COVID-19, International Development, and Education: An Interview with Open Learning Exchange

Melissa Bornico


(Open Learning Exchange helps to empower individuals and villages with personalized learning and the tools to enact change in their communities. OLE began their work in Somalia, partnering with Mogadishu University. To learn more about OLE and the powerful work they do, visit them at

The coronavirus pandemic has become an unspoken part of life, with no aspect of society left untouched. Education is no exception to this, with students experiencing dramatic disruptions in their studies worldwide. In an effort to capture the ways in which COVID-19 is impacting the work and insights of Boston-area International Development organizations, I spoke with Mike Perez, the CEO of Open Learning Exchange, to get his perspective on how learning and education have been impacted. What follows is a poignant illustration of his organization’s effort to empower communities before and through a global health emergency, a meaningful outlook on his vision for learning, and an example of the resiliency that people can have when equipped with their own actualized potential.

Question: To begin, tell me a little bit of background about your organization and what you do?

Answer: Open Learning Exchange was founded in 2007. The founder, Richard Rowe, put together a thoughtful approach to learning where students learn fundamentals like literacy and numeracy, and also reflect on their personal purpose and history. They think about the needs of their community, and they work with teams to interact with others and build relationships. For many years we’ve been making three types of innovation in the learning field. The first is a shift to personalized learning. This is when a learner discovers what their interests, desires, and career pathways are, and how they can pursue it without the limits of more standardized education. Second, we bring learning access to people living with limited or no internet connection by using a portable server called a Planet Learning System. This system can broadcast from a local wifi cloud where content can be put onto it and updated as much as needed. The third dimension was added more recently when we noticed it was difficult to build a bridge from learning to meaningful work opportunities. For example, a lot of people were geographically far away from those opportunities. A few people would become exceptions, going off somewhere and making a lot more money, but ultimately leaving that community behind. So, the third dimension we added was entrepreneurship that comes out of the learning program. We’re piloting a model where the community forms a counsel and articulates their needs, such as business, health, or clean water. Learners then use their knowledge to form teams and propose enterprises for the counsel that would address those needs. In one instance in Somalia, the community had needed things like more health resources and a tailor. Learners helped meet those needs, which became useful when the pandemic began and the community got further isolated from other resources. The village organized it’s own health clinic, and the tailor ended up sewing masks. The combination of learning with community was the basis for this community to respond and handle it’s own needs despite the pandemic.

Q: What are some challenges you faced before the pandemic?

A: Formal education systems over the world are very massive bureaucratic entities. There's a lot of resources that go into them that play a very important role, but being so big makes it harder for them to innovate. OLE found that as much as personalized learning was appreciated in theory, it was hard for the system to adapt and adopt. We transitioned from focusing on formal education to informal education opportunities. Now with the pandemic, formal schooling has become impossible or very difficult. The whole world is thinking about how to innovate so people can keep learning outside of a typical classroom.

Q: Do you see your model becoming more widely used now?

A: It’s only been a few months so it’s hard to tell, but we’ve seen larger foundations shift funding efforts to offline learning opportunities, project based learning, or to thinking in general about how we learn from home as opposed to in a classroom. People are being forced to shift in this direction for better or for worse. It doesn’t come without its obstacles, though. The challenge of electricity and internet access is still significant. Our technology provides part of a solution to that. There are still challenges around travel and maintenance of the tech, when shipping isn’t always possible because flights and transportation aren’t working as they did before. Logistics are more challenging. We do see the world around us shifting and wanting to understand how learning can become more personalized as opposed to thematic, though.

Q: What innovations have you made in order to keep learning continuing in the communities you work with?

A: We’ve looked at things in a few different ways. Part of our system was that we had people bringing this portable server from a place without internet to a place with internet so it could be updated and new content could be provided and we could collect data. That became difficult with travel restrictions, so on one hand we had to communicate informally via phones and Whatsapp. Staying connected has been a challenge but we’ve improvised. The innovation forced us to think about how we could get internet connection in a village without there being a formal utility. We are in the process of understanding how mobile wifi hotspots work, whether it could support our technology, and so instead of having to go back and forth with this portable server we may be able to have it be connected via a mobile wifi spot or use a cellular network. At some point if the wifi is powerful enough we might be able to bypass the portable server and have it be a normal internet connection.

Q: What long term changes do you see happening as a result of the pandemic, broadly in regard to international development, and internally at your own organization?

A: I don’t know for sure yet what changes may happen in International Development. One thing we’ve seen is that in a crisis, it’s become much more important for a community to be able to take charge of its own needs. In International Development models that require interdependence, all of a sudden people have been cut off from those. I don’t know for sure, but I’m hoping that the world begins to think a little more about how International Development models can empower a community with a period of interdependence and a high level of support, but built into these models are ways of eventually withdrawing so that communities and countries can be on their own, not entirely, but if required to be. In terms of approach to our work? It’s been really interesting to try to adapt to the current needs. The world is really focused on health right now, and we’re a learning program. How are we relevant and of use in a world that’s focused on the pandemic? One of the challenges internally was thinking of how to adapt without losing sight of our core value proposition and core competencies. We couldn’t suddenly become an organization that helps villages set up health clinics. That's not necessarily our specialty, but they need to do that. So how do we as a learning organization help them with that? What do we have to offer? We’ve had to step back to see what we’re good at and how it fits into the situation.

Q: Several people are saying that the pandemic has “pulled the curtain back” on issues in society and the world that previously did not receive as much attention. Do you agree with that? What issues would those be from the perspective of Open Learning Exchange?

A: The biggest thing that has been highlighted in our world is the importance of access to technology. That’s pretty general, but communities with internet and devices could much more quickly adapt to remote learning than those without. Education departments in some countries have been able to switch to Google Classroom somewhat quickly. While there’s all sorts of challenges with remote learning, that’s something that people will get better at and departments are able to say they’re moving forward. What’s sometimes gone unsaid, and what the pandemic has emphasized, is that in many places there are still communities that don’t have internet or wide access to smart devices or laptops. Formal education in those places has basically ceased. It’s certainly painful to think about, including for people here in the United States affected similarly.

Q: What gives you hope that things will get better?

A: I’ve been really impressed with how funders have shifted to focusing on the pandemic. There's been an agility in the philanthropic world that’s been pretty impressive. There’s a real focus right now on community and exchange of information and collaboration. One of the quintessential challenges in International Development work is that sometimes funders will have a lot of resources that they're ready to put to something good in one way, but it’s very far away from life on the ground in the place that needs those resources. So there’s an information gap that makes it difficult to apply the resources in a way that actually does some good. An organization like ours, the ones working as the intermediary between those resources and the communities that need them still face information challenges through the pipeline, but despite the pandemic there’s been a lot of effort in continuing with virtual conferences and other collaborations to keep that information flowing and to try to have the resources applied in a way that have a positive impact. Internally, we’re largely distributed as an organization anyway. Several people are here in Boston, some in Nepal, others in Ghana. We work worldwide. Partly because of time zone challenges and being in different places, we were already used to working virtually. So not a ton has changed for us besides we all have our kids at home and are juggling a bunch of stuff given the conditions. At OLE we haven’t personally experienced a huge change because of this. We have a collaborative and flexible culture.


About the Author: Melissa Bornico is a Research Assistant at the New York State Psychiatric Institute where she helps people with early symptoms of psychotic disorders. She's also a member of the Levittown Coalition for Change policy subcommittee, a local New York organization that advocates for racial equity and justice in America's first suburb. Melissa is passionate about human rights, global health, and sustainable development. Melissa's future goals include advancing systemic change through policy research and evidence based programs.

All views expressed in the foregoing post are the author’s own and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Boston Network for International Development (BNID) or its members or sponsors.