People learn in different ways. The way we teach should reflect that

This article was written by Jason Williams-Bellamy and Beth Simone Noveck. This is the third article in a series (first here and second here) by The Governance Lab on training 21st century public sector leaders. This article originally appeared on Apolitical.


There’s never been more hybrid learning in the public sector than today

As we noted in the previous article in this series on skills training in the public sector, part of a good skills survey includes asking respondents how they want to learn.

In the public sector innovation skills survey we developed for the International City and County Managers Association in 2019, over 400+ local public servants in the United States (we did a comparable survey of 400+ public servants in Australia) told us they wanted to learn new innovation skills such as problem definition, human-centered design, and open innovation. But, when asked how they wanted to learn, the results were rather evenly divided between traditional face-to-face workshops and training via the Internet.

While face-to-face training is still the most prevalent option, online courses continue to gain traction. However, some of the most promising approaches to public sector innovation training from around the world are those that blend both, combining the flexibility and scale of online education with the community-building of offline classes.

The pros and cons of in-person training

There are many great examples of in-person learning programs in the public sector. A lot of these take the form of a workshop in which participants meet with an instructor to master a new skill in a short period of time — usually one or a handful of days.

The Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Chile puts on a three-day workshop on Data Science for Public Managers. About 80 participants arrive with a problem from their government department or agency, and learn to apply the introductory data science skills they learn to develop a potential solution. Participants get the benefit of learning from an instructor and through conversation with their peers.

The biggest benefit of using an e-learning platform or MOOC is scale

Thanks to the limited class size, trainers can adapt the course to address unanticipated questions. However, live workshops also have drawbacks. The main challenge, however, is that after the workshop, the participants go back to “business as usual” in the workplace and often struggle to apply their newly acquired skills on the job. As we noted in our report on public sector innovation skills, “training classes may be wonderful, but often leave people feeling abandoned when they return to their desks to face the challenge of innovating within a bureaucracy.”

Increasing the frequency of face-to-face interaction is one solution and Australia’s BizLab Academy, for example, encourages alumni to do repeat training. But this option is, of course, expensive both in terms of time and lost productivity.

What online learning brings to the table

However, in the age of the Internet, online training has emerged as an exciting new alternative. And not without reason, because online learning offers several key benefits. One study by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) found that e-learning programs and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer time and place flexibility, including 24/7 access, cost effectiveness, ease of distribution, and even enhanced student-to-student and faculty-to-student communication.

The biggest benefit of using an e-learning platform or MOOC is scale. As the name suggests, MOOCs can reach practically anyone with an internet connection. For example, the recently-launched Canada Digital Academy includes an online learning series called “Busrides” that has the potential to reach all 250.000 Canadian public servants with podcasts of 20 minutes or less; the perfect thing to do on the “bus ride” to work.

Online trainings may also be more cost effective in the long term. While initial production costs can be high, depending on the quality and depth of the training program, online trainings can be reused continuously — whether for alumni to brush up on the material or to train new hires. Because of this, trainings can be repeated at no marginal cost and without the expense of venues, teachers, and other costly logistical tasks that come with an in-person program. Online courses like the GovLab’s “Solving Public Problems with Data” lectures — a free online crash course on data analytics and responsible data use in the public sector — are openly available and free.

The best way to teach public servants is to give them multiple ways to learn

But there are challenges. Despite the potential ease of communication, the reality of learning at a distance is that students may struggle without the personal help or attention of an instructor.

study from the Journal of Labor Economics in which a group of microeconomics students were divided between an in-person lecture course and an online lecture course found that the online course exasperated the struggles of lower achieving students and students of colour. In other words, lower achieving students in the online course performed significantly worse when compared with students of similar academic calibre in the in-person course.

Furthermore, online programs can be more difficult to update since the material cannot easily be adapted with new information. Ultimately these drawbacks could adversely affect engagement among trainees and lessen the overall impact of the program. There is too little empirical evidence about public sector training to know for sure.

Get ready for hybrid learning

There are pros and cons in online and in-person training. But some governments are combining both in a hybrid (also known as blended) learning program. According to the Online Learning Consortium, hybrid courses can be either:

  • A classroom course in which online activity is mixed with classroom meetings, replacing a significant portion, but not all face-to-face activity
  • An online course that is supplemented by required face-to-face instruction such as lectures, discussions, or labs.

A hybrid course can effectively combine the short-term activity of an in-person workshop with the longevity and scale of an online course.

The Digital Leaders program in Israel is a good example of hybrid training. Digital Leaders is a nine-month program designed to train two cohorts of 40 leaders each in digital innovation by means of a regular series of online courses, shared between Israel and a similar program in the UK, interspersed with live workshops. This style of blended learning makes optimal use of participants’ time while also establishing a digital environment and culture among the cohort not seen in traditional programs.

The State government in New Jersey, where I serve as the Chief Innovation Officer, offers a free and publicly accessible online introduction to innovation skills for public servants called the Innovation Skills Accelerator. Those who complete the course become eligible for face-to-face project coaching and we are launching our first skills “bootcamp,” blending online and the face-to-face in Q1 2020.

Blended classrooms have been linked to greater engagement and increased collaboration among participating students. Blended courses allow learners to customise their learning experience in a way that is uniquely best suited for them. One study even found that blended learning improves student engagement and learning even if they only take advantage of the traditional in-classroom resources. While the added complexity of designing for online and off may be off-putting to some, the benefits are clear.

The best way to teach public servants is to give them multiple ways to learn. — Jason Williams-Bellamy and Beth Simone Noveck