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Spotlight: Using the HPass Quality Standards to evaluate UNHCR's learning & development approach

An interview with Catherine Russ, partnership broker & humanitarian learning specialist

The HPass Quality Standards for Humanitarian Learning were developed through consultation with 400 organisations across six regions, through in-person workshops and an online survey. Funded by the Humanitarian Leadership Academy and implemented by our partners Bioforce, RedR UK, and Pearson, the aim was to draw together best practice in the development and delivery of humanitarian learning, into a set of Standards that could be used by any organisation to review and improve their work. It is accompanied by a Quality Assurance process enabling organisations to be certified against the Standards via an external review.

In this interview we speak to independent consultant, partnership broker and humanitarian learning specialist, Catherine Russ, who used the HPass Quality Standards as part of her work to evaluate UNHCR’s learning and development approach for their workforce and partners.

Can you briefly summarise the evaluation you were tasked with carrying out for UNHCR?

Yes, certainly. As we all know, in recent years there has been a huge surge in displacement of people, driven by conflicts in regions all over the globe. With UNHCR’s caseload steadily increasing (the number of refugees within its mandate increased by 92% between 2010 and 2019), UNHCR sought to identify new ways of achieving their objectives, including working with a range of stakeholders outside of the humanitarian sector. This change in organisational caseload and approach necessitated a review of UNHCR’s overall Learning System in order to ensure it could support their expanding and evolving mission.  They were also interested in benchmarking themselves against other organisations to see where they stood in their own evolution.

How were the HPass Quality Standards used as part of the evaluation?

One of the qualitative methods used in the evaluation was an assessment of 10 selected learning offers from across UNHCR. These ranged from UNHCR’s standard online induction, through to operational trainings on areas such as livelihoods and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, and functional skills such as management. We interviewed 20 people as part of the process, some more than once, and incredibly over 800 documents were submitted!

Our approach was to create a simplified but nevertheless robust version of the Quality Standards, which could be applied to the systems surrounding each of these particular courses, rather than to the organisation’s systems as a whole.

This approach enabled us to compare across learning offers, and identify patterns across standards. We were pleased to be able to use a recognised standard which gave the process some objectivity.

Were there any other methodologies used in the evaluation?

Yes, we also conducted five country case studies to compare approaches across UNHCR offices and their partners. I conducted a desk review on trends in Learning and Development, and compared UNHCR’s approach to that of five other large agencies and some private corporations and finally we also conducted an online survey of the workforce as a whole.

What did you find out using the Quality Standards?

The majority of the ten selected learning offers were found to be of high quality, which was really positive to see. I quote from my report:

“For the most part, learning offers were delivered consistently and learners generally felt supported throughout their learning experience. In most cases, the learning offers were supported by competent staff and provided with the necessary physical resources. Communications were also a strength with learners generally receiving clear and accurate information about learning services across communication channels.”

Some of the standards for which we identified room for improvement were needs analysis, design, and evaluation and accountability. The gaps in needs analysis and evaluation and accountability both revealed a need to more systematically gather data from learners, on a holistic rather than course-by-course basis. For design, the key issues were in keeping content updated, and maintaining it in six UN official languages in order to ensure accessibility. The report’s recommendations in relation to these and other findings are now being followed up by UNHCR.

In your experience, what would you say are the main challenges humanitarian and development agencies face in ensuring their learning and development offers remain fit for purpose?

I would say the main challenges are in:

  • Developing more agile learning content that is not so labour intensive. Longer more substantial programmes take so long to develop that they can easily become redundant soon after launching. With the fast pace of change the idea is to develop more agile content in module formats or bite-sized learning that is not necessarily perfect, but good to go and can be trialled, improved and iterated as time goes on. Each time it is run, it is improving and responding to the changing needs of different individuals or cohorts and it continues evolving at a faster and more economical pace.
  • Encouraging learners to become more self-determining and to become more pro-active about what they need. They want to learn from their peers and their managers and not just experts. Learning providers are now becoming coaches, curators and space providers for learners rather than spoon-feeding learning programmes. Learners need to be able to access learning through a variety of means other than formal training programmes such as social media, learning management systems, communities of practice, networks etc.
  • Focusing on learning impact to better able make the case internally for learning budgets; this has been the Achilles heel of learning and development – not being able to show the impact of investments in learning programmes. We know a lot more now about what it takes to become a high impact learning organisation and this is all about a systems approach. This means paying attention to all aspects of an organisation to ensure that it is enabling and promoting a learning environment.  See Fig.1  

What would you say are some of the big trends in learning and development in the humanitarian sector, as the sector itself continues to evolve to respond to increasing numbers of emergencies?

The biggest trend I’ve seen in the sector is co-investment in online simulations. Emergency simulations have proved to be some of the most effective ways of providing learning opportunities but they have also proved to be huge logistical and expensive challenges to deliver.  What AI is providing is the equivalent of a full-blown simulation experience with actors from the comfort of one’s computer. This is driving huge savings, increasing safety and security for those involved and transforming the way simulations are conceived.

The other big trend is of course the big switch to online learning and experiencing the value of it as a methodology in its own right.  Gone are the boring first generation self-paced modules and here are now a range of blended learning approaches that are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible online.  I worked in a team that transferred a complex four-day face to face programme into a 6-week online programme complete with role playing, videos and problem-solving games.  It’s been well received so far but the pressure is on to keep up with the pace of change and expectations of participants.  As learning budgets continue to be under pressure to prove their worth, the online space will continue to grow as it democratises access to learning for far more people – something the humanitarian sector has struggled with for years.  Budgets have traditionally been more weighted to higher ranking staff but the online setting has equalised access so that more staff and partners can take part in learning opportunities.  I hope and expect that we will continue to see this trend grow.

A summary of the 8 humanitarian learning standards
Fig 1: High Impact Learning Culture Framework – J. Daly 2020
Catherine Russ, partnership broker & humanitarian learning specialist

You can view the evaluation report on UNHCR’s Learning System here.

More information about the HPass Quality Standards, and the certification process, can be found here and here.