Joint Annual Academic Seminar (JAAS) of collaborative PhD in Public Policy programme goes Virtual during COVID-19: reflections on opportunities and challenges

The collaborative PhD in Public Policy programme that commenced towards the end of 2019 planned to hold its maiden Joint Annual Academic Seminar (JAAS) in the summer of 2020 in Nairobi. This is a programme funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY) and involves the collaborative effort of 14 African universities. Three universities i.e. the University of Ibadan, University of Nairobi and University of Pretoria are initially rolling out the programme to serve the students across the country. The JAAS was intended to deliver complementary research methods training to the students and supervisory capacity enhancement for their supervisors. The convening was also expected to provide a platform for cohort networking and as a safe space where fellows would present their research plans for constructive feedback.

Just as the programme was gaining momentum at the University of Pretoria and the University of Nairobi, and as the University of Ibadan was about to launch the programme, the effects of COVID-19 intensified. In March, African governments introduced protective measures and shut all institutions of learning. South Africa was in total lockdown while Kenya and Nigeria were in partial lockdown. This obviously disrupted the delivery of the PhD programme.  Fortunately, as in most universities globally, learning was shifted online immediately. This also meant that students at the University of Ibadan could be supported to continue learning online in one of the universities, thanks to the spirit of the partnership.  

Meanwhile, plans for a virtual JAAS were made when it became evident that the unfolding COVID-19 restrictions were going to last longer, affecting the planned physical JAAS convening in Nairobi. We, therefore, redesigned the planned activities for virtual delivery by including a series of virtual seminars and meetings spread between September and December. Coincidentally, this redesign process presented an opportunity to rethink and strengthen the original JAAS design. New activities such as virtual work in progress seminars were integrated to facilitate continuous knowledge sharing, cohort building and strengthening of the partnership for both fellows and their supervisors. Virtual delivery of these seminars also meant that we could include other students in the programme that was not direct CCNY beneficiaries at no extra cost. In the end, the redesigned programme was more impactful than what had originally been planned.

This also seemed very easy to implement, at least on paper. In the first instance, we had already commenced the process of customizing our research methods training modules for blended learning during the previous year. This process had equipped our instructors with skills for online content design and facilitation. Besides, a sister project on innovative pedagogy had introduced professional training for online delivery and these instructors were active participants. We also invested in appropriate e-learning authoring applications and strengthened our e-learning delivery platform (i.e. the Moodle). With this experience, we successfully converted into online formats three research methods modules that had been earmarked for delivery during the JAAS convening. While we anticipated that delivery would go smoothly, four major challenges arose. The first challenge was fitting these well thought out activities into the three different university calendars of our partner institutions. While the physical JAAS was intended to be a one-off event during the universities’ long holiday, the novel plan meant getting scheduling in virtual space at a time when all the fellows across the partnership would be available, and this proved difficult.

The second challenge was securing a generous amount of time from students, staff and supervisors for a complementary set of activities. Online learning had been introduced so abruptly that everyone felt overwhelmed with a number of parallel online learning activities that they had to participate in. Third, most of our stakeholders were also not used to the virtual environment and therefore by the time we were starting to deliver our activities, ‘zoom-fatigue’ was already being experienced, particularly among the fellows. The last challenge was difficult of access due to the high cost of data bundles. While all agreed that these were valuable complementary activities, the weight of the extra burden became an impediment. This called for flexibility and creativity in staggering the delivery schedule to fit the university as well as the fellows’ schedules.

So far this has been a successful process. Fellows in particular appreciated the complementary research training as evident from this comment: This was a very timely and stimulating training on research. I am a better and more empowered on conducting research that is geared at changing lives. The online training really worth my time”.

We also learnt useful lessons for delivering programmes in an online environment. Adapting to the online learning environment is not a one-off event. It is a gradual process that requires flexibility, patience and empathy. It also requires regular consultation; we have quickly learnt that as implementers, partners have to participate in each design decision and process.  We can say that the much we have achieved has been as a result of including our partners in the three universities in the design process. They offered workable solutions to the challenges we experienced and supported the implementation of the activities. Finally, we have realized the need to cushion the fellows with data bundles. This was an expressed need by some fellows, and it turned out to be a great enabler for sustained participation.

Our greatest takeaway is that going online has strengthened the partnership and helped leverage the benefits of the collaboration. It is very exciting to see students from a university in one part of the continent participate in the same lessons being offered in a university on the other end of the continent. This is a tradition that has started which we hope will be solidified as the programme matures, facilitating integration across educational systems and regions on the continent.