Advancing P3s Through Collaborative Education

This article was originally published in the Q3 2020 issue of the P3 Bulletin

The cornerstone of learning has always been human interaction and collaboration. People learn from the stories and examples of others. For this reason, case studies and testimonials are a prevalent part of effective training programs. One of the most consistent pieces of feedback we receive from students who take courses in the classroom is that the interaction with their peers from around the globe is where they find the most benefit. Their learning is expanded, and their breadth of knowledge deepens through their peers’ stories of uncovering and overcoming challenges.

The newfound reality of restricted travel and social distancing has removed much of the personal interaction that makes peer mentoring and continuing education so beneficial in the execution of public-private partnerships (P3s). However, the core need for better-educated and prepared project leaders persists while the traditional models of learning are no longer viable. How, then, do you address the need for workforce training while keeping staff safe?

Online learning is an obvious solution, though not one that should be hastily applied. The challenges of any learning program can be amplified when transferred to an online format. For example, keeping the student’s attention demands highly engaging content, which might require new designs beyond what is used in the classroom. Additionally, while the content might be truly valuable, outside distractions can decrease students’ retention and subsequently measurable return on investment. On top of the distractions, program designers must consider challenges including limited communication infrastructure in emerging economies, lack of high-speed broadband in rural communities, and myriad external issues that may disrupt the student’s ability to participate fully. Effective learning requires more than placing a person on a conferencing platform to deliver the same presentation that would be used in a traditional classroom.

Building a Stronger P3 Workforce for Better Infrastructure

We know how vital continuing education is for enhancing the human capital of any organization. It is increasingly critical for those involved in P3 projects, which are innately complex in nature. A parity of understanding between parties and comprehensive due-diligence is imperative to draw out value for money.

Students must both learn the concepts and see them in action through real-world simulations. Here again, we learn from the stories of best practices. By bringing a group of practitioners together to discuss the strengths and pitfalls they have encountered in their own recent projects, we expand beyond the typical case study. Have group discussions about why the Monte Carlo Model might be the best fit for evaluating the bankability of their upcoming bridge project, or how a power purchase agreement could be the answer to bringing their countries into the 21st century with renewable energy. Instead of showing students how a financial model works, have them work through the model from beginning to end.

So much of real learning is understanding the who, what, where, when, why, and how through stories and open dialogue. When you have a team that can speak to real-world examples while displaying a keen understanding of how P3s work, your organization gains the confidence of potential partners, whether you are on the public or private side. Remember: the strength of a collective dialogue will always exceed the power of even the most talented individual.

Transitioning to Online Learning

Moving from in-class to online learning is not as simple as posting presentations, scheduling tests, and assigning grades. Consider, for example, geographically diverse teams of project managers, field personnel, and executive leadership, all requiring various levels of education in all aspects of the P3 project cycle. Online learning has a unique ability to provide training—as well as collaboration—across all the entire team.

A collaborative experience needs to be established for students to interact with one another when they cannot be together physically. In cultivating the knowledge to execute large projects, P3 professionals need to bounce ideas off each other, while learning from their peers’ mistakes and successes.

As mentioned earlier, changes in format—in addition to connectivity and technology issues —can affect how people learn and engage with the content. To be fully engaged in online learning, students need to feel that the online classroom is just as effective as the physical classroom. This higher level of collaboration can be reached by establishing industry experts to teach courses in real-time, and enabling students to have their questions answered as they arise. A study by LearningHouse found that 35% of online students believe that the inclusion of instructors with extensive real-world experience improves the online learning experience. About a quarter of students surveyed desire more contact with their instructor and more facilitated engagement among students in the class. This, alone, leads to a better learning experience and understanding of subsequent topics.

A strong emphasis on collaboration is critical when bringing online training from passive, one-way presentations to highly engaging and active learning. Interaction amongst peers and instructors should be incorporated dynamically and thoughtfully throughout both the course architecture and the instructor’s delivery. Classrooms allow students to speak freely. However, multiple voices speaking at the same time on an online platform is most often unintelligible and could lead to loss of valuable discussion time. Innovative tools like gamification, polling, interactive software, open discussion forums, and real-time video chat are essential in creating a multi-format learning experience that drives participation and collaboration.

Engagement and accountability are close allies. Real-time, anonymous knowledge checks and games allow even the most self-conscious student to participate in the conversation. Gaming removes language barriers and fears of being wrong, enabling students to participate freely. The instructor can also use poll results to measure their performance in delivering complex concepts and address gaps in comprehension in real-time. Anonymous polling also allows students’ questions to be raised and voted on, to drive the most important questions to the top of the conversation. This enables every student to own the direction of the class, even if their question was not specifically addressed through their vote.

Whether you are building curriculum or searching out opportunities to further your understanding of the intricacies of P3s, the two most important elements to remember are quality of content and levels of collaboration. When a course thoroughly incorporates peer collaboration, it will be student-focused, establishing a return on investment and higher levels of efficacy. P3 programs are unquestionably complex. A training program that has higher levels of retention allows for the learning of best practices from peers and industry experts and instructors, which can only advance and further the effectiveness of P3 projects and project teams.