Two years ago, West Africa was in the grip of the Ebola epidemic. Across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, more than 10,000 people would die by the time the crisis came to an end earlier this year. It was a moment for action rather than words, and alongside those who came forward from charities and non-governmental organisations were several hundred researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The institution had a reservoir of expertise it could deploy, from teams who model the spread of disease, to student volunteers who were able to clean up datasets from the field, ensuring that the locations of outbreaks were recorded as accurately as possible.
The school set up a task force to coordinate its response, and ensured that staff who were keen and had the right skills to help were able to do so without losing funding or income.
It was an extraordinary example of research expertise being deployed in real time in the real world. But the school’s response wasn’t only about putting people into the field. There was also a need for education to combat the spread of the disease.
One of the ways it did this was through an online platform that pooled resources from anthropologists to help those on the ground understand and work effectively within the cultural context of the region.
Another initiative took the form of a massive open online course. The successes and failures of Moocs are well known, but they often perform best when they are focused on specific skills, or topics with a practical application.
The course put together by the LSHTM (which like the rest of its Ebola response was fast-tracked to get it out while it could have the biggest impact) took the form of a free, three-week programme aimed at health professionals, emergency response workers and students. Titled Ebola in Context, it brought together research expertise and the experiences of front-line responders, reaching more than 18,000 participants, including many in West Africa.
Videos were made available as PDF transcripts for those with poor internet access, and participants shared their experiences with each other as they learned. At least one of those who took the course during the crisis, a medic from Liberia, subsequently came to study for a master’s in London, and will return home this autumn with skills that were sorely lacking when the epidemic struck.
The LSHTM’s Ebola response demonstrates how digital learning can be deployed to best effect: integrated into the many things that universities do, and the diverse range of formats and approaches to education.
It’s worth bearing this in mind in light of our feature this week on digital disasters, in which we hear from a US lecturer whose experience of teaching via a new virtual learning environment was so painful that it was “only in criticising their fibre-optic education that my students were able to overcome it”. A second contributor, also from the US, comes to a similar conclusion: “We were spending time and energy on a technology that was serving no one,” she says.
Tech for the sake of tech, or supposedly elegant solutions that aren’t so much inelegant as downright obstructive, is the worst of all worlds. But as the LSHTM case demonstrates, in the right hands and context digital delivery can also be hugely powerful – and in this exceptional case, was life-saving.