Knowing your audience

Why low tech is sometimes better for virtual learning among African think tanks

By 10 June 2014

A few months ago I wrote here about the challenges of using webinar technology as a tool for peer learning in the Think Tank Initiative’s Policy and Communications Program (PEC) helping 13 African think tanks strengthen their communications capacities. Although we had excellent content on mass and social media in our webinar, a relatively small number of people (five out of 13 think tanks) even tried to get on, and several of those had technical issues.

It was frustrating enough to prompt us to take a different and decidedly lower tech approach with our second major peer learning event in March.

One major takeaway from the earlier event is that relying too much on internet connectivity in the countries of our think tanks (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda) may not be prudent. So we decided that good old-fashioned telephone was the way to go. And when I say old-fashioned, I mean land lines, not mobile phones: Our communications provider, Connex International, advised us to encourage our participants to use land lines, as they provide a more stable communications platform.

But our learning event — on “Measuring the impact of your communications tactics” — was not limited to telephone. Actually, it evolved into a multimedia experience, utilizing email, telephone, podcasts and digital media. Here’s how it rolled out:

  • The week before the live chat, we sent out a “homework assignment” by email — short readings on the topic to give all the participants a learning baseline.
  • Instead of having our three speakers present live — with all the risk that entails — we decided to record their presentations in audio podcasts that we posted on the Research to Action website a few days before our live event. That way, people could listen to them at their leisure. This worked out well: Connex recorded and edited the three podcasts and we posted them the Friday before the live event on Wednesday. Two of the presenters had PowerPoint presentations, which we posted alongside the related podcasts.
  • Once these podcasts were posted, the staff of Results for Development and I posted a few comments and questions to stimulate the conversation. Plenty of other people then piled on – both presenters and think tanks — and we got a total of 28 comments. So even before the live chat took place, we had some good conversations started.

Five days later, the one-hour live chat took place. None of our think tanks had to worry about how to connect. Connex took care of that, calling them all to bring them into the live chat, and calling back those who were disconnected. A Connex representative was on the line the entire time, to answer technical questions and trouble shoot. The three presenters gave brief summaries of their podcast presentations and the rest of the session was Q and A.

For the most part, it worked well. In addition to the presenters and R4D staff, 10 think tanks representatives participated and several of them asked questions. There was one person in Ghana who kept getting cut off but, other than that, it was relatively glitch-free (I think this person used a mobile phone even though we had urged everyone to use a land line).

The entire event — including the recording and editing of three podcasts and the live chat — cost a little over $3,300. The podcasts accounted for about $400 of that.

We sent out an online evaluation of the podcasts and live chat and received generally favorable comments from the eight people who responded. The responses were more favorable than the earlier webinar. People seemed to like the combination of the reading material, the podcasts, the live chat and the webpage, I think because it gave them more and different ways of engaging.

Among the people responding to the survey, 100% said that the live chat increased their understanding of monitoring, evaluation and measurement of communication impact. And 75% “agreed” and 25% “strongly agreed” that the presentations (by podcast, PowerPoint and live chat) were good quality and clear.

I particularly liked two comments in response the question “What were the top three things that you learned?”

“That it is indeed possible to learn from each other without physical meetings.”

“I have learnt about the impact log and have actually adapted it to my situation.”

The latter was especially gratifying because it showed that at least one of the participants had learned something and applied it to his/her own situation.

The beauty of the approach described above is that all of the material produced for this learning session — podcasts, PowerPoint presentations and comments — have been posted on this page and is available for posterity. So it doesn’t have to be a one-time learning experience. The learning can continue.

Another advantage is that this mixed media approach exposed the participants to new tools (podcasts) that they may not have considered before. I would like to think that some of them — after seeing how relatively simple it is — may wish to try it themselves.

However, this approach is not suitable for all topics, or in all situations.

I think this approach is not appropriate for issues that require a more intense level of interaction between presenter and participants or in a session that depends more on contributions from the participants for its success. For example, you probably would not want to develop a communications strategy with this approach.

Another lesson worth noting is that this discussion on monitoring and evaluation succeeded in providing a high level, general overview of the topic. However, further interaction on this topic will require a more complex, nuanced conversation in a smaller group and probably in person. In fact, we are already planning in-person workshops on this very topic as we believe we have gone as far as we can through virtual learning.

A final point about podcasts: I seriously considered doing the podcasts on our own using SoundCloud, a simple and free online audio distribution platform. I had tested it out and made a sample podcast that I posted on line. But, in the end, I decided to play it safe and hire a professional. I’m glad I did as it took a lot of pressure off and was reasonably inexpensive. But if I were planning to make a podcasts a staple of my communications efforts, I would certainly consider using SoundCloud, or some similar application, as a tool for producing my own podcasts. I would be interested to hear from any of you who are already doing this — or any other thoughts you may have — below.

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This 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

Image courtesy of Career Options Magazine.

  • Linda_Margaret

    For podcasts I use Internet Archive because soundcloud charges after you upload a certain amount while IA does not. With Audacity (also free) I can edit the podcasts pretty well. Then the only cost is time.