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Humanitarian Leadership Academy benefits from customised open source software on a global scale

Humanitarian Leadership Academy's mission is to enable people around the world to prepare for and respond to crises in their own countries. They work with the humanitarian sector and new partners from the technology industry, private sector and universities to help communities become more resilient in the face of disaster, giving them the training and skills they need to respond to crises.


laptop HLA LMS

The Challenge

Humanitarian Leadership Academy’s key focus is to ensure people can respond to crises when they happen, meaning they don’t have to wait for expertise from other countries. Local communities are on the front line when a disaster strikes and more people die while waiting for help to arrive. 

The aim for the Academy is to ensure that local communities have the learning and skills they need to prepare for,  respond and recover from an emergency. Ultimately, this means that more lives are saved. 

For instance, if a crisis occurs in Kenya, how can humanitarians quickly access expertise based in the Philippines?

Small organisations can’t necessarily afford the vital training they need to respond to crises quickly, so Humanitarian Leadership Academy’s challenge was to increase the reach of potentially life-saving training and to make it accessible and relevant to as wide an audience as possible, thus democratising access to this essential learning.

The Solution

Humanitarian Leadership Academy knew that the business model had to be focused on learning, accessibility, reach and scale. In order to delivery this model, they needed a digital element for a global programme operating at scale. After going out to tender, Totara Partner Catalyst was successful.

They opted to use Totara Learn, because while open source software wasn’t mandated, they realised that this model fit well with their aims both practically and philosophically, as the platform would need to grow and the content would be openly licensed.

Humanitarian Leadership Academy’s initiative comprises two main platforms in an innovative blended approach.

The first is Kaya, the main digital bedrock of the project based on Totara Learn.

The other is the Academy Centres, which act as centres of networks to help humanitarians build relationships and partnerships with organisations through workshops and training activities. This programme is aimed at three main audiences:

  1. Organisations themselves looking to use the platforms to support their own staff 
  2. Humanitarian professionals in humanitarian organisations looking for just-in-time learning and career development, such as in leadership, business and finance
  3. Everyone else - people involved in responding to crises who are not professional humanitarians, such as those working in the private sector looking for resilience training.
HLA front page LMS

The requirements for the Kaya platform were complex in terms of the frontend and the technical functionality. For instance, technical experts Catalyst needed to ensure that the bandwidth and download sizes were appropriate for the many scenarios in which content would be accessed, as poor network connectivity is a major issue for humanitarians in crisis zones, along with ensuring content was mobile-friendly for easy access around the world.

The main Totara Learn features and functionality used by Humanitarian Leadership Academy are:

  • Programs - The ability to carry completions across and not have to redo a course. This required customisation to allow users to self-enrol on programs.
  • Uploading documents, multimedia resources and SCORMs
  • Reporting
  • Certificates
  • Feedback forms
  • Competency frameworks
  • Customised dashboards with different theming for each Academy Centre
  • Multi-language support - English, French and Arabic with plans to add more in the future
  • Single sign-on. The first SSO ID to be integrated is the Humanitarian ID from the UN Office for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs. Humanitarians register for their own ID, which stays with them across jobs and organisations to help them find each other and to act as a portfolio. Catalyst’s offline player - automatically tracks learning completed offline and recommunicates with Kaya when back online, allowing courses to be downloaded in advance when users have a good connection and completed offline for more efficient learning

Catalyst also implemented its innovative global content delivery network (CDN) to ensure the LMS was accessible from anywhere in the world. For example, this means that humanitarian workers in Bolivia or South Africa don’t constantly need to pull content from servers in Ireland, which would be a slow and frustrating process. Instead, the content can be mirrored in a closer location, such as Singapore, to enable faster access from geographically dispersed learners.

Humanitarian Leadership Academy Totara LMS catalogue

The Results

The eventual plan for the programme is that it will support around 100,000 users, though ultimately it will need to be able to support more as growth increases.

The entire Totara Learn site was implemented very quickly - within six weeks. Humanitarian Leadership Academy is also delighted with the look and feel of the platform, as well as the intuitive UX, which they say ‘works beautifully’. Registering for different Academy Centres is also working well, and is already proving very successful.

This project also highlights the value of the open source software model. Several elements of this solution were reused from another large-scale Catalyst project, enabling two important non-profit organisations to benefit from the same technology.

Humanitarian Leadership Academy is also looking at making use of the Open Badge Passport created by another Totara Partner, Discendum, enabling humanitarians to bring evidence of their skills with them throughout their careers.

What's next

In the future, Humanitarian Leadership Academy will be looking at introducing more ways to certify learners and recognise their achievements within the programme and in their roles. They will also be introducing functionality for a more user-centred experience, as well as putting measures in place for change management and version control as the content base expands.

“We have slightly different needs to most other organisations, but in terms of what we needed Totara Learn was a very close fit, and it offered us a world of possibilities”

Kat Sandford, Digital Planning Manager, Humanitarian Leadership Academy