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Can MOOCs help slow the spread of Ebola?

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Can MOOCs help slow the spread of Ebola?

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It seems that the world is rapidly waking up to the severe threat posed by the Ebola outbreak in western Africa.  I wrote last week about the launch of a new open innovation challenge by USAID to try and come up with a new protective suit for healthcare workers.  The current suits are often unsuitable for the very warm conditions faced in Africa, rendering them unwearable after 30-40 minutes.  The aim therefore is to devise a suit with better ventilation to protect aid workers for longer.

I’m inclined to think that the project, worthwhile though it is, is too late, and should have been launched several months ago when the chances of halting this disease were much greater.  Alas, it is not the only project looking at social tools to try and help the situation.

Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online (Alison) launched a MOOC earlier this year that aimed to provide citizens in effected communities with the knowledge to understand and cope better with the disease.  The course, called Understanding the Ebola Virus and How You Can Avoid It, aims to help locals cope better with the disease, thus slowing or even halting its spread.

Of course, a major obstacle is the lack of Internet connections in the communities that are largely affected by the disease.  The aim therefore is to educate those that do have it, who will then pass on their knowledge through more traditional means.

“Not everybody has the opportunity to do the course,” one student said recently. “It’s just a few who have the internet. Those of us who can, we take our responsibility and go into the communities to educate people … The chain continues so gradually people will be aware of how to avoid the virus.”

Alison is one of the lesser known MOOC platforms, but is nonetheless very popular.  The site, which was established in 2007 has over 3 million learners using the site, with estimates of approximately 250,000 in west Africa.  The Ebola course has already had around 10,000 people completing it, with the hope that many more will follow.  The site hope to use the crowd to translate the course material into the various regional languages used, before eventually doing so into more global languages.

Having completed this course the learner will be able to: – Describe what the Ebola virus is; – List the countries where the outbreak has occurred; – Explain what the signs and symptoms of an infection are; – Explain how an infection is treated; – Explain how to avoid becoming infected.

The site already has a French version in addition to the standard English, with an Arabic version planned soon.  The sad thing is, most of this work has been a very much grass roots effort.  The site reveal that no NGO has thus far contacted them to utilize the work they’re doing to bolster their own efforts.

The founders believe that their grassroots effort is much more effective at reaching the relevant people than the traditional, top down approach adopted by the NGOs.

“They are dealing with the outbreak in a classic old-fashioned way that believes money is the answer. It’s not the answer. We have infrastructure now that was not there before. Ebola is containable. The response has to be information- and education-led.”

The course has clearly gained traction within the developing world, but I wonder if there aren’t equal applications for it in the developed world too.  My partner for instance works in the NHS, and despite there being a well publicized exercise for dealing with Ebola last week, she suggests that there is still a great deal of ignorance amongst colleagues about how to deal with any cases that arrive in Britain.

Maybe the Ebola course could also help to spread knowledge of the disease throughout the developed world too?

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