Lessons in Digital Learning: Three Considerations for Planning Effective, Inclusive Trainings
In 2020, COVID-19 forced many of us around the globe to accelerate our transition into the digital world. One significant aspect of this change was navigating remote learning — including figuring out how best to deliver virtual training sessions to those who need it most. But, as vaccinations become more readily available around the globe and we start moving back to in-person learning, let’s not forget that developing digital training tools has taught us to tackle larger global challenges in new and innovative ways. It has required us to clearly address questions such as: how can we better reach communities in rural areas, where internet connectivity is low and the digital divide is greatest? How can we effectively deliver simple, effective and impactful digital learning? And, how can digital training serve as a complement (but not a replacement) to in-person instruction?
Through one partnership between the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), USAID, Land O’Lakes Venture37 and Villa Crop Protection — a South African crop protection company, majority owned by Land O’Lakes — we developed seven training modules to help farmers learn about mitigating an invasive pest to Africa, the fall armyworm. The training modules are now free to access on AgriTraining, a portal to other agricultural training offerings. Looking back on the last two years since we started developing these modules, we’ve certainly learned key lessons along the way. The process helped us reframe the way we think about developing the right digital content at the right time, for the right end user. In doing so, we designed and deployed a suite of training materials and tools that can serve as a model for future materials designed to support smallholder resilience to emerging threats and diseases in crops and improve food security. Based on our experience with the fall armyworm mitigation training modules, here are three takeaways to consider as you’re developing your own virtual training sessions:
Clearly identify your core training audience
Not long after our project began in mid-2019, it became clear that identifying our core audience early on would be crucial for our final training product. It also helped us identify what digital requirements we’d need to reach our core audience. In this case, our primary audience was the agricultural professional or extension agent responsible for training smallholder farmers. Understanding their needs and learning environments helped us make decisions about what to include in our training and how to make the material accessible to trainers, who are often in rural areas with unreliable internet. Our situation was somewhat unique, in the sense that our module writers had to simultaneously consider the needs of two different audiences: the needs of the core audience (the trainers) and those of the secondary audience (smallholder farmers who would eventually be trained by the trainers). Based on group discussions with our audiences, we discovered that we’d need to provide materials in different formats and file sizes to make the content accessible to users with lower bandwidth. We also made downloading easy, so that the trainers could keep their modules offline on tablets and cellphones for easy use in locations without reliable internet access. We learned that knowing your audience is crucial — if you don’t fully understand their needs and learning environments, you’ll have trouble pulling off a successful training.
Expertise is important — but having the right expertise is critical
Planning and having the “right” expertise on hand is critical — both when developing training modules and delivering them. When building out your team, you’ll want to make sure that they’re willing to keep your audience’s needs front and center. Your team’s hard and soft skillsets will undoubtedly influence how the course content is written, how it’s packaged and ultimately how it is translated into digital content. From our experience, the core skills we sought out in our team members were twofold: First, we expected our experts to have a strong foundational knowledge of the topic on hand — in this case, how to combat fall armyworm. Secondly, and just as importantly, we expected our experts to be skilled communicators and trainers. We needed them to be able to have the soft skills to clearly communicate simple, concise training messages, without using technical jargon. Finally, you’ll need a team of technical digital experts who can carefully translate complex topics into the digital form, while maintaining the essence of the content.
No matter the subject, your team of experts should have pre-existing knowledge of the topic on hand and experience in adult training techniques. This will help you ensure that the content itself is useful, while ensuring materials are delivered in a compelling and effective way.
Above all, keep it simple
We conducted training trials in South Africa, Malawi and Kenya to make sure that we were tailoring our modules to our learners. Much of the feedback we received reinforced the notion that the most effective messages are those that are simple, concise and directly relevant to the learner. Trial participants appreciated the breadth, thoroughness and relevance of our training materials, but found any overly technical terminology or concepts less helpful. The pandemic has certainly taught us that overlaying new technologies complicates the learning process, especially when it comes to promoting effective training in the digital space — whether it’s ensuring access and connectivity, managing audience engagement or even the simple matter of dissemination and promotion. Don’t overcomplicate your training session by adding unnecessary layers of technology, technical jargon or other elements that may distract learners from your core message.
Without question, the pandemic has underscored the need for innovation in training sessions. Whether in person or remote, training modules must be relevant, tailored to the right audience, and approachable — no matter the subject. But virtual learning adds another dimension that makes these considerations even more critical. Learners may be experiencing technical difficulties. They may be in remote environments. Or they may be otherwise unable to attend in-person training sessions. Whatever the case, keeping these recommendations in mind are doubly important in the digital realm — we hope you’ll keep them in mind to ensure that your modules are as inclusive, productive and valuable as they can be.