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Online courses as a learning opportunity

Under the “Spaces for engagement: using knowledge to improve public decisions” programme from GDNet and CIPPEC I recently co-facilitated an online course on Research Communications. The course lasted six weeks, with an additional week for introductions. Personally, the experience was really enriching, especially as I got to learn how communication works in other contexts. In this respect, I have to confirm and highlight what Vanesa Weyrauch posted in a recent blog on the advantages of online courses: i.e. the great benefits that they deliver in terms of reaching a wide scope of participants and sharing experiences across the globe easily. Furthermore, we can better empathise with those colleagues who, although located on the other side of the world, are having exactly the same difficulties that we are struggling with!

One of things I appreciate the most about online learning is the opportunity to meet with different kinds of people working in all sorts of development activities. It is an especially unique opportunity to expand our creativity by dealing with problems that are foreign to us, as they go beyond our daily routine, making us learn and find innovative solutions. In this particular group I was delighted to meet people with utterly varied profiles who needed to improve their research communications: from women working with reproductive health in Ghana, to others looking after elderly people in Singapore; from those working in public infrastructure improving roads in Eastern Cape Province in South Africa to those working in energy saving for the youth in Kyrgyzstan. It is not every day that we have the opportunity to share experiences with such a diverse and rich group as this one. Beyond the differences between our daily chores, we were all after one common objective -i.e. how to promote change in our contexts by communicating better what we do and the knowledge we produce.

Other than the material we provided to the participants, I think that what everybody appreciated the most – and certainly what I enjoyed best – was the virtual space that allows everyone to open up and describe their concerns without feeling shy. I was delighted to discover that the virtual forum creates an excellent opportunity to those who are generally more hesitant to speak up in public, to share not only successful experiences but especially those that were not so successful. This is most definitely easier in this format. For example, most of the participants not only realised but also admitted that most of the time they were doing dissemination of their research instead of communication and that actually after trying different strategies to reach decision-makers they had failed to do so. Although the theory sounded great, implementing it was another story. This was the case for a participant coming from the department of roads and transport in South Africa: in theory they had planned to bring different stakeholders together by hosting a gathering called Imbizo’s but they realised that although they kept including this activity in the communications strategy, successfully implementing it was often very difficult. I was delighted to find other participants interested in this case, asking about it, giving advice and opening up to share their own experiences of failure.

Regarding my role, I think this type of course allows me 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. The truth is that we, as facilitators, may know about strategic plans, theories, useful readings, tools, etc., but we don’t necessarily know or understand every single context in which people work. Our job is to ask the right questions, something that only comes by having a genuine interest in each participant’s story. However, the answers come from them, therefore creating a dynamic that is much more interesting and gives real meaning to the content of the course. I think this methodology empowers participants and encourages active participation and sharing of experiences.

The fact that forums remain open along the course also allows reflection and in-depth learning; no rush is expected in answering questions, giving an opinion or making a comment. In this sense, the course allows for (better) team participation. Participants generally also have a chance to get back to their working team in their organisation and share what they learned, being it an exercise or a group discussion. Although you can’t expect everyone to take the time to discuss with their team (or sometimes they don’t even have a team!), we encourage talking to someone in their organisations once the course is completed. The results have been rewarding. For example, one of the participants arrived with a communication strategy that had been developed before the course, but was then able to improve it with her colleagues due to the insight gained from some of the course exercises. It was not only great for others to learn from this participant’s work but also for us to have the opportunity to work with a genuine communication strategy!

Overall, I found the course fruitful and it widened my knowledge not only on research communication, but also on other people’s actual realities, challenges and opportunities. Thanks to their participation, the course content is improved by their experiences, which in turn yields a co-created and meaningful research communication course for future participants.