The new (ab)normal. Virtual was a challenge but is physical any easier?

November 3, 2022

After being forced to migrate to a fully virtual method of interfacing with our audiences during lockdown, we slowly move back to face to face engagements with some learnings that cannot be unlearned from the days of 100% virtual.

Codebridge Youth, a project that seeks to assist young people in becoming active citizens using OpenUp’s inform-empower-activate methodology, recently embarked on a series of digital and data literacy workshops. The workshops targeted youth in the rural areas of Cederberg, Witzenberg, and Bergrivier - all municipalities in the Western Cape province of South Africa.

Wazimap helps us understand the socio-economic factors at play

The workshop is designed to lay a foundation of civic knowledge, and to help participants create and communicate information to support engagements with government that is informed by data.

The civic knowledge component of the workshop includes what being an active citizen is and how to participate at a municipal level in order to address matters related to their community and its surroundings.

The digital and data skills component initiates participants in using Google Suite products. These products are selected for two reasons. First, it has the lowest barrier for entry when using a smart device, such as a mobile phone. And secondly, it is freely available online. Using the products, we demonstrate how they are used for the purposes of documenting information and capturing data. As well as how we can store these documents and data using the available cloud storage Google has to offer.

This is further supported by walking participants through the data tools and products developed by OpenUp. These included tools and products which make use of open and available data on youth in their geographic area and across the country, as well as municipal budgets, Youth Explorer and Municipal Money. To conclude, participants are then introduced to a collection of online publishing tools, such as Canva and Google Sites. These tools can assist in the presentation, marketing, and promotion of the information they wish to communicate.

Preparing for the workshops

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a project team, we have spent a significant amount of time experimenting with different methods for hosting online events, especially webinars. Armed with our learnings and an internal checklist, we wrote up our findings and methods and published them in a blog post titled “The Age of the Webinar: So much to get right”.

Now, back in the physical world, we find ourselves having to unlearn much of that methodology and relearn how to do things the old-fashioned way: face to face. This meant designing slide show presentations, lesson plans, and the works.

We even fought tooth and nail to make sure that the workshops took place at e-centers, because they had computers and internet. Transport? Venue? Catering? Participant confirmations? All checked. Foolproof plan, right?

A crisis of infrastructure

In hosting the workshop, we made use of the facilities provided by Cape Access. Cape Access is a programme of the Western Cape Government that seeks to “make information and communication technology (ICT) freely available and accessible to communities in the province, with a special focus on rural areas where access is most needed”.

The e-centers focus on the availability of and accessibility to the internet largely for the purposes of email, printing, government information, and services. The teams at Cape Access, who we send a big thank you and a shout out to, supported our event by making available a venue and computers with internet connectivity for participants to utilise during the digital and data literacy sessions. However, while the venues are sufficient for the services that are provided by those facilities, the scope of our exercise proved to be greater than the needs the infrastructure was able to support.

Amongst a myriad of challenges that we faced on the days of the events at Cederberg and Witzenberg was:

  1. The number of available computers in the e-centers are approximately 14. On average, attendees at the workshop were double that number and higher which meant that participants had to share.
  2. The computers were unable to download Google Chrome. Chrome is the most optimal browser for all the web-based lessons that we planned to conduct.
  3. Finally, there appeared to be a network wide block on all Google products, even when logging in using the native and now obsolete Internet Explorer. Troubleshooting took so much time that it had to be aborted.
Cederberg youth at a capacity building workshop

Having run many workshops and events at various venues in the Western Cape, we were used to small yet unexpected glitches occurring. As a result, we resorted to our Plan B strategy. This involved getting the participants to follow along with the lessons using their mobile phones. But we quickly discovered that the connectivity provided was through the use of LAN cables. This meant that the centers were not equipped with Wi-Fi access. Thus, we hotspotted as many people as we could from our own mobile phones.

Another noteworthy obstacle to the facilitation of our workshop was that the lesson was designed for a desktop learning environment given our assumption that the venue and its infrastructure were able to support such activity. Further than that, we did not test the curriculum on mobile devices. Google products such as Docs, Sheets, and Slides require users to download their respective mobile apps. Some participants had to retrieve their email passwords before they could download these apps, and some did not have enough storage space on their phones to host the apps. Working across a selection of apps versus opening multiple documents and document types in a single web browser window was also a very different experience.

In the end the bulk of the two workshops consisted of the facilitators presenting by way of demonstration on the projector with only a few following along on their mobile devices. But you know what they say, you learn more from a loss than a win. And we have since taken on these learnings for future workshops.

So, what does an infrastructure crisis look like in practice?

In Cederberg, where the computers did not have Google Chrome and the Wi-Fi was not working, we connected everyone using our mobile phones as hotspots. The computer connected to the projector was too slow to run a virtual presentation from one of our colleagues that attended remotely so we ended up gathering everyone around two laptops and carried on with the remote presentation. A lot of the tools that we went to present practically ended up being presented, orally.

The second workshop in Witzenberg went smoother. Though there wasn’t any Wi-Fi and only 14 computers were present with a turnout of 32 people in a small room without air conditioning, while the temperature outside blazed at 32° Celsius, we somehow managed to make it work - largely in part to having learnt from the mistakes of the week before.

We moved everyone outside where we set up the projector, under a tree, and proceeded from there. This time there were three OpenUp staff members present which meant that more people could connect to the Wi-Fi hotspots. The computers were strictly reserved for those who did not have smart phones and they entered the e-center on a rotational basis to maintain strict Covid 19 protocols.

Skills, upskilling, and digital literacy

Digital literacy levels varied among participants. Despite that, participants could navigate their smartphone devices pretty easily, when it came to activities such as downloading applications, retrieving email, and understanding how to manage digital storage they weren’t always clear on what to do.

Further than that, no participant had ever used any of the products included in Google Suite in any intentional way. But many knew of its existence and possessed a basic understanding of what function the products were able to serve. Similarly, no participant reported familiarity with the tools of OpenUp, such as Youth Explorer, Municipal Money, or Wazimap. And no participant had heard or made prior use of Google Sites and Canva.

What we’ve learnt

Problem: We cannot rely on venues to provide dedicated, functional, and robust internet connectivity for workshops that are heavy on digital practice.

  • Solution: Bring along portable routers, and/or top up our devices with enough data to support the use of mobile hotspots.

Problem: Poor and spotty connectivity means online resources aren’t accessible, and despite this, even your most trusted app can decide not to play ball on that day.

  • Solution: Since much of the workshop is built around the data-driven tools and products of OpenUp, it is quite easy to install local versions of these tools on our team's devices, ensuring accessibility on the day of training is relatively problem-free.

Problem: While local versions of OpenUp’s tools stored on team devices ease accessibility when the issues of connectivity become critical, the limited number of accessible devices versus the number of participants does compromise their ability to thrive and take the most out of the workshop.

  • Solution: Invest in tablet or mobile devices, and/or partner with strong institutions that are able to work on longer-term more robust solutions to issues of connectivity and bridging the digital divide.

But somehow, we made it work

Despite the challenges, user research conducted throughout the workshops showed that participants found the lessons valuable and informative:

This encouragement will only serve as motivation to continue to find solutions and innovate further in the design and delivery of our workshops.

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