When the Peace Corps was established in 1961, it was assigned three primary objectives: to help people in interested countries meet their needs for trained men and women, help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served and help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans. Although times have changed, the Peace Corps – and particularly its learning and development components – still revolves around those aims of assisting developing countries through outreach. “One of the greatest things you can say about the Peace Corps is that we’re still absolutely grounded in the same goals that John F. Kennedy set in 1961,” said Michael Densley, chief of overseas training at the Peace Corps’ Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research.
While the Peace Corps remains committed to its founding principles, the organization has undergone significant changes throughout its existence. “We’re in a different world,” Densley said. “The Peace Corps was much larger in the ’60s. We had many, many more volunteers, even though we are now at a 29-year high in terms of number of volunteers in the field.” He added that the Peace Corps’ learning and development model also has evolved over the years. Volunteers originally went through training in much larger groups than today, and focused on a more academic and lecture-based training approach that was primarily delivered stateside in cooperation with contracted universities and colleges. Eventually, training would transition to employ various blends of stateside pre-departure training followed by pre-service education delivered at either in-country or nearby country training centers, or directly in the local community. These new approaches have enabled a more rapid and successful transition from the classroom to the field and have opened the door to more closely integrate language, cross-cultural and technical training curricula.
Today, the Peace Corps has more than 7,700 volunteers – more than 96 percent of whom have either undergraduate or graduate degrees – serving at posts in more than 70 countries. A relatively young group (the average age is 28), these volunteers sign up for two-year periods and can stay in the Peace Corps for multiple, non-consecutive terms of service. They work in fields ranging from education and community development to health and HIV/AIDS initiatives to information technology. In addition, the Peace Corps has regular staff members working overseas and at the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Nearly all of the volunteers and staff members will come into contact with the Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research at some point in their tenure. “We are really one of 20 major agency branches,” Densley explained. “We are tremendously decentralized in our organizational structure and operations, and that certainly impacts how we do training and development across the organization.”
Betsi Shays, director of the Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research, added, “The principle that we emphasize in order to work successfully within this decentralized model is to stress the importance of structure with flexibility. We try to design and promote the use of core training fundamentals and standards, while also supporting the necessary flexibility that enables country-specific needs and best practices to be honored.”
The learning process for volunteers starts with online pre-departure programs for applicants, which focus largely on cross-cultural issues. “Our cross-cultural training is anchored primarily in starting as early as possible in the cycle,” Densley said. “We start before someone even is nominated to be a volunteer. On our Web site, we have activities that are focused on language training, cross-cultural training and the role of a volunteer in development. A very large number of applicants, which increases each year, apply online to the Peace Corps now. We’re not using this to test anybody. We’re trying to get training to them at that critical time before we even see them face-to-face.”
Much of this phase of learning is necessarily introspective, and urges learners to look inward and evaluate their own thoughts, values and characteristics. “When many organizations think of cross-cultural training, they say, ‘Here’s a list of dos and don’ts,'” Densley said. “You end up getting just that – it’s kind of a smorgasbord. We address the challenge primarily by first having them look at themselves. You have to understand the color of the lens you look through before you can begin to expect to appropriately adapt to and adopt another culture. Your concept of self is extremely important – how you perceive obligations and norms that might follow. Your concept of time is another foundation.”
Once Peace Corps volunteers are approved, they go through a two-day “staging” period at hotels close to the airports from which they embark for their host country. Safety and security, policies and procedures, and country-specific cultural information are covered at these staging events. Volunteers then move on to the most comprehensive and important portion of the learning experience: the 12-week pre-service training period. “The pre-service training is the true anchor of the whole continuum,” Densley said. “When they get off the plane, they go directly to their pre-service training. This is when the learning and development responsibility is no longer at headquarters, other than the guidance and facilitation we help provide.”
Learning and development at each Peace Corps post is managed and delivered by a project and training officer (PTO) and/or training manager (TM). These individuals “own” the pre-service training and are responsible for aligning it to program objectives, but they also receive guidance, resources and assistance from the Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research. A top priority in this portion of the learning process is local languages.
Although volunteers learn a great deal about foreign languages from the course content, the key to the rapid language learning in the Peace Corps is in the use of direct cultural immersion and a very practical language application. Additional language development and progression continues as long as volunteers are in the host country. “Our language program represents one of the best partnerships that headquarters has with the posts right now in the training that we do,” Densley said. “Volunteers have learned over 300 languages at the Peace Corps. It’s not unusual for a volunteer to have to learn more than one language. I was recently in Kyrgyzstan for a week, part of the former Soviet Union. We can’t just teach Russian there. We have to teach Kyrghiz, too, but then (volunteers) go in their homestays – where they live for two years – and they realize that the Kyrghiz that they were taught was pure Kyrghiz. They’re now hearing something that is somewhat of a mix of Russian, Kyrghiz and some local dialect – almost a third language. You may not see that if you’re an ambassador in a city, but if you go out to the community in which we’re living and working, that becomes a challenge.”
The pre-service training essentially operates in a confederated model, and Densley acknowledges that this is unavoidable. However, there is an effort to bring more standardization to this part of the process, which already is being accomplished to some degree with a strong language proficiency interview testing program based on ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages) guidelines.
“Because of decentralization, those (programs) take on a slightly different flavor per region,” Densley said. “Without being headquarters-domineering, we try to delicately influence them with standardized competencies, but even that is very challenging within this organization. Right now, a great deal of the Peace Corps training is contracted to and delivered by our outstanding foreign-service nationals. Monitoring their work comes from an annual reporting process in which these staff provide programming and training summary reports to headquarter specialists, that in turn then summarize the data and provide feedback to staff, as well as to key stakeholders.”
As a result of this push to bring about greater standardization of skills, the Peace Corps is implementing new technical solutions, such as a human capital management system (HCMS) and a project management system. The senior leadership of the organization has agreed to fund the HCMS in the hopes that it will lead to more clearly defined competencies, as well as greater automation in recruitment, retention and succession planning initiatives. “I’m pushing human capital management here not only because I think that it’s a way to open up individualized training and blended learning opportunities, but I also see it as a means of maintaining the Peace Corps’ focus on a decentralized model,” Densley said. “It adds a centralized tracking and guidance capability because all data comes back to headquarters, but the training is still controlled by each training manager at each post. It does not give headquarters more control. It gives us an ability to be more of a partner with the field.”
The new solutions also will enable the organization to track its successes in learning and development initiatives and help disseminate best practices, Densley said. “I, like other leaders in the organization, am very interested in ROI models and am anxious to emphasize this discipline throughout the Peace Corps. We’re just not quite there. We need the systems to do the measurement.”
Another goal of the Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research is to increase and enhance the online educational offerings for staff and volunteers. “The biggest complaint about the online pre-departure training that we’ve done is that it’s not enough,” Densley said. “To date, that represents the only successful online training the agency has done for volunteers. The agency did propose to latch onto the Golearn.gov initiative in 2003, which is the U.S. government’s e-training initiative, but absent extensive custom content development commitments, found it unrealistic to tie the existing courseware directly into overseas job responsibilities and experiences. When you take something that’s extremely relevant and needed in e-learning, people will get on there and use it. That’s what we have in our pre-departure online training.”
Because of their familiarity with technology, incoming Peace Corps staff and volunteers have higher expectations each year in terms of what resources the organization will provide to them for learning and development, he said. “When we run through our overseas staff training, sometimes it can be frustrating for me, because I hear what individuals coming in as staff – and what our volunteers are saying when we see them at staging about what they expect the Peace Corps has. They say, ‘Do we have chat capability? Can we collaborate with one another? Do we have an online learning capability where I can learn my language?’ The greatest challenge is having the patience to get there, because it is step-by-step. You cannot have that system until you’ve got the bandwidth and the capability – and that’s just on the hard side.”
Densley also said that it wasn’t always easy to get organizational leaders to appreciate how new technologies could enhance the performance of Peace Corps personnel. In any organization, “You’re lucky to have some change champions, but you’re always going to find some change inhibitors. The Peace Corps has plenty of those, because it’s always done very well in how it operates on traditional means, but you’ve got to understand what our new volunteers are expecting, and how they can work most efficiently with these new methodologies. We have so much to be proud of, but we have so much room where we can improve,” Densley said.
Ultimately, though, whatever new programs, processes or products are rolled out to support volunteer and staff education, the key aim of the Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research is to align all of its initiatives to Peace Corps projects. “There has to be a tight link between programming and training,” Densley said. “The programming defines what our volunteers are doing in the field. It’s the projects that are designed on the needs of the countries. Our training needs to be supporting those projects. Any efficiency and effectiveness we can add to the learning, whether it be for staff or volunteers, contributes to those project goals and objectives.”
Brian Summerfield is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.