Typical street scene in Santa Ana, El Salvador. (Photo: iStock)

Typical street scene in Santa Ana, El Salvador. (Photo: iStock)

IMF Survey: Long-Distance Learning Makes the World a Classroom

August 21, 2008

  • Distance learning meets needs of officials unable to take time away from jobs
  • Promotes learning from each other, formation of lasting international bonds
  • Students from less formal backgrounds can absorb course materials more fully

The IMF's distance learning program links students and instructors anywhere in the world.

Long-Distance Learning Makes the World a Classroom

Distance learning students in two-week courses work as many classroom hours as they would in a semester at most universities (photo: IMF)


It is designed to help officials in member countries improve their economic analysis for policy planning and implementation. By end-July 2008 it had delivered more than 4,000 participant-weeks of training.

Distance learning was developed at the IMF to meet the needs of mid-level officials who need in-depth training in macroeconomic policy analysis and forecasting, but who cannot take the time away from their jobs. The distance learning program allows students to study most of the material at a distance before completing the course in a residential segment.

After the success of a pilot offering of a distance learning course in English in 2000, the concept became a regular part of the IMF Institute's curriculum starting in 2001 and a special website for course participants was added. A French version of the course was added in 2005.

Distance learning is intensive: students in two-week courses work as many classroom hours as they would in a semester at most universities. Distance learning students receive two weeks' training in the residential segment of their course, in addition to the 10-week distance segment during which they are expected to spend at least 10 hours a week on their assignments.

High success rate

Most officials taking the distance learning course report that they have to work on the distance segment on their own time at night and on weekends to complete assignments. Nonetheless about 90 percent of students do complete the distance segment—a high success rate for distance learning—and are invited to the two-week residential segment where they work together and apply what they have learned.

"The intensity of the group work among officials from all over the continent has fostered lasting ties among these officials," said Caryl McNeilly, Assistant to the Director of the IMF Institute, who oversees the distance learning courses. "It has also given them a new depth of appreciation of policy linkages and spillovers between countries in the region."

While students find both parts of the course demanding, intensity promotes learning from each other and the formation of long-lasting international bonds among officials who work together through the course.

Distance segment

Officials study at a distance for 10 weeks, during which time they do their work through a combination of mediums. Core course materials are sent to students, including a study guide that combines the text and lecture material of a traditional face-to-face course.

Multimedia resources include video and audio segments to explain concepts. Three compact disks provide self-study minicourses on exchange rate analysis, balance of payments accounting and analysis, and the interlinkages between the main macroeconomic sectors in a country. The students also use a dedicated website and a discussion forum that serves as their virtual classroom (see Box 1).

Box 1. Learning Together Online

Distance learning students have access to a dedicated website where resources are directly available. Most importantly, they have a discussion forum that serves as their virtual classroom during the course. WebBoard, an online collaboration software application, provides students with a way to ask and answer each other's questions and to work on difficult tasks together.

Course instructors also monitor the WebBoard and can step in and provide guidance as well as additional tips and references on the weekly topics. The website includes an online library where participants can read the study guide, access background resources, and use assignment spreadsheets. They can also refer to a list of frequently asked questions.

During the distance segment, students submit an assignment via e-mail each week. Their instructors—in Washington or somewhere else in the world—review their assignments and give feedback. While the distance learning format is new to most students, past participants have found it has significant advantages.

Some students, especially those with less formal backgrounds in economics, have said that covering only a few topics each week gave them time to absorb the materials more fully. Many have appreciated the opportunity—unique to the Financial Programming and Policies course—to receive regular, individual feedback.

Residential segment

When students arrive for the residential segment they report feeling that they already know each other thanks to their extensive e-mail and online communications during the distance segment, and to the shared experience of studying complex material. During the residential segment (see Box 2), students learn more about policy formulation and implementation, through a combination of lectures and hands-on workshops in which they work together in groups (each of which is guided by an instructor) to design a financial program for a case study country.

At the end of the segment, each group presents to all the other groups its diagnosis of the problems in the case study country and its recommendations for macroeconomic and structural policies to solve those problems. These policies are then embedded in a hypothetical financial program for the country.

Box 2. Capacity Building in Africa

The United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) has fully funded six special offerings of the distance learning course in English for African officials, in support of DFID's and the IMF's mutual goal of capacity building for Africa. Each time DFID has financed the course, it has increased the same year's total training opportunities in English for African officials at the IMF Institute by 75-100 percent.

Caryl McNeilly of the IMF Institute, who runs the distance learning courses, notes that "holding the residential segment of these courses in Africa makes a lot of sense from a logistical standpoint, since all the students are from there."

The South African Reserve Bank College, which also provides training, has been a partner for three overseas residential courses. The college provides a conference center, including the lecture and workshop rooms and the computing facilities needed for the course, as well as administrative support before and during the residential segment.

Better job performance

Feedback from the sponsors of officials who complete the distance learning course confirms that students do their jobs better overall after this training. Specifically, they provide better policy analysis, recommendations and forecasts. Better job performance after training also enhances the officials' prospects for internal advancement, to the benefit of both the participants and their agencies.

Followup surveys also confirm that officials share the knowledge they gain from these courses. The benefits are not limited just to improved policy analysis, policy development, and policy execution in the home countries of participants, but also extend to improving the engagement of these officials in regional and global economic forums.

The IMF also benefits. IMF staff report that officials who have received such training, especially in the financial programming and policy course, are much better equipped to engage in policy discussion and debate with IMF missions: they question assumptions and dispute analysis, which adds to their ownership of and commitment to agreed policies.

Comments on this article should be sent to imfsurvey@imf.org