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WHEN VIRTUAL EDGES PHYSICAL: THE RISE OF ONLINE COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE

Fundamentally they are about building a network
Our Communities of Practice cover several bases. They’re part tutorial, they help to contextualise our courses, and they work as crucial networking sessions. Traditionally, these have been held as in-person meetings in cities across Africa. Here are the features that define a COP: They need active facilitators who are experts in the content field, and the COP needs to provide social structures which empower the members to share and gain knowledge. The students learn both by instruction from the teachers as well as group discourse with their peers. Fundamentally they are about building a network.

The global pandemic has provided a few learning surprises; one of them being the rise in popularity of our virtual COP sessions. That’s despite the increase of ‘zoom fatigue’, as these online community sessions have proven to be more popular. When comparing the virtual May cohort to the physical-based cohort in January 2020, the average attendance rate has increased by 20%, and there was also a greater frequency of attendance with 58% growth. Interestingly, the virtual May cohort showed the best attendance since the courses piloted back in 2016.

However, it’s not just about attendance figures; the students have also found more value in the virtual sessions. This data was taken from a comparison summary of exit survey responses for the May 2020 cohort versus the physical ones before it, and here are some of the results: the students found the virtual COP a better learning opportunity (96% average, the highest rating in three years) and a better problem-solving opportunity (89% average, also the highest rating in three years). Crucially, they also found the encouragement and support in the digital sessions to be better than the physical ones (96% average, the highest rating in three years). We will be taking a deep dive into these numbers, both in the attendance figures and the survey results, with qualitative research later this year, which should provide some interesting insights.

Here are some of the proven lessons we’ve learnt from the rise of these virtual COPs.

  1. Connectivity is less of a barrier than transport.
    There are fewer barriers, and it’s more versatile and inclusive, especially for students who need to commute to the physical COP venues. Connecting virtually means that they can work the meetings around their schedules and don’t have to factor in commute time or to be away from their work. Managing traditional work commitments is less of a challenge with virtual COPS now, and that was the biggest obstacle reported in the 2019 cohorts.

  2. The experts don’t have to be locals.

The only real issue to keep in mind are different time zones, but besides that, this opens up a world of learning opportunities. Cohorts from Ghana, Malawi and Zambia have all invited speakers from other countries to speak at their virtual COPs. The cohorts are no longer restricted to hosting experts from their city centres.

  1. Networking can happen online.

Anecdotally, the students have felt a great sense of community with these virtual sessions, and what we’ve seen is that these digital sessions have helped to build relationships, and to encourage students to meet up outside of the classes. In the January cohort who met physically saw a decrease in students wanting to stay connected after the course down to 71%. The good news: the average for the May cohort who only met virtually jumped to 82%, one of the highest figures ever. Initially, we were worried that this networking percentage would drop significantly because of the meetings moving online, but thankfully, the reverse is true.

  1. Online rooms are bigger than physical ones.

You can have more people joining the virtual COPs as there are fewer physical obstacles, costs, and practical considerations. There’s no commute needed – signing in can happen from anywhere, as long as they have a reliable internet connection. You can also host a joint COP session with another country.

  1. There’s a learning curve.

This is both for students and facilitators, as they need to be able to work with the digital medium and the structure of online classes. The student ratings of the facilitators dropped from 92% in the January cohort to 88% in the May cohort (which was the average for 2019 cohorts). That is most likely due to the move from physical to digital; however, the ratings are still high, and the facilitators went through Zoom training, were provided with a handbook for guidance, and were integrated into scheduled meetings with other facilitators to share tips and ideas. Facilitators are also aware that there are students who need some time to build up their confidence to be more interactive and productive in these digital sessions. However, there’s less pressure for these students than there would be in the physical COPs.

However, this has been the biggest lesson: you can’t just switch your physical COP sessions into zoom-based ones and expect to get results. You need to harness the benefits that digital learning provides. From structuring the calls to encouraging participation to fostering networking opportunities and providing access to experts, thought and effort are needed in preparing these sessions. And most importantly, you need to have very skilled online facilitators.

About Gateway

Gateway forms part of the Digital Frontiers Group, whose primary professional development activities include training and facilitating associations of professionals. Our training activities consist of the design, creation, maintenance and delivery of online executive education courses and seminars through a built-for-purpose digital campus.

Gateway helps organizations overcome the challenge of building capacity in low and middle-income countries, using a blended approach of online and face-to-face learning experiences. Gateway can help your organization design, build and deliver a course, and offers access to our marketplace of courses.