Communities of Practice (COP) were established in 2016 to support students on two of DFI’s global online courses. Over the years tried and tested approaches were used to engage students and help them contextualise the content to their local context. They also enabled students to connect and network together and collaborate on initiatives. Students met face-to-face at meetings in certain cities four times across their 12 week course, and meetings were facilitated by experienced professionals within the digital finance field. We had a rhythm producing reliable results, meetings were well attended and evaluated and contributed to students passing the course.
Then came COVID-19. Many of the cities where COPs were established experienced lockdowns or restrictions on movements and gatherings. We could no longer promote face-to-face meetings and made the decision midway through a course to swap to online only meetings. We embraced the opportunity to try something new with some interesting results.
This course cohort experienced the highest attendance rates at meeting since the small pilot study we did back in 2016. Of those who were located in a city where there was a COP, 80% of these students (245 of 307) went to one or more meetings.
When looking at evaluation responses students rate this cohort of COP meetings similarly to previous ones. COP facilitators average ratings remained at 4.5/5 with 92% of attendees who responded to the survey ranking their skills hosting meetings from very good to excellent which is higher than previous cohorts. Students found meetings useful as opportunities for networking, learning, confidence building and course support.
Shifting to online meetings did not result in a lowered attendance or poorly evaluated meetings, indeed they performed equally well or better than face-to-face meetings. The only area of potential unease was regarding the percentage who will make an effort to stay in touch with those they met at meetings – this was 71% for this cohort and previous cohorts figures were higher in the late 70s and early 80s. This may be an anomaly or potentially online meetings don’t quite so easily forge the connections that meeting in-person does. Given COVID-19 and social distancing is going to impact on the next course if not all the courses in 2020 this data point is something we can come back to. We’re also experimenting with virtual ways to deepen connections, such as ‘virtual coffee’ pairings, where two members of the group chat online with no specified agenda other than getting to know each other, and small team tasks which allow smaller groups to work together and report back to the larger group.
The success of the transition from face-to-face meetings to online was achieved through implementing training, support and new opportunities, which include:
- Promoting meetings and opportunities to students and encouraging their participation
- Providing zoom accounts for facilitators to convene meetings (although they could use skype or alternatives if they wished)
- Developing a guide on how to schedule and facilitate meetings using the zoom platform, including follow-up 1:1 training sessions
- Holding discussions between the COP facilitators on challenges and tips and sharing best practice in email summaries
- Inviting expert speakers from other countries to present, possible now meetings are online
This experiment has yielded positive results and brought new methods and creativity into our COP meetings. COP facilitators and students are requesting we continue to hold some meetings online as it brings a set of opportunities and removes barriers of attendance such as travelling to a venue. The ideal may be a blended approach to maximise the benefits of both online and face-to-face meetings, the medium chosen depending on the purpose of the session.