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Online courses: a learning opportunity with a broader outreach

I have been working on the design and delivery of capacity building workshops targeted at southern researchers over the past three years. As much as I believe in the effectiveness of such trainings and their positive impact on the way research findings are being communicated to policymakers, I always had concerns regarding their outreach as they usually are limited to a number of participants selected through partners in development (i.e. development studies institutes in different regions).

Within the framework of the GDNet-CIPPEC “Spaces For Engagement: Using Knowledge To Improve Public Decisions” program, I recently co-developed, co-delivered and co-facilitated a 7 weeks online course on research communications targeted at a mixed group of African and Asian researchers. To complement my colleague and co-facilitator’s previous post, Clara Richards, “Online courses as a learning opportunity”, I wrote this post in an attempt to reflect on my own experience,  challenges and opportunities I encountered as a facilitator, and which I thought were worth sharing here.

Opportunities

Online courses represent a cost-effective way to raise awareness about certain topics and improve researchers’ knowledge and skills to ensure a better research uptake. But their real added valued, in my opinion, lies in their outreach; a broader spectrum of participants is given the opportunity to participate and benefit from the online learning. As Vanesa Weyrauch argues in her piece “Is online training the thing”, “reaching such a diverse group by any other face to face mechanism would have implied an enormous amount of funds, plus environmental implications of having all people travel.” One effective way to capitalize on this is to encourage participants to share the course material and learning with their coworkers. Zeinab GDNet article

The diversity in the communication channels used for course announcement purposes (i.e. web 2.0 platforms, including websites, Twitter, newsletters) led to a variety in the profiles of its beneficiaries. The course attracted 115 applications; 18 different profiles were selected to sit through the course. Through its regular discussions, Q&As and feedback on exercises, the course opened the door for interactions not only between facilitators and participants, but among participants themselves. With participants from the African and Asian continents, one facilitator from Latin America and another from MENA; experiences, success and failure stories from within different regions were shared on the discussion forum, thus paving the way for enriching discussions about innovative tips for a better research uptake. It is worth mentioning here that this course provided a gender-based equal opportunity for participation and learning, whereas 50% of the selected participants were female researchers and communicators. On gender balance, Ravi Murugesan argued in his recent post that online courses reach out to more women as they might present fewer barriers than those of a classroom learning opportunity, usually requiring travel and time off from work and family which some women may not be able to commit.

The use of introductory videos for each and every module proved to be effective in overcoming what is considered to be a major challenge of e-learning; the absence of the face-to-face communication and interaction. In this regard, allocating one full week for introductions was also a good ice-breaker and smoothed interactions with course facilitators and colleagues.

Challenges

In her post “online courses as a learning opportunity”, Clara Richards argues that online courses allow oneself to “behave more as a facilitator than as a tutor. This tone encourages the group to learn from each other instead of being a tutor-participants vertical course.” I can only agree with this argument; while facilitators may know better the theoretical aspect of the course, including course material, recommended tools and channels for research communications, participants are the experts of their own research and the regional and national contexts they come from. Both are actors complementing each other in the learning process.

However, the nature of both, the course and its facilitator’s role, are somehow behind the challenge in ensuring a solid and sustainable active participation. Unlike offline courses where a facilitator’s dominant effect encourages participants’ engagement and ensures rules and deadlines are respected, online courses are of a different nature. Once a module is launched, it all depends on participants’ self-consciousness about their responsibilities, as well as their willingness to engage in discussions and share their experiences. Despite the course rules and recommendations, participations remain independent and don’t feel the pressure they may feel when physically sitting in an offline training. Frequency of posts and questions by the facilitators, as well as a high credit for active participation, are one way to overcome this challenge.

It goes without saying that any course, being it online or offline, provides a networking opportunity that help building or improving the existing relationships with researchers. I personally found it challenging as the focus throughout the course is on the course material; which leaves very little time to any side discussions or questions. Considering the possibility of a one week extension may be one way to overcome this challenge; which will also satisfy participants’ needs for further discussions and Q&A about the overall topic.

Course moderation

The quality of any course material is key to ensure an effective learning process is taking place. Nonetheless, the way a message is communicated is as important as the message itself. What I found specifically tricky about this course resides in its topic. We had to be very careful in delivering the course and communicating the learning from within its content as the main aim was to improve the participants’ research communications skills.

When it comes to course facilitation, there is one important lesson learned I would like to share with you here. Not every offline training facilitator can be an online one! I consider myself lucky for having been given the opportunity to participate in an online course organized by UNITAR Online Course on “Innovative Collaboration for Development”; which happened to take place in parallel to the GDNet-CIPPEC online course on Research Communications. Being double-hatted and acting both as a facilitator and a participant in two different courses allowed me to get a better understanding of online participants’ needs and challenges, particularly with regard to time management and availability. I was put in the participants’ shoes and realized how difficult it can get to embed an online course and its required readings and assignments in a participant’s daily schedule. On the other hand, I could see my behavior as an active participant changing from weeks with active moderation, to other weeks with less pressure and discussions on the forum. In other words, for an online course to be successful, active moderation, including frequent posts, questions and pressure are needed.

To sum-up, online courses are a cost-effective learning method that allows people from across the globe to interact with each other and share their different experiences in a more horizontal way. Developing and facilitating such courses is, on the other hand, an ongoing learning process with all its opportunities and challenges. We will make sure to capitalize on our reflective learning, and learn from opportunities and challenges to improve future similar experiences.