The global Covid-19 pandemic prevents global food system professionals from coming together to share experiences, insights and jointly learn new knowledge and skills. Teams at Wageningen University & Research are taking bold steps to rethink what were highly interactive face-to-face courses and design dynamic and engaging online courses.
Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI), part of WUR, trains food systems professionals from all over the world. "That used to always take place in Wageningen but, even before Covid-19, we had been looking at moving towards blended learning designs that include online and offline elements. Covid-19 has accelerated that process and, for as long as needed, all our courses will be 100% online", says Matilda Rizopulos, project leader blended learning. "By the end of this year we will have offered twelve courses online. We are constantly monitoring what works and what doesn't, from coaching methods to the devices with which participants log in and attend class.”
Applying new design principles
For most course coordinators face-to-face group facilitation normally is a piece of cake. But online, a lot of things work differently: contact with the course participants, for example. Rizopulos: “Sometimes you might even find yourself talking to a black screen because participants(s) have a poor-internet connection. As a course coordinator you have also to think differently about how to motivate participants and support them to work independently.”
"Step one in the online facilitation process is to take a close look at the design principles of the courses. And then to identify what course coordinators need in order to be able to apply them," says Rizopulos. "Some principles remain the same: for example that our approach is grounded in experiential and participatory learning. In other words, continuous learning by reflecting on your own practical experiences (experiential) and learning from each other (participatory). We have expanded the basics with additional online principles".
More personal contact
One of the most important principles for online facilitation is building-in extra time for personal contact and coaching. Matilda Rizopulos: "Online, the distance is literally greater between both individual participants and the course coordinator. Via a screen you miss so much indirect communication, such as body language, and it takes more time to get to know each other. Personal attention is crucial to people’s motivation and to feeling part of the group.”
This is why the course coordinators often discuss progress one-to-one and ask, emphatically, How are you doing? How are your assignments going? What have you learned? "To support a sense of belonging to the group we include many interactive moments, such as an introductory game or coffee breaks", Rizopulos explains. "We are also more careful, in group discussions, to ensure everyone has had a chance to speak. And we’ve altered how we work online with a key course component: time-for-reflection. Where people in offline group discussions responded directly to each other, now we first let them respond to a written vision and only then do we conduct the group discussion online".
Guiding course coordinators in online settings
All these adjustments encourage innovation from WCDI’s course coordinators. Rizopulos: “That may sound dramatic, but we’re actually used to working in complex contexts. In our projects and courses we design collaboratively and constantly consult participants to make sure we realize maximum benefits and participation. That’s what we’re doing now as well. Of course it’s more complicated to build the shop while it’s open for business – moving all classes to online settings isn’t easy. But it’s also part of our usual work to constantly monitor, evaluate and adapt.”
WCDI helps course coordinators to adapt to new, online settings. Rizopulos: “All course coordinators have now followed a training course in Designing For Blended And Online Learning, including facilitation techniques and the use of online tools. In addition, we hold a weekly design session. One of the course coordinators brings in a case and colleagues think along, under the guidance of an external consultant. This might, for example, concern good icebreakers for kick-off events or how to structure lessons in ways that support course participants to stay focused.”
On the way to diverse blended learning modalities
WCDI wants to further explore models with blends of online and offline learning trajectories. “We want to ensure a best fit for the learning needs of course participants. That may include blended trajectories, and in some cases full face to face trajectories will still be the best way to go,” says Rizopulos. As the Covid-19 pandemic will restrict meeting possibilities for a while to come, WCDI works steadily on the development of the online part. Rizopulos: “We are introducing new tools and optimising the current ones, for example by making downloadable versions for course participants in countries with poor internet connections. We work towards tailored learning opportunities that may combine online and offline elements. Our goal is to help learners combine different modules so they have very targeted and effective learning journeys with WCDI. Through these learning journey’s we want to work together to find answers and drive sustainable development”