Online training – can it work for NGOs?

The other day while trying to give advice to someone who posted a question on our website regarding the problems he is experiencing to get his start-up business afloat, I made an awesome discovery.   A website called EO Bootcamp which includes nine online courses that make up a comprehensive education for anyone wishing to learn more about entrepreneurship.  The website has an uncomplicated, intuitive design, provides downloadable text which is explained and illustrated through short videos by successful South African entrepreneurs, allows assessment through quizzes and the opportunity to earn a certificate if the course is completed successfully.

EO 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EO2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And did I mention that it is free?  Of course free online education is not new, for those of you that have not been blown-away by sites like Coursera (a free online university) and who have spent time regretting some missed educational opportunities, that course in Genetics or Applied Philosophy is now just a few clicks away.

As impressed as I have been with Coursera (and other free online education provided by international universities), I did not really see an application for it beyond individual personal development.  After looking at EO Bootcamp however, I could think of at least ten NGOs off the top of my head that could use the content on the website either by promoting it among their beneficiaries, by providing access to it, or by using it as train-the-trainer content.  What appealed to me was the excellent curriculum, based on local content on a theme relevant to the challenges that we are experiencing in the country. I also liked the fact that it was providing access to ‘the horse’s mouth’ – when I was Portfolio Manager for our Connection to Opportunity Portfolio I often saw ‘skimpy’ entrepreneurship curriculum being offered at NGOs by people who have never been entrepreneurs themselves.  I decided to find out more about the development of the EO Bootcamp website.

An enquiry on their website led me to Hannes Geldenhuys, Business Solutions Director at online education company GetSmarter. GetSmarter in partnership with the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), a global business network, and with sponsorship by van Schaik Publishers collaborated to develop the EO bootcamp website in order to contribute to the development of entrepreneurship in South Africa.   Hannes says the website was launched at the end of February this year and they are very proud of the positive response the initiative has received to date.  Over 1 000 people have signed-up and while most people are from South and Southern Africa, Certificates of Completion have been sent as far away as Pakistan.

I wanted to know whether any NGOs have contacted them about using the website for their work and, although my interest in sharing this with you is the excellent free resource that the online EO Bootcamp provides, for interest sake I also wanted to understand the possibility of making some of the content available offline since many NGOs operate in areas where fast internet connections are simply not a reality.  According to Hannes they openly encourage NGOs to make use of the EO Bootcamp website,   some examples of non-profit organisations that are using it are the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum and Maharishi Institute. However, as the content is licensed by van Schaik and GetSmarter, if you wanted to extract the content for use outside of the online EO Bootcamp, you would need to approach GetSmarter to discuss “commercial or potentially sponsored arrangements”.

Online training can be especially useful in areas where it is important to get standardised curriculum in place, like early childhood development, or in areas where successful interventions could be effectively duplicated in other parts of the country.  Online training does not specifically need to be targeted at the beneficiary, but it could be an effective way to ensure transmission of high level train-the-trainer content, possibly preventing some watering-down of content as it is transmitted down the levels. It can also still be used in a facilitated setting, but conveniently the video illustrations, text, quizzes etc. are available in one place where participants can continue their learning in their own time after workshops.  According to Hannes there are massive opportunities to meaningfully engage people cost-effectively with online education.  He mentions as an example RLabs, which strives to empower people from underprivileged communities through education in digital skills. RLabs currently has 120 students participating in the upcoming presentation of the University of Cape Town Internet Super-User short course; more than 100 students have already graduated from previous presentations of the course, and they expect an enrollment of 250 students for the next cycle starting in 2014. These students, from underprivileged communities in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Namibia, are being taught the digital skills needed to empower them to create career opportunities and better both themselves and their communities (watch this video to hear from these students).

GetSmarter is also working on initiatives for NGOs in a range of areas, such as the GSH-HIV mental health group, Shanduka Black Umbrellas, World Health Organisation, and Neurological Association of South Africa. A project that they are currently working on along with the Open Learning Group, and that I find particularly interesting, is one aimed at grassroots level called “Give Yourself a Job” which will teach people the very basics of entrepreneurship. According to Hannes it is being developed as two online courses – one as self-paced and one as mentor-driven. “For the mentor-driven course, the idea is that companies or individuals can run facilitated groups together with direct involvement from a mentor/teacher. This can then be recognised as Enterprise Development for the organisation – everybody wins! At the end of the course, learners will be able to print out all their findings during the course as a structured business case analysis document.”

It all sounds good, but I wanted to understand what ‘cost-effective’ really means in this case.  After enquiring as to the cost of developing such an online training system as well as the time that it will take to be developed under optimal circumstances, Hannes told me that it depends on the scope of the project and course(s). “We offer NGOs discount on the use of our technology to assist them to build cost-effective solutions. We also consciously design online education experiences for the specific target audience of a given course”.  In terms of cost-effectiveness you also need to imagine the catalytic potential of projects, although there might be some limitations to online training, its potential impact over time becomes almost unimaginable as people (all over the world) start finding creative ways to use and share the information (try to imagine the impact of a website like Wikipedia to illustrate this point).  Also if organisations start grouping together (i.e. agreeing on curriculum) and approaching funders together, it becomes even more cost effective and some money gets freed up to fund other causes or activities.  As Hannes said, “everybody wins!”

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