FEATURE: Virtual training faces challenges – and also important rewards
The University of Nairobi learned a lot about the potential for virtual training when it was forced to go online in mid-2020. Lucia Scodanibbio of CDKN interviewed Staline Kibet from the university, and sends this report.
Based on its experience with online teaching, the University of Nairobi’s African Drylands Institute for Sustainability learned rapidly this year how to engage diverse people from Kenyan government departments in online training on sustainable rangeland management and pastoral livestock production. Originally planned to take place in conventional face-to-face format, the organisers were forced to shift the envisaged training course online – when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. The experience revealed important lessons about what can be achieved online and how the training team can keep refining their methods.
First round – training the conventional way
In 2019, the Institute, together with the Millennium Water Alliance (via the Resilient Arid Lands Partnership for Integrated Development – RAPID Programme), had conducted short trainings to build the capacities of county government officers from the ministries of water, livestock, environment and fisheries. Participants had discussed day-to-day challenges, such as drought, and emerging issues including equity and inclusiveness, invasive alien species, and range management policies.
The plan was to follow up the training with a second round in March 2020, in three regions of Kenya. Coronavirus lockdown put a stop to that.
The three-day training was shifted to an online setting which brought together participants from Wajir, Garissa, Marsabit, Isiolo and Turkana Counties. The University of Nairobi’s experience with online lectures was tapped into, to organise the workshop.
Second round – learning fast how to workshop online
Over a period of four days in August 2020, close to 30 trainees took part in two daily training sessions organised in Google classroom. Dynamic lectures, which incorporated videos and infographics – and had presentations that mainly revolved around photographs and images that elicited perspectives and views from the audience – were alternated with group work. Here participants discussed questions – such as how common challenges like invasive species are being addressed – and presented the results back in the plenary. Two additional sessions enabled individual participants to finalise their own action plan after the training and then consolidate this with other trainees’ plans from the same county. Thanks to the online nature of the event, which grouped all participants from the different counties, exchange, engagement and learning between different county participants was maximised as they realised they all face similar issues.
A technical team, in charge of supporting the facilitators and trainees with the transitions between videos and presentations, and plenaries and breakout sessions, also set up a WhatsApp group that kept facilitators, organisers and trainees in constant contact. The tech team would also check on trainees and facilitators (by phoning them) when they disappeared offline or when the facilitators’ requests for specific input were met with a silent black screen (despite the encouragement to keep one’s camera on). They also aided with audio issues and muting and unmuting participants to minimise background noise, and sent emails with the links to important documents as the course progressed.
“I would say the course was 65-70% successful, which is not bad for a first trial, especially considering that not all stakeholders participated in a trial run and preparation was very hurried” shares Staline Kibet, one of the course organisers. Time management was a challenge as facilitators waited to start the morning sessions until a good proportion of participants had joined the course. This tended to be later than planned, which affected the ability to stop for long enough health breaks and finish on time at the end of the day. A few participants did not reconvene after the end of breakout groups, though this could have possibly been affected by internet or power connectivity issues.
The course organisers ensured that everyone had the ability to participate by providing data bundles to guarantee participants’ uninterrupted connection. Trainees mostly used their smartphones to follow the course.
Incentives for online participation
Differences in engagement and motivation were also noted. Where senior staff could have been more conversant with some thematic areas than junior staff (and could in a way be considered “converts”), levels of interest varied from subject to subject.
“The success of an online training depends on whether the issues being taught add value to participants’ work. Enthusiasm is directly correlated to whether the subject matter is central to their outlook and to what they want to achieve. Whether issues are close to their heart. If you tell farmers about new techniques to cultivate tomatoes, they will ask questions and engage”, reflects Staline Kibet.
Convening a group of participants who ‘fit together’
“The selection of meeting participants is really critical, and this is not only a concern online. In-person workshop attendants also hide behind their laptop to answer emails and do work. Sometimes they are nominated to represent their departments, but they may not have necessarily chosen to take part. It’s really important that those who attend want to know more about the subject and want to overcome challenges they are facing – this will ensure that they ask questions and are engaged, and there will be better outcomes overall, especially when the group is driven by the same desires.
“Issues like language and level of education are also critical and this is the challenge we are getting ready to tackle for our next planned workshops – how can we talk about gender issues in communities where many left school early and where neither English nor Swahili is spoken? Virtual learning may be our ‘new normal’, our challenge is therefore to overcome its bottlenecks,” concludes Staline.