This series tracks news and views from our ‘Evidence-Based Policy Research Methods’ (EPRM) course. Many participants work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other sections of the UN system. In normal times, they come to the City of Maastricht in the Netherlands for this unique blended learning programme, covering a total of three weeks in class and 10 weeks online.
In April 2020, our EPRM participants joined us for their last module in a series of five that we offered this spring. During this face-to-face workshop we trained working professionals on how to clearly write up, present and defend their research ideas. We met after 10 weeks of intense online training, and completed their training programme with presentations by all participants. This format allows us to grasp the often incredibly large steps that our fellows made to enter the research arena, and allows them and the programme’s teaching staff to close the training module in a positive spirit.
This year we were, like all educational institutes, faced with the restriction that all courses had to be offered online. As EPRM is a blended programme, the modules two, three and four did not require us to make any changes. While it was clear that our participants struggled to set time aside for studies in addition to home office and now also home schooling activities, we as programme provider did not have to make any major adjustments to our modules. It was only for the last module of the training that some substantial changes had to be made, as this moved from face-to-face to online training.
One of the main challenges for the move to an online setting was the presentation skills training. One of the days of our final workshop is entirely dedicated to presentation skills – how to become a good presenter. We hire an excellent presentation trainer to work with the participants on their performance and prepare them to present their final output with confidence and joy. This trainer is very skilled in a face-to-face setting, but he admitted being less confident offering his class online. In a search to replace his session with an online equivalent, it quickly became apparent that few teachers offer this training online – despite the growing demand under lockdown conditions!
With the team’s shared efforts, we collected open access information resources and combined all in a structured open access skill toolkit that can guide students in their preparation online and offer the material this week to our students. We decided to complement that with a webinar on how to approach the presentation, and a training session with peer learning to prepare for the actual delivery. Though different, we felt that this package might still be sufficiently diverse and informative and would allow participants to develop this online presentation skill that may serve them well in their workplace.
For presenting research, the key pillars to pay attention to are the why (do we present – what is the aim), to whom (do we present, who is our audience), what (do we present, what content needs to be delivered) and how (do I present, the actual performance). In our EPRM educational setting, why we present remains unchanged – to complete the course programme and pass the last module fellows present their research proposals. To whom is also unchanged – to the academic community that is interested in the research. Even what we present is the same, as the proposal content is – like in the face-to-face session the material that is shared. But how to do so, now that we only meet online, is the big question?
In order to learn how we scheduled a webinar on how to better present our work online in addition to the theoretical information we shared in the toolkit. During this webinar, Wolfgang Paul at Common Sense showed that with the tools available to us it really is feasible to offer an excellent and interactive presentation online!
Our participants appreciate the content, of both the toolkit and the webinar. As Wolfgang said: “This is a great toolkit – straight to the point. All you need to know in 15 minutes to start your successful online presentation!” And in the words of one of the participants: “this information is important not only for the presentation of EPRM, but for all online calls that I am engaging in these days!”
So, we continue to use the toolkit. Our GPAC2 and IEGD PhD fellows will be offered access to the toolkit – in preparation for their upcoming online PhD progress presentations in June 2020. Our MPP Master’s students may also benefit from the toolkit – in preparation of the thesis defence. But beyond that, teaching staff can benefit as well. We all moved into online teaching so quickly and without any real didactical preparation. While a toolkit does not replace didactical courses, it may offer some insights to teachers as well how to better guide their online lectures or tutorial sessions. As ever, the guiding principle is: “Practice, practice, practice”.
Still, I miss the social element of face-to-face education. I miss the interactions, the dynamics and the emotions in the classroom. I miss the participants, even them showing up late or being ill-prepared! So I certainly hope to meet again in person. Until then, the pandemic lockdown is a great push to improve our online educational skills!
The toolkit is added to our Smart Tools set, and is openly available here.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Pexels / A. Piacquadio; UNU / H.Pijpers