types of informal learning? What do the rapid developments in virtual learning and distance education mean for all these issues? Even after so many years of working in education, I still don’t know most of the answers to these questions and if I do, they are in desperate need of an update.

Satisfying my desire to know more about training and learning is not the biggest problem: applying that knowledge to the unique learning environment of Doctors Without Borders is a real challenge. Take, for instance, what I’ve learning in the first week of UC San Diego’s MOOC Learning How To Learn: it makes no sense to cram your head with information, it’s more effective to repeat what you’ve learned and space that repetition. It’s still better to throw in some exercise and a good night’s sleep! That’s a luxury learners feel they don’t have at Doctors Without Borders: time costs lives, and a training takes them away from their care for people who need shelter because of a war or natural disaster, who are sick and suffer from malnutrition. Staff appreciates learning opportunities because they realize they can take better care of people afterwards. But it’s impossible to stop them from cramming as much information as possible in their heads, and from sharing experiences until late at night.

Being creative in learning, as computational neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski pointed out during an interview, might actually help to overcome my challenges. At Doctors Without Borders we might not have the opportunity to build strong neural structures by spaced repetition of information during our training, but we can initiate opportunities for learners to do so afterwards, for example through distance learning. In a post-training-test we can establish what information training participants retained, and then can refer them to information sources for what they forgot.

I have a long way to go in terms of learning about learning. But I’m confident that Learning How To Learn and other educational MOOCs will help me doing a better job at that!

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