Advanced Degrees

Authentic Learning Goes to the Next Level

April 3, 2013

WHO launches EPELA e-learning course

We rendezvoused at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, piled into the rented SUV, and drove through the rainy Georgia night to Gainesville — five weary travellers. We entered the sprawling rented house on Lake Lanier that would serve as our group’s office, home, restaurant, and laundromat for the next four days. We uncorked a bottle of red wine and raised a glass in camaraderie, each secretly wishing for success in the launch of a new and unique chapter in online learning. We gathered to work out the few remaining kinks and put the finishing touches on the World Health Organization’s inaugural EPELA authentic e-learning course on pharmaceutical cold chain management, a virtual-world extension of the WHO/PDA Pharmaceutical Cold Chain Management on Wheels Course in Turkey.

This revolutionary ‘Authentic’ e-learning experience, two years in the making, is the brainchild of Dr. Umit Kartoglu, Ph.D., M.D. and scientist, and the coordinator for Global Learning Opportunities for Vaccine Quality at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Umit invited me, along with principal course architects Jim Vesper, a widely respected expert in risk management and founder and president of LearningPlus Inc., in Rochester, NY, and Tom Reeves, Ph.D., and professor emeritus of Learning, Design and Technology at University of Georgia, in Athens, and a pioneer in interactive learning programs, to make final preparations for the course launch. The fifth colleague at our rural hide-away was Andrew Garnett, a London-based architect-writer-intellectual, and member of the team that developed the WHO/UNICEF Effective Vaccine Management initiative.  Joining us by videoconference from Istanbul were graphics designer, illustrator and animator Gokhan Gurses, and a small team of software engineers.

We spent most of the next four days dissecting and correcting a myriad of physical, electronic and technical aspects of the course and plotted an elaborate risk assessment matrix to address any and all “unforeseen” circumstances that might arise, by plastering dozens of hand-written Post-It notes across the surface of the sliding glass doors in the great room of the lake house that led to the balcony overlooking a dreary Lake Lanier below. In the end we felt confident we had mediated any likely scenarios that might arise that could throw a wrench into the launch.

The course successfully launched worldwide at 00:00 GMT on Monday, March 4th, as planned. This was no sooner accomplished than we realized that when the course schedule was defined and distributed to the first “class,” we forgot to account for the change to Daylight Savings Time (which occurs on different days throughout the world during the month of March). This is critical considering groups convene for the course tasks at specific times. Crisis averted.

What is Authentic Learning?
Authentic learning is a learn-by-doing concept where course participants become ‘cognitive apprentices’ to the experts, engaged in realistic tasks and complex collaborative activities that encourage the creation of enriched mental models of the constructs and procedures related to, in this case, vaccine regulation, production, distribution, and storage.

The name given by WHO for this revolutionary method for online learning is, in Latin: Extensio et Progressio Authentic e-Learning, or EPELA, for short. Unlike most electronic courses where participants read through the material, slide show or video presentation, and complete some on-line assessment based on memorization skills (or lack thereof), EPELA incorporates a significant amount of “imagineering,” a custom platform of content designed by various experts and learning professionals in collaboration with creative directors, cinematographers, graphic artists, and software developers from around the world. From the moment participants sign-in, the course becomes a very immersive experience, a virtual reality.

During the past five years, Dr. Kartoglu has been leading groups composed of 15 participants and three mentors through the length and breadth of the cold chain in Turkey. In both the public and private sectors, institutions have hosted the learners and allowed them an “all-access pass” of the real life of the cold chain. The award-winning “bus course,” as it is frequently called, has proven a notably intense and successful learning experience. (I have served as mentor on the course in 2010 and 2012 and will do so again this June.) However, a week-long course requires an enormous amount of planning and resources, which has limited the course to once a year. With the demand growing, Dr. Kartoglu has been challenged to find ways to provide a similar learning experience for cold chain practitioners around the world and was committed to create a unique, technology-supported learning experience where people could learn with and from each other and where real-life situations and case studies could be used to develop expertise.

The resulting on-line experience is remarkably similar to the actual bus course, but without the fumes and kebabs. All the major facilities of the real-life experience are visited, including: a wholesaler, a public hospital, a regional healthcare storage facility, a primary healthcare clinic, a commercial pharmacy distributor, and a retail pharmacy. Each “visit” includes a facility tour video, 360° photographs, extensive video and document “libraries” on everything from basic thermodynamics to storage facility design to risk management. Participants from around the world engaged in the course are grouped (by time zones) and also work independently on a host of exercises. There are discussion groups and everyone is encouraged to keep an online diary of their travels. Mentors closely monitor the progress of each individual over the 11-week course, providing personalized feedback and support via e-mail, Skype, and group conferencing by phone. The culmination of the course addresses a real-life (authentic) task involving the immunization supply chain in Albania — where the participants are required to create a solution that would be of a real public health benefit based on their course learnings.

Some of the advantages of the EPELA e-learning course — other than the obvious monetary savings associated with travelling — are that it supports a learning environment that even the best traditional face-to-face courses can’t match. EPELA enhances collaborative, cooperative and individualized learning in ways that traditional e-courses do not allow, and this is well recognized among educational experts as vital aspects of effective learning and professional development. EPELA is a state-of-the-art process enriched with learning assessments — not tests — that allow personalization of learning with the needs of individual learners. The course also ensures a consistent delivery of the same learning opportunities to all participants, an important advantage in regulatory environments such as pharmaceuticals.

Development of the WHO EPELA e-learning course was driven by an aspiration to provide a high-quality education program that will help to ensure that time-temperature sensitive drug products are safe, pure, and effective. To that end, I believe the EPELA e-Pharmaceutical Cold Chain Management Course will prove a resounding success and a teaching model for others to follow in the future. Additional courses are already under development by Dr. Kartoglu, including e-VVM Based Vaccine Management and e-GCP Inspection.

The course is free (!) to eligible public sector applicants. Eligible private sector applicants pay $3,500 USD. That’s quite a bargain. To learn more about this ground-breaking learning experience or to review eligibility requirements for application, go to http://epela.net/epela_web/. Perhaps we’ll meet on the virtual bus!


Kevin O’Donnell is senior partner at Exelsius Cold Chain Management Consultancy – U.S. He is the former chair for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Time & Temperature Task Force, a member of the USP Expert Committee on Packaging, Storage and Distribution, a temporary advisor and certified mentor to the World Health Organization (WHO), co-author of PDA Technical Report No. 39, and a member of the International Safe Transit Association (ISTA) Thermal Council. He blogs at www.clutchcargo.us. He can be reached at kevin.odonnell@exelsius.us.

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