The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) shut down its activities in December 2020 at the end of its mandate. The administrative closure of the Centre was completed in November 2021.
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Animating online communities – a facilitator’s experience

Johnson Opigo describes his personal experience facilitating CTA's Web2forDev Trainer's Community of Practice

When the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation ACP-EU (CTA) asked me to animate the English-speaking Web2forDev Trainers’ Community discussion list, I had no difficulty in accepting the assignment because I was already facilitating an online course that had a range of discussion platforms embedded in the programme. The importance of discussion fora of any sort is anchored on the fact that these are widely used as channels for sharing information, seeking and providing advice, evaluating the progress of ongoing group actions, and finally building a sense of partaking and shared visions.

The CTA Web2forDev Trainers’ Community of Practice consists of more than 100 individuals residing in 34 countries. Members acted as trainers and co-trainers during CTA’s supported Web 2.0 and Social Media Learning Opportunities. Most of them benefitted from ad-hoc training via their attendance in distance-learning courses run by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and are employed by the organisations which hosted training events in the various countries. Indeed, they represent the human capital that ensures the replication of CTA’s Web 2.0 and Social Media Training Curriculum and the further spread of online innovation among their institutions and constituencies.

Created in June 2014 upon recommendations made by evaluators who assessed the impact of CTA’s capacity building efforts in the domains of Web 2.0 and Social Media, the

  • objectives of the community can be summarised as follows:
  • keeping members in touch with one another;
  • coordinating actions to further develop trainers’ skills;
  • sharing experiences in course delivery based on CTA’s curriculum;
  • seeking advice on topics related to the curriculum and suggesting improvements;
  • sharing updates relevant to the content of the curriculum; and
  • supporting replication of the curriculum through institutions affiliated to the trainers.

On the other hand, I do animate time-bound online discussions, which are an integral part part of the 9-week distance-learning course offered by UNITAR known by the title ‘Innovative Collaboration for Development’. As part of each course, trainees have to participate in topical discussions which are tailored to the module they deal with in a particular phase of die course. Four of these modules include a subject-specific discussion where participants are required to:

  • share perspectives on the subject matter of the module;
  • share real-life experiences in relation to the subject matter; and
  • create a common ground to explore prospects for collaboration beyond the training period.

While they vary in terms of duration and purpose, a common denominator of both the Web2forDev Trainers’ Community discussion list and the online discussions taking place during the UNITAR courses is their asynchronous nature, which presents its own peculiar problems and challenges. Participants of both fora recognise the benefits of learning from others, but the learning experience can only be complete through regular participation in discussions.

Achievements and challenges

Getting members of the Web2forDev Trainers’ Community to be involved in discussions has been a hit-and-miss experience for me. As a discerning group, I suspect that they have a sense of the discussion topics they consider important and those they prefer to treat with benign nonchalance. But it is interesting to note that once a conversation addresses a critical topic, it takes on a life of its own and ultimately gets to a point where the discussants take a stand.

For instance, CTA’s curriculum on Web 2.0 and Social Media is delivered over a period of 5 days. A discussion on whether to extend the training period beyond 5 days or not elicited strong reactions from members.

In the end, a decision was reached to maintain the 5-day training period as a standard, allowing variations in terms of duration (number of days) and sequencing (contiguous or intermittent days) due to the fact that the curriculum is modular.

With regard to the curriculum, after discussing the topic ‘Training for a purpose’, which hinged on capturing the emotional states of participants before and after training, a slight adjustment was made to one unit to accommodate a ‘Hopes and fears’ exercise, which is intended to assess expectations and finally boost the confidence of trainees to make good use of the skills gained.

The curriculum also benefited from a dfscussfon on ‘The dangers of sharing personal data’. Discussants were unanimous that it was necessary to give prominence to privacy issues for the simple reason that the internet has become an integral part of our daily lives and work. It was agreed that the curriculum should be enriched with an educational video that conveys the message in a very effective manner.

Another achievement of the exchanges at the Trainers’ Community of Practice is the CTA Alumni Hangouts, which is an informal setting for trainers and alumni from particular' cities or regions to meet periodically to review personal experiences and catch up on recent developments in the Web 2.0 and Social Media landscape. Web 2.0 and Social Media applications are clearly undergoing constant changes and revisions, so the hangouts come in handy in bridging the information gaps.

Some of the helpful topics that have been covered in the exchanges from July 2014 to date include:

  • Do we still need Wikis in the curriculum?
  • Five things I learned as a facilitator;
  • Should we mentor our participants?
  • Innovative uses of democracy walls;
  • On web 2.0 training and bench warmers;
  • Let’s help an NGO out;
  • Let’s talk about Linkedln;
  • Setting up a multiplicator process for Web 2.0 and Social Media;
  • Trainer reminder series;
  • Google Maps for Business, How to ...
  • How do you deal with statusconscious course participants?
  • Web2forDev on Twitter (your bread and butter); and
  • Expanding the curriculum to include mobile versions of elected applications.

As regards the UNITAR distance-learning course, participation in time-bound discussion fora is obligatory.

As a complement to other compulsory activities and tasks, it encourages an acceptable level of attendance because it forms part of tire mechanism within UNITAR’s marking scheme for participants to take advantage of what is known as the Grade Recovery Option. This scheme essentially recovers a failed module for a participant if tire facilitator adjudges his contributions in tire discussion fora as substantial enough to make up for tire lost marks. In addition to that, tire activity level here is also determined by tire available time and workload of tire module.

Participants tend to come to the discussion forum more often when they are dealing with easy modules than with difficult ones. But one thing I find going for the UNITAR forum is that discussions can be robust. Participants are sometimes forceful in interrogating assumptions, questioning conclusions and advancing their views. Often when

I pose a hypothetical question in an effort to expand the scope of conversation or to seek to identify the most important issues to elicit a synthesis of ideas, I am never in short supply of reactions.

Getting people to participate effectively

This is not to say that there have not been lull moments. There have been.

A strategy I adopt when this happens is to use funny emoticons or a separate announcement spiced with appropriate humour to encourage participation.

At other times I institute a writing competition and award beautifully designed virtual plaques to the winners. I am happy to report that this has proved magical in getting the desired level of participation.

There is a contextual difference between the exchanges on die Web2forDev Trainers’ Community discussion list and UNITAR’s discussion fora, and this has largely determined the type of challenge I have had to contend with over the months. The Trainers’ Community of Practice, as the name suggests, is a channel for trainers to fulfil all those objectives mentioned above. But a member may, in spite of these lofty objectives, decide not to partake in discussions without any repercussions. As an animator, with a problem solving mindset, I am left with moral suasion as the only viable tool to deal with the situation.

The power of online communities

Again, because members of the Trainers' CoP are not bound by deadlines, they accentuate one of the downsides of asynchronous discussion spaces which typically allows members to make contributions at times of then own choosing instead of all at once. The time lag tends to diminish the tempo and essence of the discussions considerably. This, of course, calls into question the feasibility or desirability of maintaining a forum without some form of strict rules with regard to time.

It is possible, on the other hand, to argue that if members of a discussion forum find the conversations to be stimulating or educative, or die facilitator knowledgeable enough, that they will participate without needing to be prodded. But this type of thinking appears to isolate members from feeling equally responsible to enrich the forum with their ideas and suggestions whether or not their expectations are met.

The role of an animator is limited to energising the conversation whether the topics come from him/her or not. I therefore believe that a major drawback in the exchanges occurring during the Trainers’ Community discussion list is the lack of incentive - particularly negative incentives which have a way of generating positive results. So the absence of a mechanism to measure a person’s effectiveness in the discussion group or compel attendance can only promote a poor engagement rate.

Lessons learned

Animating the Web2forDev Trainers’ forum gave me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons I can apply when facilitating other workshops. Here are some of the lessons that I learned:

  • Never be presumptuous with fellow trainers - they know what they are doing
  • Expect the unexpected - a topic I never imagined would make a spark caused a firestorm!
  • Commend contributors, no matter how terse or tepid the engagement
  • Learn to allow others to take the lead whenever possible
  • Solicit help from fellow trainers whenever you run out of ideas
  • Never be discouraged by poor ‘attendance’ - silent members may actually be excellent post readers, and they are an important part of the community; the challenge is to try conversion techniques to get them to be commenters as well
  • Be courteous, keep your sentiments at bay
  • Challenge yourself to develop better persuasive skills
  • Learn how important it is to have incentives, in whatever form - both negative and positive
  • Summarise the inputs and outcomes of a topical exchange and feed the summary back to Hie group.

Strategies for stimulating group participation

There are strategies I have learned along the way when animating and facilitating conversations in both scenarios. Having discovered first hand that a major challenge facing online discussions is the failure of members to engage in deep conversations that elicit productive outcomes, these strategies have worked for me. They are by no means exhaustive:

  • Constantly motivate members to dialogue on the platform;
  • Contact members privately to solicit contributions;
  • Provoke discussions by playing the devil's advocate;
  • Ask simple questions - it works like magic;
  • Maintain communication within the group - to avoid gaps; and
  • Provide summaries of specifically well-discussed topics.

In spite of the shortcomings described above, there are tremendous benefits in maintaining and animating a discussion list for the Trainers' Community. We were able to fine-tune the training curriculum from views harvested from the members, and there are already plans for a new version.

The exchange of information has left many trainers better informed about the importance of their online reputation, integrity and presence.

For business people, the positive impact of Google Maps for Business on their businesses was very well articulated in one of our discussions. Some participants including myself, had the opportunity for the first time to place our businesses on the world map for the world to see.

The sharing of information and experiences is therefore one of the key points of the Trainers’ forum. Members share information freely and give important tips on how to handle difficult training-room situations, improve training methods, learn different approaches to delivering the course content, and foster the spirit of camaraderie among trainers. In my view die Trainers’ forum has largely achieved its objectives. 

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