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The Surprising Challenge to Remote Training Success in DRC

By Guest Writer on March 3, 2021

drc remote training

When Pierre Akilimali was asked to hold a remote training for his Kinshasa- and Kongo Central-based resident enumerators in April 2020, he was rightly skeptical. The typical Resident Enumerator in DR Congo has limited technology experience and even less comfort with internet-based tools.

As for Pierre, the principal investigator at Performance Monitoring for Action DRC, not only had he never designed or led a remote learning event; his experience even as a remote learner was very limited.

Thinking back on this initial phase with Sarah Nehrling, he remembered his reticence. “I was not for it, I was not willing to do it. If already I didn’t have much experience as a learner, how could I train others?”

Internet availability, literacy, and accessibility are still very low in DRC. Only 19% of the population was connected to internet in January 2020, with only 3.5% of the population active on social media. One major factor is cost. 1GB cost 26.2% of a person’s total income in DRC.

And yet, Pierre and his team ended up leading a very successful remote enumerator training. Twenty-five enumerators and five supervisors participated in a 3-day semi-synchronous training, following the training plan and platform that Pierre and his colleagues co-developed and piloted with Sarah and Shani Turke.

They received step-by-step instructions for each training session in a main WhatsApp group, along with links to where to find the video, activity sheet, or quiz for that session. They asked and responded to questions in another WhatsApp group, and they could connect with their small working group for more personalized questions, support, and activity partnering in a third WhatsApp group.

At the end of the remote training, the enumerators’ test results were just as good as during previous in-person trainings, and their phone call-based data collection once again provided high-quality and rapid-turnaround data, as is PMA’s mission and reputation.

Pierre suggests that our own mindsets, particularly a fear of innovation and trying new things, are the first and most challenging obstacles to acknowledge and overcome when holding our trainings online in LMICs in 2020 and 2021. Not technology access and connectivity despite the typical emphasis on infrastructure and materials.

4 Ways to Online Training Success in 2021

As you begin to build out your plans for 2021, full of uncertainty about what type of learning will be possible, Pierre has some advice to help you and your teams make the transition to a learning-centered and tech-friendly mindset that will enable you to embrace and elevate the opportunities for remote learning in 2021.

1. Evolve with the World – thoughtfully

COVID-19 Digital Response this year may have made us all think differently about remote collaboration and learning, but the basic technology that allows it has been around for over a decade. The technological evolution is like a passing train: when it comes by, either we get on it, or it leaves us behind.

Of course, blindly adopting technology can be a recipe for disaster. Pierre’s initial reticence about remote training was valid, and he knew he had to test the remote training system for himself before even thinking about involving others.

So he and his team underwent a pre-test, playing the roles of trainers and learners in the system, which was built around a structured use of WhatsApp and Google Drive. “Our response was, ‘yes, we’ll do this, but we reserve the possibility to turn around’, based on how the pre-test went.” Throughout the pre-test, they were driven by a curiosity to learn this new system and to evaluate its feasibility for their learners.

They saw that the videos and materials were clear and visible, and that the offline options safeguarded against the inevitable challenges of low-bandwidth and unreliable internet. And, with this successful pre-test, they launched into preparations!

2. Lean into adaptation and reactivity

NOW is the time to adapt and react, as we do not know when or if things will go back to normal, and we cannot simply sit around and wait. Pierre and his team weighed their immediate options: do they risk everyone’s health by holding an in-person training? Or do they attempt distance learning to provide at least some instruction in a safe way?

They also considered the longer-term implications: Do they want to assume that they will be able to return to safe in-person trainings in the near future? Or do they want to begin to prepare their teams now for what might be a long stretch of time without these in-person trainings?

“We told ourselves that we can’t really move around, so we need to adapt now in order to keep working, to be useful in a situation where conditions mean that we can’t move.”

In adapting and reacting to the current situation, the team designed and discovered new things that will continue to serve them, far beyond this pandemic.

For example, despite their best efforts, some enumerators would inevitably arrive late during in-person training days, because of unpredictable events at home or, most often, major traffic jams on the way to the training.

The remote, semi-asynchronous training allowed women to manage their household responsibilities, avoid traffic altogether, and always be on time. The gain of not having to travel and the flexibility of the semi-asynchronous structure allowed women to learn on their schedules, without missing content, and without being late.

3. Plan Well: Failing to plan is planning to fail

This adage is doubly important when it comes to trying new things and leveraging new or internet-dependent technologies. Take time to think about every single obstacle that your team might encounter when preparing and leading an online training, and reach out to people with relevant experience for advice and support. With their fresh and formative experience, Pierre and his team, along with their enumerators, are happy to be amongst those you reach out to for advice.

For their remote training, it was clear that the ability to access the majority of materials without an internet connection was crucial. By using Google Drive’s offline content sync option, a new feature for them, they were able to sync materials to all smartphones before dispatching them to enumerators.

“The internet connection was a huge barrier, but a barrier that we could overcome!”

While Pierre and his team opted into the remote training format, he knew that his enumerators had less of a choice if they wanted to keep working. While some enumerators were already active on social media, others had never even used WhatsApp, the app that would constitute the central space for the remote training system, through different designated groups for sharing content, asking questions, and working with others.

The enumerators needed a bridge to this new remote system, something to help them feel generally comfortable with these tools before they were expected to use them to learn. Pierre created a video that explained how the training would be run and what would be expected of them, including reassurances that WhatsApp was not so different from the SMS system they already used and that the training team would be available to support them.

He then created the large WhatsApp group of all enumerators, invited everyone to join, and shared the video through WhatsApp. On the first day of training, to ensure that the enumerators were present and able to access and look through the WhatsApp exchanges, he asked them to all send photos of themselves to the group; quickly, the group space was filled with photos of enumerators, sitting in their homes with their smartphones and field manuals!

4. Trust your collaborators with learning opportunities:

When we learn, we enrich ourselves. Being able to design and facilitate an in-person event is good; being able to design and facilitate a remote event is even better.

Once they were committed to running the remote training, Pierre’s team learned what they needed when they needed it, with the support of prepared training of trainers materials as well as support staff and public online resources. When they needed to learn how to send a Google Form, they learned it. When they needed to learn how to share an invitation link to WhatsApp by SMS blast, they learned it.

Once they were put in a situation of remote learning, the enumerators also learned about how to be strong remote learners. Not only did they become familiar and comfortable with WhatsApp and Google Drive, they also learned:

  • How to organize their learning tasks around other responsibilities.
  • How to reach out to fellow remote learners and supervisors for help.
  • How to record and share their summaries of what they learned that day.

The enumerators were proud of themselves for being successful in this new opportunity, and Pierre was glad to have dared to bring it to them.

“They can do big things! But we’d never dared to challenge them. With a remote training, I’m giving something extra to the enumerators, something that they’ve never benefitted from before. It’s a bonus to have the skill to participate in a remote training, and that’s something that they otherwise would not have had.”

People are naturally scared of what they don’t know, says Pierre. He himself started out sometimes hostile about innovation. Not everyone is ready to adopt innovative approaches. You need to help them to understand the advantages and the risks. And once they’ve seen it, they can become big fans. But first, you need to dare to try it first.

By Pierre Akilimali, Associate Professor, Kinshasa School of Public Health; Principal Investigator, PMA DRC and Sarah Nehrling, organizational learning consultant, Garabam Consulting

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One Comment to “The Surprising Challenge to Remote Training Success in DRC”

  1. Sarah Nehrling says:

    If you’re interested in more about the architecture of this event, check out our article in Global Health: Science & Practice Journal here – https://www.ghspjournal.org/content/early/2021/02/03/GHSP-D-20-00468