A Virtual Classroom Is Teaching Health Workers in Africa New Skills

Each course is customized and, because of unreliable Internet connections in some countries, can be taught online or offline.
A pharmacist who has gone through TechChange’s training program. (Photo: Charlie Weems/Courtesy Malaria Consortium)
Dec 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Uganda has the highest malaria incidence rate in the world: 478 cases for every 1,000 people each year. In neighboring Nigeria, the most populated country on the African continent, 97 percent of the population is at risk for contracting malaria, according to the World Health Organization.

The technology to quickly detect malaria exists. Yet in both countries, people are being misdiagnosed. Those who don’t have malaria are often mistakenly given anti-malarial pills for flu-like symptoms, and those who do have malaria are not receiving the appropriate treatment. Anti-malarial pills are powerful and can be damaging to a healthy immune system.

“This is a big problem that is leading to parasite resistance of the drug,” says Maddy Marasciulo-Rice of Malaria Consortium, a U.K.-based nonprofit that specializes in treating and preventing malaria.

The problem stems from a common challenge in international development: lack of proper training. For instance, in Uganda, thousands of pharmacists were provided with low-cost tests for malaria, referred to as “rapid diagnostic tests,” or RDTs. The tests require just a drop of blood and a bit of solution. Two red bars on the tool indicate that the patient has the malaria parasite, and one bar means he or she doesn’t.

(Photo: Charlie Weems/Courtesy Malaria Consortium)

But the pharmacists didn’t know how to use them.

“It’s not as simple as providing the commodity,” says James Tibenderana, development director of Malaria Consortium, in a video explaining how the RDTs work. “The training needs to be effective…and the behavior change we’re trying to achieve—we need tools for that.”

RDTs are the ideal solution to monitor malaria, says Nick Martin, if used correctly. To make that happen, Malaria Consortium turned to his company, TechChange. The Washington, D.C.–based company was founded in 2010 with the vision of making technology more development-friendly. It has crafted training courses for more than 50 organizations: USAID, the State Department, Ashoka, World Bank, Unicef, Oxfam, and smaller NGOs. Each course is customized for the client and covers a variety of topics—maternal health, mobile money, agriculture, disease prevention, and more.

TechChange developed a six-hour training program for more than 3,000 pharmacists and technicians in Nigeria and Uganda on how to properly use the RDTs. Malaria Consortium and its partners, the World Health Organization and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, gave Martin and his staff all the training materials. TechChange then made it into more digestible bits, using short animations, videos by doctors, and graphics to illustrate everything from what causes malaria to how it should be treated. The program was broken down into 12 parts. Once the participants completed the digital portion, they got hands-on training by Malaria Consortium.

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In March 2014, Martin traveled to Uganda with his colleagues to film and photograph local health-care workers and providers. “We wanted to complement the illustrated characters and backgrounds so that it looked more familiar,” he says.

In the field, the team quickly saw that an online course would be too hard to pull off. Internet connections were unreliable in parts of Uganda. So TechChange made an offline course, stored on a USB stick. Either way, the pharmacists had to use computers, and not everyone had done so before. That meant adding another layer of training: computer skills.

TechChange staff in the field. (Photo: Charlie Weems/Courtesy Malaria Consortium)

“We went through the basics of how to use a mouse, how to perform basic actions, like dragging, scrolling, changing volume. They were tremendously enthusiastic about learning on computers,” Martin says.

Previously, Malaria Consortium would do training sessions in person. The process took several days, taking away precious time from the field staff who taught the lectures.

(Photo: Charlie Weems/Courtesy Malaria Consortium)

“Moving to a computer-based format has allowed them to scale their work while providing consistently high-quality trainings,” says Martin.

The program launched in the summer of 2014. This year, Malaria Consortium asked Martin and his colleagues to return to Uganda to update the training. In 2016, there are hopes of expanding the program and reaching more people: 1,500 in Uganda and 3,500 in Nigeria.

Martin sees computer learning as a cost-effective way to educate populations that are hard to reach or don’t have the means to pay for higher education. It goes beyond just a training program on a specific topic, he notes.

As a poetry and peace studies graduate, Martin explains that he had a hard time getting a job. That struggle and his travels in emerging markets led him to start TechChange. Today he sees alternative education as a way forward for the development community and beyond.