How can the Digital Development Community Continually Evolve?

Advancements in digital technology are changing the model for development. It’s influencing how international development programs are implemented, what new tools are integrated into traditional development programs, and where, when and how international development technical specialists receive continuous learning. These shifts are not just redefining the nonprofit space. According to a recent Pew survey, 54% of all working Americans think it will be essential to develop new skills throughout their working lives; a percentage that increases to 61% for adults under 30 (Economist).

While powerful resources, such as the Principles for Digital Development and the SDG ICT Playbook, exist to support organizations in institutionalizing lessons learned, the development community needs to do more to reinforce continuous institutional learning. By leveraging the power of digital platforms, continuous learning has fundamentally changed.

Oftentimes, mid-career development professionals rarely learn about new technologies at a university. Instead, the primary means of learning is typically through individual workshops, defined as: “A usually brief intensive educational program for a relatively small group of people that focuses especially on techniques and skills in a particular field.”

Scalable digital content may support workshop goals, but ultimately the learning is done in-person, with expensive travel and time investments by the participants. That’s because, for the moment, there is no online substitute for the social, in-person workshop experience. There are three challenges that must be overcome: Platform, facilitation and community.

  1. Platform: Most education technology platform solutions are still geared towards flipped classrooms at universities or massive open online course (MOOC) delivery, meaning recorded lectures that assume an in-person component to provide feedback and accelerate learning. This is a unidirectional approach for online education, wherein an expert broadcasts information rather tailoring it to the needs of a small group. This frequently does not solve the need for in-person workshops to meet learning objectives.
  2. Facilitation: Even when an adequate platform solution is applied, development organizations may fail to recognize that the skillset required for online facilitation differs from in-person workshop management. Worse, they may not be able to take advantage of online learning in producing relevant data to better tailor the course experience. As a result, organizations will experience the downsides of a less-personal online exchange, with none of the upsides of data-driven learning.
  3. Community: And lastly, the learning community itself must shift to embrace online tools. More than viewing online exchanges as an opportunity to passively consume information, individuals and organizations must engage their members for a multi-directional learning environment. Only then, will the content, platforms and facilitation keep pace with the speed of rapidly advancing technology for digital development.

While none of these challenges have yet been solved, there has been progress. Platform data shows, for example, that when MOOC participants were required to write down their plans for undertaking a course, they were 29% more likely to complete it than a control group (Economist). While two-thirds of MOOC professors had never taught a fully online course before in 2013, now in 2017 more options are available that put the facilitator at the center of the online course model. And lastly, as more learners and organizations shift their efforts online, the emergence of a learning network will expand the possibilities not just for rote learning and video consumption, but for more dynamic forms of applied social learning theory.

Each learner is ultimately responsible for their own progress, but with the right platform, facilitators and community, we are all able to learn faster and better together.


Christopher Neu is COO of TechChange, and has contributed to the Organizational Guide to ICT4D and the SDG ICT Playbook.