People who want to build healthier communities in remote areas are often left out of excellent training opportunities. They simply live too far from a central meeting space to participate in many courses. Online learning is an obvious solution because organizations can deliver high-quality education without the need of a meeting space. So directors and managers often throw online courses at their most far-flung workers and consider the job done. Sure, Internet-based training can make a difference between building skills as a professional and lacking knowledge. But training people who live far from their peers isn't as straightforward as it sounds. Programs focused on improving population health when those populations are far from a central hub are best if they address a few key factors from the beginning.
Provide contact with mentors or coaches.
If a worker works in an office or health care setting, they have regular contact with managers or coaches and can use new skills with their supervisors right away. A little extra attention, and accountability, can make a big difference in a health worker implementing what they learned faster and better. Some remote workers don't have regular access to supervisors or mentors, so what they pick up in class could sit stagnant.
If mentors aren't in the learners' communities, put them there, at least virtually. This could mean setting up phone calls with a coach to discussion implementation of the skills, or requiring regular online check-ins through the forums or email. Online mentoring relationships have the advantage of connecting in a way that can be challenging with face-to-face programs. It can be helpful for leveling gender and racial differences in some fields or vocations, according to Elearn Magazine.
Establish networks with peers.
One tremendous benefit to working with others in an online course is being able to make connections with people who also work in and understand the community. People quickly seek out others that live nearby and might already know of helpful resources in the area. Some programs even encourage out-of-class networking by offering in-person sessions to complement online time. If a learner sees there are no nearby peers in their class, they're more likely to feel disengaged and ignore the opportunity to make connections online.
One idea is to create or encourage participation in a Community of Practice (CoP). The CDC provides instructions for setting up Communities of Practice, which are meant to "strengthen public health as members learn, share expertise, and work together on solving common problems in their communities' focus areas."
If you are looking for a less ambitious solution, you can offer other ways for people to connect:
- Create activities that foster group work.
- Invite people in complementary job functions to participate in the course if they live or work in the same area.
- Schedule semi-annual or quarterly networking meetings so people can connect outside of class time.
- Encourage participation in online peer groups outside the course.
Provide remote training via reliable technology.
Internet connection in faraway places might not be easy for everyone. Some people rely on libraries or other public terminals for connectivity. These terminals could be in small facilities with limited open hours and competition for use. Bad roads or spotty Internet connections, made worse in bad weather, can make this even more of a challenge. If you can, establish additional places or kiosks that learners can use for their work. You might be able to send a laptop or iPad to a nearby office or even make one available to the learner so they can participate. Do a little groundwork and find out where public computers are located so you can give your learners a list of places they can access. Even if remote learners have a home or work internet connection, loosen your policy to accommodate outages. Downed phone lines during ice storms can cut off a community and make a learner miss deadlines. Notify your facilitator where learners before class so they can be aware of any kinds of access blocks. Remember that a learner can be "remote" even if they're down the block from your head office. Job interruptions, vacations and a busy life can all interrupt participation in a class.
Think about how these strategies apply to all your learners, and you could find that your online learning program is an even greater success.