Martha Farrell/Mandakini Pant

One of the programmes conducted by PRIA is a post-graduate training course for practitioners, public officials, donor organization staff, politicians, and scientists who use participatory methods of research and work. The original distance learning programme – a correspondence course combined with supplementary phases of classroom training – has meanwhile been converted into an eLearning course. This allows for a more open teaching plan which can be updated on an ongoing basis and expanded independently by the learners themselves. It also facilitates continuous communication between learners and course supervisors.

Open Distance Learning through the Internet –
New Challenges and Potentials


Distance education or distance learning delivers education to learners who are not physically “on site” as in a traditional classroom or campus. The source of information and the learners are separated by both time and distance. In its original version, the distance education was designed through correspondence and it implied that the learner and instructor interacted through the mail as the only means of communication. Open and Distance Learning (ODL) is a modern version of Correspondence Education, which has been enhanced by the explosive growth of the Internet and the myriad possibilities of innovations in making education a lifelong experience. While the world has shrunk with the Internet, it has also expanded the body of knowledge that exists in every corner of the world.

ODL through the Internet goes beyond its counterpart of Correspondence Education to create a Virtual Classroom through which learners from across the world can interact with each other in cyberspace, in “real time” or “virtual time”. This can also be an exciting and stimulating experience, as a learner from Brazil may be interacting with learners from the USA, Angola and Nepal. The timing may be synchronous or asynchronous but it is suited to the pace, convenience and location of each learner.

A range of tools and different methods are deployed, encouraging and enabling different styles of the learners to absorb lessons in the manner that suits them the most. More importantly, ODL is used as a means of connecting individuals who would never ever meet in the span of their own lives, to share views, experiences and perspectives, as well as debate different standpoints in order to develop a holistic and comprehensive understanding on specific issues.

Open Distance Learning (ODL) assumes that the learner is capable of selfdirection. It is consistent with the precepts of Lifelong Learning. As an instructional strategy, it allows the adult learners to engage in interactive and collaborative activities with their peers and instructors without being physically present in the same location as the instructor or peers. It offers them the opportunity to interact with the instructor and fellow learners as they apply new knowledge in authentic contexts. But perhaps the most powerful impact of the ODL experience is that the interactions and collaborations within the virtual classroom create a new body of knowledge with insights and experiences from a range of individuals from different backgrounds and in different contexts.

The Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) is an international centre for learning and promotion of participation and democratic governance. Since its inception in 1982, PRIA has embarked on a set of key initiatives focusing on participatory research, citizen-centric development, capacity building, knowledge building and policy advocacy. With a combination of training, research and consultancy, it has grounded its work with conceptual rigour and understanding of social reality to command the strategic direction of interventions.

The academic wing of PRIA, PRIA International Academy of Adult Education and Lifelong Learning (PIALL) has used the principles of ODL to transfer PRIA’s experience, learning and competencies acquired over the years in various development themes to develop learning packages and launch these as online courses the world over. These three-month long courses known as Certificate Courses cover learning in areas of:

  • Participatory Research
  • Participatory Development
  • Civil Society Building
  • Governance
  • Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation
  • Gender Mainstreaming
  • Citizenship
  • Occupational Health and Safety
  • International Adult Education

By synthesising and packaging this vast body of knowledge and learning into social-development based continuing education programmes, PIALL endeavours to expand the knowledge, skills and upgrade the professional expertise of learners.

The unique feature of the Lifelong Education Programmes of PIALL is that they are a harmonious blend of theory and practice. Theory which is drawn from the expertise of academics and intellectuals, as well as PRIA’s own knowledge in the form of its vast research and Practice from the insights and diverse experiences of field based interventions of PRIA and its partners, are merged together into learning programmes. These carefully developed course contents have successfully broken the uni-dimensional construct of knowledge, and reach out both to the academician as well as the grassroot activist, recreating learning for each and allowing for the additional dimension of creating a new body of knowledge.

This paper highlights the strategies of PRIA International Academy for Lifelong Learning (PIALL) towards developing an online course for adult learning communities.

Towards Building an Effective Online Course: Initiatives of PIALL

The first and foremost concern in the development of any online course is to understand the need for development of a particular course and its content. When we finally take a decision to develop and launch the course, we then start with answering these questions in reference to our specific course. For example;

  • Are there similar courses that are available online?
  • What is the targeted clientele that these courses are reaching out to?
  • Are they country, region or global audiences?
  • What is the language of instruction?

We also then ask ourselves:

  • What do we want the learners to imbibe through the course material?
  • What skills and abilities should they develop after they complete the course?
  • What is the period of instruction to project the depth of course content?
  • How many assignments should be given to the learner?
  • Assessment criteria – what would this include? Is online participation evaluated?

Objectives and Outcomes

PIALL’s intention in launching online certificate courses at a postgraduate level was manifold. It aimed to reach the learners from multi disciplinary backgrounds such as practitioners (Civil Society Organizations); government officials; staff of bilateral and multilateral donor institutions; policy makers, educators and scholars in countries of both North and South regions. The courses encompassed a range of concepts and theories, as well as practical issues faced by practitioners, adult educators, researchers, resource providers and policy makers in varied settings. These included participatory monitoring & evaluation, strengthening citizenship, democracy and accountability, understanding of gender in society, civil society building, international perspectives on participatory research and international dimensions on Adult Education and Lifelong Learning.

The courses aimed to facilitate critical analysis and develop new perspectives on these themes as well as encourage the development of innovative practices in the field. On completion of the certificate course, the learners would gain an understanding of the concepts along with practical approaches for strengthening practices in the grassroots. The international exemplars as an integral component of learning materials in each course aimed to equip the learners to apply their learning in diverse settings.

Online Curriculum Development

An online curriculum tends to be more open, allowing the learners the scope for exploration. It includes broad topic headings for discussion, expectations for participation and the ways in which the classroom will be evaluated. Broad topic headings give the learners an idea of what will be considered and discussed in the course. Clear-cut learning objectives for the overall course as well as an outline for each unit of study is defined, preparing the learner for what lies ahead.

Curriculum development is key to the development of course material. Given the fact that these are online courses, there is a need to ensure that all basic concepts of a theme are covered, as learners may have different backgrounds and limited exposure to a specific theme. Further, the mode of teaching will also have an impact on flow of matter and andragogy to be adopted for a particular topic.

PIALL took a decision to give an adequate focus on curriculum development of its courses. As a first step it developed a blueprint for the curriculum following intensive research on the issues, brainstorming and discussion with in-house subject experts. An advisory committee for each course was constituted, with national and international representation from academia of institutions of higher education, as well as practitioners from civil society organizations. A daylong discussion on the blueprint included course contents, delivery, readings, assessment and other multiple dimensions of the programme.

In cases where courses had a “global” character, two or three core readings were prepared which outlined key issues and debates around selected concepts to give the learners a sense of the diversity of meanings and approaches to concepts like rights, democracy, inclusive citizenship and accountability, civil society, monitoring and evaluation, gender etc. A list of terminology used in the course was developed so that the course writers were aware of the diverse connotations of terms used by students in both the North and the South. Select case studies were also used to explore the core concepts and debates, allowing learners to engage with the conceptual material through empirically grounded work.

The content of each course was divided into six units. Each unit had specific learning objectives with interlinkages between them, giving a continuity to the flow of thoughts and a clear sequence to the themes. Further, before a new unit of study was started, the instructor summarized the highlights of the discussions of the previous unit and juxtaposed these with the new contents, adding questions or a reflective point for the unit under study.

Course material for each unit was developed in the form of printed booklets. The booklets were self-instructional in nature and included various techniques to provide a wider perspective of the different aspects of the theme being explored. For instance, Think Tank comprised of comments, statements and questions to reinforce pivotal issues. Note Bank or learning exercises guided the learners to reflect and jot down their thoughts as they proceeded with studying each unit. Required readings comprised of selected chapters from the textbook and other articles or chapters reproduced specifically for the units in this course.

CD-ROMs (sent as a part of the learning package) featuring talks by guest speakers delivered in PRIA or other PRIA organized programmes, brought alive the issues being debated. Online Small Group Discussions and Quizzes based on topics related to the course added to more intensive and in-depth discussions between the learners. CDs or DVDs which contained short videos made by PRIA and/or other organizations were also sent to the learners to elaborate further on related aspects of the course. Multimedia formats of the course allowed learners to develop new ideas, exercise critical thinking and analytical skills. On several occasions there were also opportunities where students from across different courses, addressed issues to each other (through their instructors), to get a perspective that would give an added dimension to their own subject area. For example learners from the Gender course posed a question to the counterparts in the Citizenship course related to the challenges that women political leaders faced in their roles and how the issue was being addressed. They then related this to their own understanding of gender in workplaces.

Course Delivery

The online courses adopted the distance learning mode to reach geographically dispersed groups of learners, both nationally and internationally, who participated at a time and location of their own convenience. The course delivery included selfinstructional printed materials comprising instructional guidelines for navigating through each step of the course, and six booklets, textbooks and where applicable, CD-ROMs featuring talks by guest speakers, documentary or other educational films. The web-enabled Bulletin Board Services (BBS) for online participation in the course was the key feature for interaction amongst learners and the instructors in the delivery of the course content.

In recognition of the fact that a face-to-face interaction was not possible during this short three-month period, some measures were taken to reach out to each student in order to give a human touch to the entire process of learning.

A welcome address by the course instructor and short overview to each course was put into a CD as a part of each learning package. In the event where a learner did not log onto the Bulletin Board within the first week, personalized letters were sent to their email addresses, requesting them to introduce themselves to the group. In the event that a student reported technical difficulties, efforts were made to contact them by phone and help them to go over the step-by-step procedure in logging into the BBS. At times this meant coordinating with a time zone in another country, in order that support be given. In a few cases where students did not have email addresses, the team supported them in setting up one and training them on its use and applicability.

Bulletin Board Services (BBS)

The core of the online course is the Bulletin Board Service which could be defined as a customised online course site through which the learners engage with the course material and with course instructors, guest faculty and fellow learners. The better the organisation of the course site, the easier the use of technology for the learners.

The strength of the PIALL run courses lay in the structure and organisation of this virtual space as a meeting point between instructors, learners and subject experts. The BBS provided learners the opportunity to post their questions as well as review the questions and perspectives of other students participating in the course. The course instructors answered queries, provided clarifications, additional information and addressed the learner’s specific needs.

Whenever relevant, the instructor would give current information from newspapers or magazine articles in the form of a web link. At times, learners themselves would send a web link with additional information or send a copy of text-based information to the instructors who would prepare a web link making it accessible for their fellow learners. The BBS also generated interesting conversations and dialogue amongst the students themselves, who expressed their opinions as well as sought additional information for a specific posting by their fellow students. (See appendix 1 for discussions in BBS).

Guest faculty who are renowned subject matter experts come on once or twice during the course delivery for the period of a week to address specific issues or engage in dialogue with the learners. At times, these experts may be the very same individuals whose writings the learners are using as course materials and it is a matter of privilege to be able to interact with them personally.

The BBS screen displays a list of subject headings called Forums which cater to the different needs of the course delivery. These include, but are not limited to

  • Announcements
  • Introductions
  • Queries regarding the course
  • Units I-VI (covering different aspects of the course content)
  • Conversations with Guest Faculty

Assignments and Evaluation

Evaluation of the students takes place at different levels, and their performance is evaluated on the basis of written assignments, the quality of content and frequency of online participation with the guest faculty, course instructor and other learners.

The efficacy of the course material and the role of instructors in course delivery are best highlighted in the assignments that the learners were expected to prepare as a prerequisite for the successful completion of the course. The assignments include (a) a reflection paper to measure the learners’ existing understanding of the topic in its practical application; and (b) designing a project to assess the application of concepts and methods in a project or organizational context. Towards achieving the objectives of the assignments, each student raises, explores and analyses diverse issues in their contexts and also reflects on suggested strategies for overcoming problems in their local settings. The challenge is to ensure that both the learners and course instructors demonstrate a critical approach so as not to reproduce inequitable global hierarchies.

Innovative Online Teaching Techniques

Even in a short duration course, it is essential to vary the learning activities in an online class. These activities may be directed at the individual learner or to involve small group learning processes. Some learning activities may also be designed to ensure that a learner is compelled to read carefully some crucial aspects of course content. Scheduling of these activities is very important, as they must achieve their objective and to the fullest contribution of the learner as well a holistic understanding of the key issue being examined.

The BBS is the mainstay of course delivery and teaching of the entire group. However, the use of Quiz as a method is widely used in course teaching to stimulate the individual to recall key learning but also as a tool wherein it enables the learner to raise his/her score in the final evaluation. This is an individual exercise which is also time bound.

Case Study Analysis is also used as a technique for students to discuss an issue in a smaller space with fewer students. The instructor identifies small groups and their team leaders based on several criteria such as

  • Participation in classroom – mixing the more active with the less active
  • Gender – balance of men and women
  • Region or country – to ensure inclusion of experiences and views
  • Experience in the field – emphasizing the value of practice-based knowledge

Assessment is based on involvement in the discussion as well as quality of the report submitted. Those who do not participate at all are not given a grade, while the participating members are given the same grade.

Online Teaching Roles

Following the concept of R. M. Palloff and K. Pratt, who in 1999 discussed effective strategies for the online classroom, tasks and roles demanded of online instructors could be categorized into four general areas: pedagogical, social, managerial and technical. The pedagogical function revolves around educational facilitation. The social function is the promotion of a friendly social environment essential to online learning. The managerial function involves norms in agenda setting, rule making and decision-making. The technical function depends first on the instructor becoming comfortable and proficient with the technology being used and then being able to transfer that level of comfort to the learners.

In the context of courses being run through PIALL, the instructors have multidimensional roles.

Educational facilitation: Pedagogical role

The course instructors are facilitators enhancing students’ learning by encouraging their participation in discussions. They are also subject experts providing core ideas and concepts as well as stimulating discussions.

Community building: Social role

The course instructor encourages community building in open community spaces in the discussion forums. Towards this, a space is created in BBS, like the forum on introduction where students and course instructors begin to know and be comfortable in each others’ virtual presence throughout the course.

Administration: Managerial role

The course instructors also exert their authority by establishing boundaries of teaching and learning, including acceptable conduct in the virtual classroom, participation in discussions, timely submission of assignments, etc..

As in any classroom setting, instructors have to take the initiative in specifically calling some learners “out of the classroom” and tell them to participate in the learning. In the context of a virtual space, this is done by sending them a separate email, rather than an announcement on the BBS. At other times, using the same procedure, students are also asked not to overcrowd and/or dominate the learning space by posting long and verbose discussions.

Co-creation of knowledge: Technical role

The wide range of different learners that participate in the course, in terms of their professional backgrounds, ages, experience, current job description, geographical location, level of understanding on the issue, have critical implications for teaching the course. It is possible for learners to quote international examples or cite information that the instructor might not be familiar with. This then requires the course instructors to undertake some additional research in order to understand the specific aspect being alluded to and link it to the virtual debate. Thus, the course instructors become co-investigators and co-creators of knowledge along with the learners.

Online Learning of the Learners

The successful learner in online learning is active and engaged in knowledge generation and seeks solutions and insights into the issues being explored. Learners view issues from multiple perspectives, including those of their co-learners and guest faculty.

In doing so, they are generating envisaged learning outcomes from the course and developing new perspectives on the themes of citizenship, democracy and accountability. They are learning new concepts, as well as gaining research and critical thinking skills. Learners are collaborating with each other at deeper levels of understanding of the materials under study.

Course Evaluation

In the process of the online learning environment, it is assumed that learners take responsibility for their own learning, growth and development. In this process they gain a new view of themselves and a sense of confidence in their ability to interact with new knowledge. The learners’ feedback is an important indicator to assess course material, andragogy, skills of instructor, relevance of assignments, use of technology, value of a virtual classroom. For most cases, evaluation of a course reveals that learners benefited immensely from the learning process. The concepts taught sharpen their knowledge and consequently their articulation skills, as well as an application of their knowledge in a community setting. The BBS especially has proven to be an effective learning strategy for the students.


Self directed learning in an online environment is based on the core belief that instructors do not teach but rather facilitate the acquisition of knowledge. Yet, online course teaching is not an easy task. The courses are fraught with many challenges, which can be categorized as related to course development, teaching, evaluation, language and retention of students. Detailed descriptions of each challenge are given below.

Course Development, Layout and Design

When developing a curriculum, subject matter experts are invited to comment and finalise the blueprint for the specific course. However, most of these experts are not familiar with the concepts and andragogy related to online teaching or principles of Adult Education, therefore discussions can tend to get diverted to issues related to the delivery of course content as opposed to the content in itself.

Copyright issues related to articles and case studies being used in preparation of course content are always a challenge. As material is being used in a format that is open to the public, permission needs to be secured from the publishers and this can also come at a price, which has to be renewed for each course offering. With such constraints, students may only be given access to some parts of publications and this can limit their understanding of the issue at hand. Besides, it is important to understand that it must be ensured that all required readings are available to the student as part of the text-based material and must be easily available online.

Crucial to the learning process is the level and pitch of the selected material as well as the specific text used in conveying of the concepts being taught. Each learner must be able to understand and feel comfortable with the style, language, flow and sequencing of content, especially as there is no immediate support available in the form of further explanations or illustrations, as in a face-to-face classroom.

The curriculum must be broken into short learning packages which the learner should be able to finish reading in the span of one to two hours. The matter must be presented in a crisp and concise manner and laid out in an interesting style, interspersed with boxes, graphs and illustrations rather than a straight flow of pages of dense reading matter. Course material can be so designed that a column at the side enables learners to make their own notes for further discussion or referencing. Given the fact that the learner may carry learning material with them to read during a long journey to and from office, lunch break or other spare time, the size of text material may be compact and easy to handle.

Online Teaching

While the BBS increased the sense of community among the learners and provided a shared environment for reflection, the difficulties in online communication were apparent.

Some learners participated and voiced their concerns rather actively, while others did not, despite prompting from instructors. It was impossible to understand why some students were silent, as there was no means of judging the core issue for their lack of interaction. It was difficult to assess whether the lack of response was due to occupational commitments, simply an oversight or act of negligence, lack of self-confidence, language, indifference or any other reason.

Another challenge faced in online teaching is a seemingly lower level of seriousness and commitment to schedules and deadlines when as compared to regular learning programmes.

Very often assignments are submitted well after the deadline, without any prior communication or reason for the delay. There seems to be a mistaken assumption that the online course does not have a start and a finish, and there is an inability to comprehend that all learning cannot be based solely on individual needs.

Given the fact that learners have a range of different situations and contexts, methods to address these have to be innovative and meet the requirements of individuals but without affecting the procedures of the institution.

Evaluation of Assignments

The evaluation of the assignments proves to be a challenging task. There are several cases of misinterpretation of assignments. At times it becomes difficult to fathom, whether it is a genuine case of lack of comprehension or whether the learner perceived that there would be some marks assigned, irrespective of what the contents of the assignment.

Cheating on assignments is another issue that instructors have to contend with, as is plagiarism, and it needs to be dealt with firmly. An alert instructor will be able to identify those cases where learners use a language and a style that is different to the usual interaction on the BBS. In one case a learner when asked to conduct a gender audit and prepare a report on the same, submitted one so perfect that the instructor herself, a seasoned “auditor”, knew that it was the job of a professional team of auditors. Since the learner was from a UN organisation, the instructor went into the online archives and in a matter of seconds located the source of the plagiarized article!! A decision was taken not to issue the learner a certificate.


The integration of students from diverse backgrounds implies that they vary in age, education levels, language abilities and country of origin. As course content can sometimes highlight complex issues, difficulties in communication can take place. Students not well versed in the language of instruction are challenged in putting across their ideas effectively. Further, their messages could be misinterpreted and therefore the instructor needs to take the lead in picking out key concepts and reframing the same, seeking clarifications in the course of discussions in order that discussions are meaningful and there is a deep learning from the powerful insights and relevant experiences of all the members of the class.


Retaining the students in the course is another challenge. There are instances of students who take up more than one course without realizing the intensity of the learning process and cannot do justice to both. There are others whose personal and professional circumstances undergo unanticipated changes and they are unable to cope with these demands and complete the course. Such cases have to be evaluated and resolved individually. Irrespective of the reason for dropping out or the solution offered, what is important is that the instructor has to be in constant touch with all the learners and create an environment where they can share their personal difficulties, which have a significant impact upon their participation and quality of learning.

Technological Challenges

While most of the younger generation of learners is adept at understanding and using technology to its fullest advantage, this may become a major challenge for an older learner – an activist based in a grassroots setting. Access to technology may be a barrier to the learning of a younger person who has limited hands -on experience with computers and the Internet.

Additional support must be given to these learners to be able to navigate through the BBS and gain confidence in being able to conquer these challenges in order for other learners to gain the value of his/her field experiences and insights.

While such interventions are powerful in ensuring the inclusion of each and every learner, they may also draw upon the resources of the institutions. Innovations such as the use of Skype, or a carefully designed page with Hyperlinks that navigate the learner through a learning process will have to be seriously considered.

Challenges Related to Teaching Faculty

Instructors within PIALL also play out a host of other institutional roles such as conducting research programmes, trainings on specific issues, speakers and panelists on areas of expertise etc. This could mean taking them out to remote locations of the country or in parts of the world where Internet access may not be available. Personal matters may also take them away from the office for more than a few days. As this could have a negative impact on the learning process of the student, alternative arrangements have to be in place for such situations. Turnover of faculty is also a cause for concern in the course instruction.

At PIALL we have devised a relatively simple method to deal with such issues. This has the advantage of ensuring that courses run smoothly and that the student gets complete attention of at least one instructor.

Each course is run and taught by a team of two persons, a senior faculty and a junior. As a part of the initiation into the process of teaching, the junior instructor will have participated in the course as a learner prior to teaching the course. Such a team ensures proper orientation as well as the ability for one instructor to complete other tasks of the organisation or fulfill unexpected personal commitments.

Ways Forward

Inclusion of Alumni is a powerful tool in the growth and vision of any educational programme, including one that is online, and innovation is the key to any programme of inclusion of learners. At PIALL we have developed some methods of continued interaction and are always in search of new approaches to strengthen our alumni and its network. These include

  • A quarterly newsletter giving information on the programmes of the Division
  • Suggestions from learners on new courses to be developed
  • Information and invitations related to lectures, talks seminars, training programmes of the division
  • Standing invitations to meet with instructors and other divisional personnel when in Delhi
  • Invitation to be guest faculty on courses being taught online, in areas of their expertise as well as the course they were enrolled in (these are offered to those who performed well)
  • Printing of excellent assignments as articles in PRIA journal or recommending them to other journals and magazines


Learning for professional development is based on purposes linked to a broader vision of growth in the profession. ODL in an online learning environment has the potential to promote empowered learners who are able to meet the demands of ever-changing knowledge in society.

It offers them an opportunity to interact with the instructor and fellow learners as they apply new knowledge in authentic contexts. Such collaborative and transformative learning has the potential to contribute to better learning outcomes, including the development of critical thinking and competencies.


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