In seeking to develop ways to build upon and improve the many learning-related initiatives across our portfolio of public health, education, and governance programs at Results for Development, our team found ourselves asking fundamental questions about practitioner learning in international development. How do frontline practitioners learn? Even more fundamentally, what do we mean by learning? Is there a “best” modality for facilitating practitioner learning? Or does the “ideal” modality vary depending upon the context? If so, how?
To guide our pursuit of answers to these thorny questions, we reviewed literature on a wide ranging set of topics connected to practitioner and professional learning. The hope was to move beyond the often trite guidance available to international development practitioners involved in learning activities. Instead, we wanted to draw on lessons that have emerged from years of inquiry in well-established fields with clear relevance to practitioner learning.
To sharpen these ideas, we reviewed critiques leveled at online knowledge repositories and learning platforms similar to the online platforms our team built to support practitioner learning and facilitate knowledge exchange. Determining how to most effectively leverage these resources to support practitioner learning was the immediate impetus for undertaking this study. However, these fundamental questions about learning necessitated that we look at both on- and off-line contexts, so the scope of our inquiry, and the implications of our findings, touch on both. Finally, we harvested and summarized insights from Results for Development’s extensive experience designing and implementing learning efforts for multiple audiences, and across multiple sectors.
The findings of this review suggest that there is no single best way to facilitate learning, and no single channel that is superior to others. Rather, the optimal way to promote and facilitate learning is a function of the interactions between the nature of the content to be learned, the actors doing the learning, and the overall objectives of the learning. Important to our purposes, practitioner learning with regard to complex, heavily context-dependent social interventions likely requires an iterative approach that allows for experimentation, reflection, and further refinement of ideas. Simply creating awareness of new information or a new idea, by contrast, might be possible through a static website combined with outreach. Identifying the exact ways different types of content, learning objectives, and learner context should inform learning design is a logical next step for taking this work forward.