Harnessing Partnerships in the Age of Online Education

UNITAR, Peacekeeping Training Programme, On-line Based Learning and Education Section

October 2016 - Over the past decade, advancements in science have created more technology dependent societies and significantly impacted the way teaching and learning are delivered. In particular, traditional education methods have transformed into collaborative, cost-effective, and dynamic classrooms, which – in turn – have provided individuals with easy access to a variety of educational materials and content. As online learning continues to become more mainstreamed, students worldwide are expressing an increasing demand for this type of more accessible education. This is particularly relevant for those – such as working professionals – interested in continuing their education but not able to do so because of geographical restrictions or lack of available communications infrastructure.

Today, more and more higher education institutions worldwide are expanding their online learning programmes to meet the demands of individuals without access to traditional forms of education. Statistics show an impressive growth of online teaching and learning. A 2015 study of distance education in the United States has confirmed a significant growth for the 13th year in a row [1]. Non-profit educational institutions have witnessed the biggest increase, growing by 3.9% over the previous year compared to a 2.8% increase from for-profit institutions.

In another study conducted by Docebo – a Learning Management System provider – it is estimated that there has been a 7.9% annual worldwide growth rate in the self-paced e-Learning market between 2012-2016, with the biggest rate increases in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa [2]. The study has found that over 5.8 million students in the United States have taken at least one distance education course per year, over the past four years. Of those, almost 40% have taken graduate level courses. Interestingly, more than 71% of academic staff interviewed have highlighted learning outcomes in online education to be the same or superior to face-to-face instruction.

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) has developed an extensive expertise in the delivery of online programmes. Using Internet as a medium, students, practitioners and scholars are brought together in a unique virtual learning environment designed to valorise experiential and collaborative learning. Since 2013, the Institute collaborates with leading higher education institutions offering high-quality post-graduate programmes that engage students in exploring social, economic, environmental, and political trends and issues. The Master in Conflictology – delivered by the Univeristat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) in collaboration with UNITAR – is an example.  

The degree – the first post-graduate level academic endeavour at UNITAR – allows students to examine conflicts in all of their dimensions and to explore innovative approaches for their management, resolution and transformation, through a network of world-leading academics and experts. The programme offers a flexible, innovative and inter-disciplinary curriculum, which foresee interaction with a wide range of international and regional practitioners as a key component of the learning process.

Partnerships such as the one between UNITAR and UOC are setting the basis for practice-based approaches to teaching and education that offer students the competences needed for working in the field.  Increasingly, international organizations and higher education institutions are combining their efforts to enrich the educational experiences of students. The growing recognition of the relevance of such partnerships has enabled organizations to provide different avenues of learning, accommodate various abilities, and grant students the opportunity to broaden their skills in specific fields so far unaddressed.  Media agencies, corporations, and philanthropic foundations are also joining this trend as a way of supporting student progress. While these different sectors have various reasons for setting up partnerships, UNITAR and UOC joined forces because of an aligned mission to encourage learning and enhance career opportunities in diverse fields. The three-year partnership symbolizes education as an interactive endeavour that has improved outcomes for students.

A similar example is the partnership between UNITAR, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) for the delivery of the online Master of Arts in Electoral Policy and Administration (MEPA). The programme specifically addresses individuals seeking careers as election administrators and proposes a curriculum developed by world-leading experts which cover topics related to electoral operations, civic and voter education and management of electoral bodies.

Key facts about the MA in Electoral Policy and Administration

Key facts about the MA in Electoral Policy and Administration

The launch of this new MA has been warmly welcomed within the international community of practitioners. Mr Ali Al-Bayati, Electoral Officer of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Somalia, Mr Emanuele Giauffret, Head of Division, Democracy and Electoral Observation, European External Action Service, Ms. Halima Ismail Ibrahim, Chairperson of the National Electoral Commission of Somalia – to name few – have expressed strong appreciation for the initiative on the occasion of the official launch of the programme which took place (virtually) on 1 June 2016. In the words of Ms. Hannah Roberts, Independent Election and Governance Consultant: “[It is] very encouraging to know that there is this Master [MEPA] that gives the chance [to students] to learn things in more depth and with a broader perspective and in a disciplined, structured approach”.

In the same line, the partnership between UNITAR and Oxford Brookes University (OBU) is being established to further enrich the educational offerings of the Institute. Built on the experiences and expertise developed by the staff at UNITAR and OBU, the Master of Arts in Humanitarian Action and Peacebuilding explores the interactions between humanitarian action and peacebuilding, by linking theory with practice and applied knowledge. The programme envisages online lectures, discussions with key practitioners and the sharing of experiences, critical reflections, within the framework of an action research-based approach. The aim of the programme is to enhance reflective practices combining the art of conflict sensitive approaches to humanitarian and peacebuilding programming with the appreciation of the wider context in which these interventions unfold.

As the quality of e-learning software, access and methodology continues to improve, online education has become considerably more widely accepted world-wide. The approach of collaboration between experts in their respective fields including the international organizations, accredited universities and independent institutions, allows for knowledge sharing that offers students the best education possible. This harnessing of partnerships has already proven itself and will continue to do so in this modern age of online education.

To learn more about online-based learning and education at UNITAR, please visit our website at: onlinelearning.unitar.org

[1] (Babson Survey Research Group, 2015) http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/2015SurveyInfo.pdf

[2] (Docebo, 2014) https://www.docebo.com/landing/contactform/elearning-market-trends-and-forecast-2014-2016-docebo-report.pdf