Shaping the Learning Culture of the United Nations

The following article shares our experience in our journey to nurture self-directed learners at the United Nations, by implementing a learning ecosystem designed and conceptualised with a precise ambition: to be a unique and global learning hub open to all our staff.


Excited by the overall theme of this year’s OEB Global, “Learning Resilience”, we are delighted to contribute with our own experience from our efforts to build agile organisational learning solutions during this past year. The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic imposed great challenges and demanded a series of shifts in learning, among other things the adoption and use of network interfaces to facilitate information sharing, learning, and the creation of collaborative channels (United Nations, 2020a). Deeply affected by this and given the current organisational focus on learning opportunities for employees at all levels (OHR, 2020), we are eager to engage with fellow educational practitioners and share best practices and lessons learned regarding agile and resilient learning.

About Us, the UNSSC

The United Nations System Staff College is UN’s distinct knowledge management and learning institution that offers learning initiatives and interventions to increase technical and substantive knowledge spanning the three pillars of the UN’s work: peace and security, human rights and development.

The main purpose of this article and our contribution at OEB is to share with participants our efforts to date towards agile upskilling of the United Nations staff through the Blue Line, a learning ecosystem open to all UN staff at all levels and locations. Blue Line was launched in April 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and serves now more than 10,000 learners. With this in mind, we are looking forward to contribute to the conference with insights gained from what we have implemented and achieved so far, as well as our next steps to transform Blue Line into a more adaptive learning platform.

A Global Learning Hub designed by the UN for the UN – Why Blue Line?

According to Davis and Daley (2008), employees’ continuous learning is critical to an organisation’s ability to innovate and succeed (Davis and Daley 2008). This is explicitly underlined in the document “UN Core competences for the future” where the promoted organisational culture is one that enables staff to contribute to their maximum potential. In particular, in the seventh core competence “Commitment to continuous learning” UN personnel are strongly encouraged to not only keep “abreast of new developments in own occupation or profession” but also willingly contribute to UN’s learning culture, by being enablers of learning for colleagues and active learners themselves. In addition, continuous learning and development shall be in the core of the new UN Competency Framework (OHR, 2020), with specific attention paid to dispositions such as curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, self-motivation and autonomy in learning, upskilling and reskilling (ILO, 2018a).

OHR’s literature review (2020) brings dynamic, self-directed and ongoing learning to the forefront of the learning and development opportunities for the United Nations. Bearing this and with numerous studies confirming that continuous learning is an important denominator in choosing one’s employer (Deloitte, 2018; ILO, 2018b), it becomes clear that self-directed learning has a lot to offer in strengthening UN’s organizational learning culture.

While research has shown that self-directed learners do possess certain characteristics that allow self-direction, there is also a plethora of things that can be done to provide an enabling environment for self-directed learning (Hiemstra & Brockett, 2012). Our utmost goal with Blue Line is that learners’ motivational state towards learning shall stem from their rational choices with regard to the learning topics, objectives and activities. To achieve this, we have taken specific actions to arrange the instruction-learning process in a way that encourages learners to take ownership and control of their learning.

What have we done so far?

The Blue Line programmes attempt to address the need for more self-directed and real-world learning. To this end, we have created a fully equipped digital environment, offering learners maximum flexibility in choosing the learning components and providing them with guidance to nurture the creation of learning paths that best fit their needs and complete modules and activities at their own pace. At the same time, our curated content aims at providing them with the real-world experience and association, vital to the work of UN staff. In a nutshell, learning in Blue Line aims to be personalised, relevant, applicable and collective.

More specifically, Blue Line is built around the following key pillars:

  • Self-management and self-monitoring (Garrison, 1997): To begin with, learners in the Blue Line are provided with choices on how they wish to proceed with their learning. They can create their own learning journey or they can choose one of our curated learning paths to acquire skills and knowledge for specific areas of interest. This is achieved through our customized platform that allows learners to pick and choose modules that help them reach their individual learning goals, as well as track their progress along the way. Learners are, thus, responsible for constructing personal meaning and linking the new knowledge and concepts with their previous knowledge. This process is additionally scaffolded by an initial self-assessment that users undergo once they kick-start they learning journey.
  • Real-World Application: The concepts and knowledge introduced in Blue Line are anchored to the UN reality and situated in learner’s daily experiences. Learners learn through real-world activities and authentic context [scenario-based learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Kindley, 2002)], interact with their community and are challenged to re-experience events, as well as reflect on their experiences together with other learners.
  • Learning collectively (Garrison, 1997; Loeng, 2020): As a result, meaning in Blue Line is not constructed in isolation. While individuals might take the learning initiative with or without the assistance of others, learners are encouraged to reflect on the cognitive and social perspectives of their educational experience, and confirm with their environment what seems to be a meaningful and worthwhile learning experience. In addition, the learning experience is enhanced through collective reflection and exchange. Through discussion forums and other activities we invite learners to share personal insights, built on each other experiences and motivate each other, thus contributing to the creation of a collective narrative, particularly valuable for the UN environment, given its current structure, mandate and challenges.
  • Learning as an acquired personal habit (Grow, 1991): As learners have a varying ability to relate to self-directed learning, our aim is to nurture self-direction and motivation towards learning itself. To this extend, we strive to provide content that corresponds to their learning needs of our audience, keep them connected to the Blue Line community and communicate with them through various channels.

What are our next steps?

Our goal to help UN staff fit learning into their daily lives both practically as well as cognitively is an ambitious one and has our full commitment for the years to come. In 2021, and given the emerging trends on integration possibilities and deeper personalisation, we are expanding the capabilities of Blue Line and unlocking learner potential by mainstreaming technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Assistants, and Natural Language Processing.

Below are some of the steps taken during 2021 to enhance our learners’ experience and allow them to create meaningful learning patterns while helping them to develop their own personal learning habit:

  • Deeper learner-journey personalisation with the help of a Virtual assistant/Learning Bot, to ensure that the concepts and knowledge we provide is relevant, relatable and applicable while removing the debilitation of choice variety (Brocket, 2006). To this end, we have also redesigned the initial self-assessment that learners undergo once they enter in Blue Line, to provide them with greater awareness on their learning needs and deliberation towards their learning decisions.
  • More immersive learning experience by making Blue Line a highly intuitive platform that provides responsive and contextual learning, through learner-centred UI and UX design. The situated learning experience is also enhanced through gamifications, and more adaptive micro learning that is easily accessible through various interfaces.
  • Motivating feedback loops to encourage learners to jump-start after motivational setbacks and nurture self-monitoring and thus self-management (Zhu, Bonk & Doo, 2020). The goal of the educational process shifts thus from producing graduates to actually producing self-directed learners that are slowly gaining interest in the learning process itself and learning about how they best learn.
  • Extending Blue Line’s integration capabilities by connecting Blue Line with various systems. In this way, we strive to construct meaning and useful insights that will help us identify emerging needs and learning trends to better serve our learners.

Closing Remarks

The unprecedented challenges we all faced after the outbreak of COVID-19 made clear that organizational learning heavily depends on a growth mind-set, one that is nurtured not only internally in organizations but also intrinsically in individuals. The journey to creating more self-directed learners that integrate learning into their daily habits is a long one. However, the individual’s ability to self-direct is paramount to society and self-development (Loeng, 2020), and that is what encourages us to carry on our work.

We hope that our presentation about the implementation and impact of Blue Line in our organisation will stimulate thinking and debate concerning the need for truly learner-driven learning. We believe that our approach can constitute food-for-thought for educationists and other practitioners in the fields of adult education and digital learning, Learning Experience Platforms and Learning Management Systems, and facilitate the emergence of ideas and profound discussions. We are looking forward to having these conversations with you this December in Berlin.

Written for OEB21 by Sofia Exarchou, Educational Design & e-Learning Development at United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC).

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