A new learning initiative is promising to change how ACIAR researchers build their skills and knowledge. The aptly named ACIAR Learn will introduce an innovative approach to online learning as part of ACIAR capacity-building efforts.
ACIAR Learn will provide training to agricultural researchers across ACIAR partner countries, targeting existing in-country project teams and the alumni network. In a change from lengthy online courses that aim to replicate a face-to-face experience, the new initiative is designed for mobile first and will deliver learning in bite-sized chunks. It’s a completely fresh approach according to ACIAR Capacity Building Manager, Mr Geoffrey O’Keefe.
‘Prior to March 2020, almost all our capacity-building activities were delivered in person in Australia. The COVID-19 pandemic meant we had to shift to online learning. We found that many courses were struggling with retention and there were persistent connectivity challenges in some countries. It also became apparent that we were entering a new normal where remote learning would become increasingly expected. This led to a rethink of the way we were delivering training,’ says Mr O’Keefe.
‘We endeavoured to come up with a project that would address these shortcomings. We were looking for something that would be game-changing for us and I think we landed in the right place.’
The technology and method of teaching behind ACIAR Learn is underpinned by two core principles: micro-learning and mobile-first.
Micro-learning means providing bite-sized teaching through small lessons that can often be completed in 5–10 minutes, and examples that can be scaffolded onto a broader learning program.
Mobile-first means people can access their courses through their phone in low-bandwidth environments, which is especially important for those in remote areas with poor connectivity. After the initial download they are also able to access courses offline.
Together the two principles mean users can learn anywhere at any time at their own pace—at home, on the bus or during their lunch break.
The University of Queensland (UQ) and Catalpa International—an organisation that develops technology for social impact—are partnering to design, develop and deliver ACIAR Learn. ACIAR Learn will start with selected project teams in-country over a four-month period. If successful, full implementation will begin in early 2022. The project is being led by UQ’s Ms Alessia Anibaldi.
‘This is the first time that UQ and Catalpa have partnered together. We share similar values and objectives around teaching. We both strongly believe in education that is inclusive and bespoke, has enhanced engagement and ongoing support, and provides motivation to learn. We bring together the best of two worlds. UQ is a global leader of teaching in agriculture and Catalpa is a leader in delivering education technology that is fit for purpose around the world,’ says Ms Anibaldi.
We’re looking forward to combining our international development teaching experience with Catalpa’s e-learning expertise.’
Catalpa is leading the development of the learning technology. Head of Partnerships and Programs at Catalpa, Mr Ben Miqueu, says the learner will be at the centre of the design.
‘We use human-centered design to guide the way we support learners and the technology/content development process,’ says Mr Miqueu.
‘Practically, this means that we build with people, not for them, taking into account their lived experience, indigenous knowledge and daily work life. This process, sometimes called “persona mapping”, helps us to understand the day-to-day challenges our learners experience.’
The approach and technology have seen past success through the Matenek program that was funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This program provided professional development for primary school teachers in Timor-Leste. A key area for improvement was time spent preparing before classes. Those who went through the program more than doubled this preparation time (to 4.5 hours a week) compared to those who didn’t. Program participants also saw higher levels of teacher readiness, lesson planning and on-pace delivery.
Ms Anibaldi says better learning outcomes will be just one benefit of ACIAR Learn.
‘We’re discovering that there are real benefits to online learning when it’s done right. It’s far more flexible and accessible. You can do it in your own time and you don’t have to leave the country, which enables many more people to access the opportunity to learn. It makes learning more equitable for different genders around the world and is far more socially inclusive,’ explains Ms Anibaldi.
Over the course of the project, ACIAR Learn is expected to become available to in-country project team members of all levels and ACIAR alumni. Mr O’Keefe has highlighted that content will be centred around ACIAR work so it is relevant and relatable to all learners.
More information: ACIAR Learn, www.aciar.gov.au/ACIARLearn