Building Research Capacity in the Virtual Environment

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy, Research, Capacity, and Influence (PRCI) adopted innovative training methods to support its capacity building efforts.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy, Research, Capacity and Influence (PRCI) is committed to training a new generation of agricultural policy researchers throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. Over the past year, PRCI has undertaken three distinct training initiatives to enhance the research capacity of agricultural policy researchers who are working within established policy research centers and institutions.  These three initiatives include the Core Center Technical Training Program, STAAARS+, and the Special Topics Training Program. These trainings have included modules on research design, analysis, and policy development.  During PRCI’s inception many of these trainings were envisioned as a series of in-person workshops, where trainers and mentors could work directly in small groups to develop research proposals and impart concrete research skills.  However, when the COVID-19 pandemic began sweeping across the globe in the winter of 2020, PRCI Director David Tschirley says, “PRCI’s executive committee and institutional partners quickly realized that we would need to reimagine these trainings for the virtual environment to promote the health and safety of everyone involved.”

Over the last 8 months PRCI and its consortium partners including Michigan State University (MSU), The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Cornell University, and Kasetsart University (KU) have successfully launched 13 online training modules, in addition to providing virtual mentorship meetings between expert researchers and program participants.  These virtual training sessions were made possible through the use of video conferencing software and by sharing training exercises, supplemental reading materials, and datasets with participants through the PRCI website.  For MSU, Associate Professor and PRCI co-principal investigator Saweda Liverpool-Tasie, “Maintaining engagement from trainees in the online environment can be challenging.  To foster active participation, the Core Center Technical Trainings utilized virtual ‘breakout rooms’ within the larger trainings to better connect small groups with experts in the field.  In these smaller breakout rooms participants were able to ask questions and receive feedback from a familiar group of their peers.”  One participant in a post-training evaluation survey wrote, “The breakout sessions were very useful because I interacted with other researchers and I was able to learn from them.”

Despite the challenges of teaching in the virtual space, MSU Associate Professor and PRCI co-principal investigator Nicole Mason-Wardell notes, “Conducting the training sessions virtually provides us with some advantages over more traditional in-person workshops.  For participants who are typically hesitant to ask questions, they can more easily participate by submitting written questions and responses.  Additionally, participants in the training have benefitted from being able to re-watch recordings of all of the trainings online, and while we encourage all participants to participate in the trainings in real time, the flexibility of having an asynchronous opportunity to receive the instructions broadens the number of participants.”

For PRCI Director Tschirley, “While the delivery of PRCI’s technical trainings had to be adapted to a virtual setting, PRCI’s commitment to capacity building through co-creation with our research partners remained steadfast. Our research capacity building efforts are always developed by listening to the needs of our global research partners in their home countries.”  PRCI’s Core Center Technical Trainings were developed in part based on a needs assessment completed by researchers at four African policy research centers and for PRCI’s “special topics trainings” the course design and implementation of the trainings was led by one of our newest institutional partners, Kasetsart University (KU).  KU Professor Pasakorn Thammachote oversaw the development of the trainings, while members of IFPRI and MSU provided guidance, content knowledge, and technical support. 

According to IFPRI Senior Research Fellow and PRCI co-principal investigator Babu Suresh, “PRCI was able to help KU develop its own training capacity in the virtual environment, while at the same time tap into KU’s network of policy researchers throughout South East Asia.  By leveraging KU’s network and regional reputation for policy research, PRCI was able to engage agricultural policy researchers in Thailand, Papua New Guinea, India, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam in the online trainings.” Reflecting on his own experience working with PRCI, Thammachote says, “I benefited from the exchange of experiences and networking possibilities through the partnership and the entire gathering was extremely useful for teambuilding with PRCI’s network in Asia.”

To better assess the value of PRCI’s capacity training efforts participants have been surveyed on their experiences in the trainings.  So far, the response from trainees has been overwhelming positive with one participant from the Special Topics Training stating, “[The course was] well organized with contents and exercises which are practical for our research in our countries and for the region as well.”  Furthermore, the development of concrete skills to enhance research capacity can clearly be seen in the Core Center Training evaluations; one participant writes, “Although I had studied econometrics, I have not used it in my work for long and have almost forgotten everything. This training helped me to brush up on my knowledge again” and another participant writes, “Discussions on impact heterogeneity and natural experiments were very useful to me because I face these issues very often. I did not know how to handle these kinds of problems and [the instructor] made it clear.”

“If you had told me a year ago that we would have to move our entire technical training and mentorship programming into the online environment, I’m not sure I would have believed it was possible,” says Director Tschirley, adding,  “we owe the success of this programming to the creativity of our co-PIs, the commitment of our institutional partners, and the willingness of all our program participants to remain engaged during a challenging but also exciting era of learning and communication.  When the pandemic passes, virtual learning and mentoring will not completely replace in-person trainings and interaction, but the advantages of online learning cannot be ignored.  Virtual mentoring and learning are here to stay and will be a critical component of PRCI moving forward.”

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