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Redesigning Online Education for the Global South

July 20, 2018

Logo_PhilUPhilanthropy University was launched in 2015 with seven courses that served more than 220,000 users from over 180 countries. Despite this success, we decided a little more than a year ago to pause the delivery of these courses. How come?

To understand why, it's important to understand how the target audience of Philanthropy University has shifted. We initially designed courses for a broad audience of social impact organizations around the world, from large nonprofits in California to small civil society organizations in rural Pakistan.

By 2017, however, it was clear to us that the way to deepen our impact was by focusing on local organizations based in the Global South — the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania that are generally low-income and tend to be politically and culturally marginalized. To ensure that our courses would be accessible and relevant to that audience, we realized we would need to redesign them.

Understanding the barriers for Global South learners

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) hold the potential to bring a single course to learners across the globe. But studies show that learners from more developed countries disproportionately enroll in and complete MOOCs. Given the seemingly untapped potential of MOOCs, Philanthropy University's Instructional Design team set out to understand the pain points and needs of learners in the Global South and how they access online course content. In an environment where MacBook Airs and Google Fiber are not the norm, could learners access an online course easily?

For example, the original Philanthropy University courses included short video lectures from some of the world's leading experts in capacity building. Qualitative feedback from learners in the Global South indicated, however, that Internet bandwidth constraints interfered with their ability to stream videos, while spotty Internet connectivity made it challenging to progress through the course content. "It was really difficult for me to watch the videos," a learner in Ghana told us. "They did not load. So most of the time, I was just reading the [video] transcripts. It was so difficult…. I couldn't watch them."

To address these technical constraints, we redesigned our platform and underlying technology in the following ways:

  1. Podcasts: Rather than relying on video to convey key course concepts, we transitioned critical content to a podcast format. This enables learners to access instructor insights through a medium that loads significantly faster than video and allows our team to test whether this popular content medium is an effective way to teach. We have drawn from the narrative storytelling style of pop culture podcasts to see how effectively it drives learning outcomes.
  2. Design for downloadability: Because learners indicated they do not have consistent access to the Internet — they may have it work but not at home — it was essential that we design courses for offline consumption. With that in mind, we focused on ensuring that key course components were downloadable and developed an Android app that allows learners to download content when connected to the Internet and then consume it on the go.

In addition to considering the technological barriers that our target users faced, we also paid attention to linguistic barriers. Philanthropy University courses are all designed in English, but that is not the native tongue of the majority of our target learners. So we redesigned the content of our courses to ensure they were accessible to non-native English speakers by:

  1. Simplifying language: We revisited all the language in our courses to explicitly define complex terms, simplify vocabulary and grammar, and design images and graphic organizers. In addition, we used language modeling and sentence frames to help English language learners participate in course discussions and assignments. Example: My greatest challenge in fundraising is _______ because ________.
  2. Creating scrolling transcripts: All media content in our courses was redesigned to include transcripts, as they often improve comprehension by helping learners visualize what they hear. Our redesigned platform includes a scrolling transcript feature that highlights media transcript text as it is spoken and allows learners to actively follow along with the transcript as they listen to the content.

Serving the needs of local organizations

The final question our Instructional Design team investigated related to content relevance. Feedback suggested that Global South learners felt the original courses were divorced from their own realities and needs. How could we ensure that courses taught applicable concepts for local leaders?

After some thought, we settled on redesigning the content in two ways:

  1. Applicable assignments: The original course assignments often asked learners to analyze case studies, many of which were based on contexts that would be unfamiliar to learners in the Global South. So we redesigned these assignments to serve as tools for the learner's own organization. By applying concepts to their own work, we ensured that the content of the assignment would be relevant and useful to the learner.
  2. Incorporating Global South voices: We also worked to incorporate the voice of the Global South learner into the design of the courses. Global South learners were invited to share their stories of applying course concepts within their own organizations. By including these stories and voices in the courses, we helped ensure the relevance of the content and positioned our learners as experts on their own context.

Course design should always be iterative, responding to the needs and feedback of learners. The process of redesigning Philanthropy University's original seven courses is just the first step in ensuring that our courses are accessible and relevant for our target users. We will continue to learn about our users' needs and push our thinking so that we can create MOOCs that are not only available to — but specifically designed for — Global South learners.

Maggie_CoffinTo learn more about Philanthropy University and our course offerings, check out our website.

Maggie Coffin is the manager of instructional design at Philanthropy University.

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