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USAID Learns New Tricks of Training Trade

Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) were on a path to harmonizing numerous data-related training when COVID-19 made virtual work a necessity. For USAID, this proved the perfect opportunity to roll out a training curriculum that worked for employees who were working remotely.

Before the pandemic, USAID leaned heavily on classroom-based instruction. In exploring options for virtual training, it recognized an opportunity to rethink instructional design, said Julie Warner Packett, a data scientist at USAID who helps lead training on data use and governance.

“With the digital format, we can provide so many different avenues for expanded learning that you can’t carry out in that live environment,” Packett said.

In general, training takes one of two forms: synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Synchronous Learning

One form is to move the classroom online, just as many meetings went virtual during remote work. This is known as synchronous learning because everyone goes through the training at the same pace.

Whether physical or virtual, synchronous learning makes it possible for the instructor to work directly with learners in real time, and for learners to work with one another. But that shared, collaborative experience does not happen as naturally in a virtual setting, Packett said.

“We heard from staff that oftentimes training in the virtual environment can be a bit isolating,” she said. “There’s not the same sense of community that you’d get in the brick-and-mortar classroom, where people are seeing each other and chitchatting every day.”

One option is to include activities that allow people to test their skills or knowledge. This serves both to make the material more engaging and to give the instructor a sense of how people are learning.

Another is to include time for breakout groups, in which people are paired off to talk through a particular question and then report back to the broader group.

Asynchronous Learning

In asynchronous learning, people complete training on their own time. This approach has numerous advantages.

First, it enables people to find their own pace of learning, going backward and forward through the material as needed. “It can be a bit challenging in the classroom if things are moving more quickly than you can absorb,” Packett said.

It also enables people to review material during work hours. “When folks can jump into training modules during their daily work as needed, that’s really powerful,” she said.

Another advantage is that people can create their own learning paths. As part of its data literacy training, USAID has developed a curriculum that offers different learning modules for people at the basic and intermediate levels (an advanced module is coming soon), and each module is broken down by key topics. It’s an a la carte system that allows people to engage with topics in whatever order they choose.

Synchronous and asynchronous are not mutually exclusive. In some cases, USAID offers training
via a live webinar for people who want real-time engagement with an instructor and then makes that video available on demand for others to watch at their convenience.

Agile Learning

Whatever the format, virtual learning makes it easier to develop and deploy new training in response to changing requirements, such as a new data-related mandate, Packett said.

“What we’ve found is that it allows us to be just so much more agile,” she said. “We’re able to design and deliver training pretty rapidly and to support staff in implementing whatever’s coming down the pipe.”

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s guide “Turning Vision Into Reality: How Agencies Can Forever Improve.” 

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