If the year 2020 taught us anything, it is that we can never take in-person interaction for granted. As communities around the globe were forced to self-isolate to slow the spread of COVID-19, online communications skyrocketed. We all turned to digital tools to connect socially and professionally.
Like most organizations, Making Cents adapted quickly to the changing landscape of 2020, but not without a few hiccups along the way. As I reflect on the work we have done, I can clearly see the lessons we learned, especially through our capacity strengthening projects in Eswatini and Ukraine.
On the USAID/Support to Anti-Corruption Champion Institutions (SACCI) Program, which promotes anti-corruption norms through intentional and sustainable youth engagement, the pandemic meant a shift in our role in the activity. As a youth partner to MSI, our role had been to develop youth strategies and support their implementation through local partners. In the wake of the shutdowns, we pivoted to direct capacity building of youth using a new virtual format.
As a partner to Pact on the USAID-funded Insika project, our role as income generation advisors to the local partners working with Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW) did not change; however, the way we fulfilled that role did. In early 2020, we spent months planning to travel to Eswatini to work with the management and facilitation team on adding a new livelihoods program component. By April 2020, we realized we had to quickly adjust those plans to a virtual environment.
The context for each of these projects was very different. With SACCI, we were dealing with digitally advanced youth who we had never met in person. With Insika, we were working with the management and facilitation team who knew us from previous interactions but faced digital challenges, such as lack of familiarity with digital platforms and lack of high-speed internet access.
As we pass the one-year mark for the pandemic, it has become apparent that much of our future work will continue to be digital. Here are some lessons that Making Cents will be applying as we adjust to the new normal.
Program design is key
Between capitalizing on a newfound opportunity to engage directly with Ukrainian youth and pivoting an existing plan, we found ourselves in a similar spot as all participants — learning as we go. Here are a few highlights of what we learned from engaging with youth on the SACCI Integrated Leadership School (ILS).
- The time zones can be used to your advantage. We often talk about needing to respond to youth’s schedules and their common preference to work in the evening. The virtual platform provided us a chance to respond to youth’s demands by facilitating sessions mid-morning EST, evening Kyiv time. Not only did this allow us to be responsive to youth, but it allowed the first few cups of coffee to kick in before facilitation as well.
- Do not be afraid to experiment. While Making Cents is often known for our engaging training style, we had not previously fully explored how to transfer our approach to a digital platform. Our expertise in in-person training allowed us to confidently experiment with new technologies and successfully adapt to a virtual setting.
- Never miss an opportunity to collect additional data. We were able to do surveys and in-training sense checks to understand what was working. We found this to be easier to do virtually than in-person.
We are all human
While the major lessons from SACCI had to do with being opportunistic, the adaptation we did for Insika taught us about the challenges some face with technology. Here are some things we learned:
- We all can learn together. To aid our virtual training, we used the Teachable platform. This was a new platform for everyone, including us! So, we learned how to navigate it as a team.
- Recording video content takes longer than you think. You must allow for content planning, recording, time for editing, and uploading. Not to mention, taking into account accessibility and 508 compliance.
- One size does not fit all. Not everyone has access to quality, high-speed internet nor is able to easily navigate online platforms. Limited connectivity and familiarity with virtual connections means you have to allow for more than one access point and build in time for everyone to adjust.
- Zoom fatigue is real. People become tired after regular videoconferencing, and burnout and exhaustion are real side–effects of virtual engagement.
- Blended learning offers a host of options. On Insika, we used a mix of pre-recorded videos and live sessions to accommodate limited connectivity, time zone differences, and different learning styles.
Get creative to keep people engaged
These two programs challenged us to find new ways to engage. For Insika, we worked with the management and facilitation team, and for SACCI, we worked primarily with youth. Most youth are digital natives and use technology differently than we do in our office environments. How do we help program implementers keep up with their ease of use to make our activities interactive and fun while also delivering the necessary content?
- Do not assume what engagement looks like. Sometimes participants can be quiet and/or shy when participating online. People can be quiet and still learn. Silence does not mean they are not engaged.
- Build community. We had the same participants in each session, and we asked ourselves, how can we use this to our advantage? How could we build these relationships? That relationship building was critical, because what we would normally do in one day of face-to-face interaction now took weeks.
- Encourage discussion and interaction. Talkative participants often helped drive connection. Believe it or not, we actually encouraged side chats. Funny jokes and laughter in the chat box was a good thing! It meant people were listening and engaged. In addition, we asked participants to keep their videos on whenever possible, so we were able to read reactions to content. By utilizing features and various functions of the platform, we were able to enhance and increase the levels of engagement.
- Integrating participant voice is supremely important. The Positive Youth Development approach recognizes the importance of involving youth and encouraging them to lead as a source of change for their own and their communities’ positive development. We found this to be true as we engaged youth in the planning of these activities.
- Building relationships virtually takes time, but it’s worth it. You have to be intentional.
While there is no universal answer of what training will look like in the future, I am confident that it will involve more virtual interaction. Though this is not an exhaustive list, these lessons will help fuel the design of Making Cents’ future programming and, hopefully, provide some insight for others.