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Webinars: An effective tool for e-learning among think tanks across Africa?

By 26 March 2014

The Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) Program to improve the communications capacity of 13 African think tanks in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda has a peer learning component with the goal of testing the best tools for helping think tanks learn from each other. On December 17, we held our first webinar on engaging more effectively in mass and social media. We chose the webinar format because we believed it to be a platform for linking individuals who are widely dispersed geographically, and to allow them to interact verbally.

Purpose and Preparation

For many of our thinks tanks, the webinar experience was a new one. In a survey before the event, six out of 14 respondents said they had never participated in one before. Of the eight who had tried webinars, three said there were no technical glitches, four said there were some and one said it did not work at all. The responses seemed mildly reassuring to me. They shouldn’t have been. We had three goals for the webinar:

  1. To attract the greatest number of individuals from think tanks;
  2. To minimize technical problems so that participants could access and stay on the webinar; and
  3. To deliver useful and relevant content.

I worked closely with the PEC Anglophone Africa regional lead, Results for Development (R4D). They had worked with three different webinar platforms, and recommended one they had used successfully on a multi-country webinar: PGI Global Meet. R4D provided a number of lessons learned from their experiences, including:

  • Assign one person to be the moderator (to handle non-technical tasks such as introducing the event and speakers as well as fielding questions) and one technical troubleshooting person (to deal with technical issues, connect participants by phone, monitor any incoming technical-related questions or comments by participants).
  • Have a technology back-up plan in place, especially for all speakers, and test it ahead of time. For example, call out to people directly or provide an international local access number.
  • Mute everyone except presenters during the session to avoid background noise and interruptions. Participant questions and comments should instead be typed into a chat window, after which the moderator should field them to the presenters.

 Challenges and Outcomes

Although we applied all of these lessons, our webinar did not go as well as we hoped. Only a relatively small number of people (five out of 13 thinks tanks) tried to get on the webinar. I’m not sure why we could not attract more; the topic had already been identified by the think tanks as being high priority. A number of technical issues kept everyone from having an optimal experience and even the moderator (based in the U.S.) was disconnected several times.

Despite the technical glitches, the content was strong. Paula Fray (@paulafray), the mentor for the Ugandan think tanks (MISR and EPRC) and an experienced media trainer in South Africa, gave a fabulous and engaging discussion on how think tanks can engage more effectively with mass media. Zilper Audi, communications officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs in Kenya (@IEAKenya) presented on how IEA Kenya uses social media to promote research and news.

In addition, responses to the post-webinar survey pointed out that for a few think tanks, their principal goals in attending the webinar were achieved. “For sharing of experiences and networking, webinar is the easiest facility for group discussions,” one of them said. Interestingly, two think tank participants said learning more about webinar technology was one of their major goals.

All said they would participate in future webinars. “I am ready and waiting to be invited to the next webinar,” one of them said.

The challenges of connectivity in Africa include no access, intermittent access, high costs of effective connection, and electricity outages. These vary over time and across the continent. Together, they pose practical difficulties in delivering virtual support despite the obvious virtues of this tactical approach. This challenge is highlighted in Nigeria and Ghana, where think tanks are struggling to balance the push for online presence and the infrastructure limits of their countries, and Ethiopia, where regular power cuts make any online strategy fraught with risk.

I have not given up on the use of webinars in Africa but the experience was enough of a cautionary tale to prompt a different approach for our second peer learning event, which took place on March 12 using a mixture of podcasts and a live audio discussion.

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This blog post has been produced as part of the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy Engagement and Communications (PEC) programme. However,  these are the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of TTI. You can find all ongoing outputs related to this project via the PEC mini-site on Research to Action. To get updates from the PEC programme and be part of the discussion sign-up to our RSS or email updates. You can also follow our progress via Twitter using the following hashtag #ttipec

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