Implementing a virtual learning environment in a resource-constrained setting: five key reflections

Implementing a virtual learning environment is a challenge in any situation. But how do you implement one in a country with few resources, lacking technological infrastructure, and no experience with virtual learning?

In response to Covid-19, Zanzibar is planning to implement a virtual learning environment (VLE) to complement its print-, radio-, and TV-based distance education programmes.

In Zanzibar, an autonomous region of 1.3 million people on the coast of Tanzania, education leaders knew that they wanted to roll out a VLE. But they also recognised that they didn’t have the experience to design it themselves. With this in mind, the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training joined forces with EdTech Hub and the World Bank to bring virtual learning to Zanzibar.

1. Work with government experts who can allocate time, not only with senior staff who have limited availability

The Ministry and the Hub first sat down to explore the feasibility of rolling out a VLE in April 2020. We organised workshops to map opportunities and challenges in the region and to understand the government’s expectations. These workshops were planned with the government’s technical experts, not with senior staff, in the hope that the experts could allocate more time to the process and spend more time on intensive discussions than senior staff could.

The collaboration worked very well. It showed two things: the government wanted to move fast, and the government’s experts were aware that a complex virtual learning environment had many challenges. In order to have a successful VLE you need both content and a platform; we proposed an approach for developing them in parallel in order to save time.

2. Curating content and making it available through existing platforms is the fastest way to support virtual learning

We came up with a comprehensive plan on how to curate digital content. There is a lot of digital content out there. But for it to be useful, it has to be relevant to local learners and fit the local curriculum as much as possible. Curating and organising content lets the government offer the content quickly through existing platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. Once the VLE platform has been created, the content can be quickly transferred over.

3. Deploying a VLE in a challenging context requires rigorous pilot-testing.  Then you ditch, adjust, or scale

Developing a VLE platform is a more complex process: they are costly and devices or software that have to be bought cannot easily be reused to fit another model. With so many uncertainties about the local situation, we developed an approach to rigorously trial a VLE through a pilot-testing model. 

This involves trying different approaches on a small scale and assessing them carefully. If they work well, they can be scaled up. If not, they can be adjusted or dropped. This approach builds expertise in the region and minimises the risk of losing a large investment.

4. Start simple and add complexity only once the simple solution works well

There are many prerequisites for a VLE that are not typically in place in resource-constrained settings. With the pilot-testing approach, it’s best to start with solutions that have fewer requirements and are simpler to deploy. If only one of the prerequisites of a complex implementation is not met, the entire implementation fails. And when it fails, it can be difficult to identify what went wrong. 

In the example below, we can see that even if all prerequisites are met except one (ensuring users are equipped with sufficient internet data), the VLE will fail in meeting users’ needs.

Once a simpler solution has been shown to work, you can add some complexity. The image below shows the difference between these two approaches: starting with a viable, simple solution means you have something you can use from the start. It lets you learn from it and gives you flexibility at each step.

Image credit: Adam, T. et al

This does not mean there is a fixed or predetermined way to go from a simple, robust solution to a more complex one. Each step gives you a usable solution, but adding features or adjusting implementation approaches can be adjusted at each step. 

So, apart from giving you a usable solution early in the process, it also gives you the flexibility to develop the solution as the situation demands. The image below shows how different pathways can be taken.

5. Have one coordinating body and make sure there is no overlap in responsibilities

So the team came up with an approach on how to start offering content and how to approach implementing a VLE. But as we go forward, who should be responsible? A technological solution in education requires many actors and with educational technology, there is sometimes a reflex to make a technical or ICT department responsible. 

The team quickly realised that it is educationists who should take the lead, while ICT experts are essential for the execution. With so many actors involved, it must be clear who does what, and who is responsible for talking to all the different parties. In the case of Zanzibar, the team suggested that one agency should be responsible for coordinating, and care was taken to ensure that roles did not overlap. These suggested roles are displayed below.

You can read more about this approach, which the team will trial and expand, in this presentation. Now it’s time for all actors to adopt the vision, assign roles, and get started with content curation and planning the first simple-yet-robust version of a virtual learning environment for learners in Zanzibar.

Zanzibar has followed up by taking cautious steps towards deploying a VLE. With the support of Edtech Hub, Zanzibar is now embarking on a process of content curation that can be shared with students and teachers via a VLE or other mechanisms such as radio or YouTube. 

In this next phase of technical assistance, EdTech Hub will be working hand-in-hand with Zanzibar’s education experts to support them to identify content needs, curate content and explore how best to deploy a robust, effective VLE to meet the needs of all students.

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