Three essential components of participatory e-learning

Participatory means providing the opportunity for people to be involved in deciding how something is done. The term is mostly used in politics and training/education jargons. We talk about a ‘participatory’ democracy. When running face-to-face workshops while doing development work in Africa in the nineties and later, it was considered important that we use ‘participatory’ approaches instead of the commonly used top-down techniques like lecture-style presentation.

It remains an essential part of the training philosophy in the development sector. Why in this sector more than elsewhere? Because training for development isn’t just about enhancing skills – it’s about empowerment.

Participatory doesn’t mean ‘making sure people participate’. The key is being involved in decision making – not just talk. So adding more discussions to a workshop doesn’t cut it – it should go much deeper than that.

Back in my face-to-face facilitation days, we learned to build workshops on the three fundamental characteristics – or pillars – of a participatory approach:

  • Starting with the participants’ experience
  • Critically analysing and reflecting
  • Developing strategies for action

The pillars apply to both the design and the facilitation of the learning event.

Fast forward twenty years and it’s still at the core of what I do – participatory e-learning shouldn’t be any different.

So what makes this work online?

1. Give enough time

As a face-to-face facilitator, lack of time used to be my main frustration. Successful participatory approaches go deep and need much longer than a session time of say morning tea till lunch. Flexibility is important so we don’t interrupt thoughts and conversations, and go as deep and as far as the group wants to go.

In participatory learning events, it is essential to give people time to think before contributing and offer them the opportunity to step back first. Few people can think fast enough to link new ideas to past experiences and make sense right there and then – and also formulate it in a way they find satisfactory. Sometimes, participants would like to be able to take the conversation back to where they feel they can add value. Most meaningful input doesn’t come from off the cuff remarks. These are key considerations when looking at supporting participatory workshops online.

Time pressure is one of the reasons why participatory approaches are hard to use in webinars. Asynchronous (not at the same time) methods on the other hand support this need for time much better.

Asynchronous means reading and writing. For some programmes this might be a disadvantage or even problematic because of the target group’s capabilities. Yet, when it comes to depth and reflection, as well as developing strategies for action – nothing beats writing while taking an active part in profound discussions with fellow practitioners. And most importantly, it gives time.

2. Provide a framework for collaboration

The most common mix-up is to think participatory workshops are realised by giving people the opportunity to… participate. So ask questions, or ask participants to discuss in small groups and then report back. The usual stuff – easy. But that’s not how you get there.

Let’s go back to the definition. Participatory means “providing the opportunity for people to be involved in deciding how something is done.”

That’s a whole lot more ACTIVE than the usual stuff.

The focus is on doing and on deciding to do. ‘Talking’ is a means to an end. Doing takes learning to a much higher level – the level of empowerment and being able to make a difference. In participatory workshops, the ‘talk’ is important though, because there is a lot of sharing of experiences, reflecting on what works and what doesn’t and why, and looking for better ways. What’s important is to find a way to take the easy and shallow talk to a deeper/higher level.

Problem-based learning provides such a framework. In the process of solving real-life problems, people tend to move away from the easy ‘talking about’ and ‘do’ something instead. They also use their own practical experiences. And during or after the process of problem solving, it becomes more natural to step back and engage in some meta-thinking and reflection.

This works well online, provided the framework (in which to do the work) is well designed and is run asynchronously (remember, people need time to do this well). A lot of my past blog posts cover this aspect of eWorkshop design (click here to view a list of past blog posts). Let’s also remind ourselves of the difference between cooperation and collaboration.

3. Hire an e-facilitator who has been trained in participatory approaches

Who guides the online participatory workshop? Not an ‘e-tutor’. Certainly not an online ‘instructor’. Just like I (and the team I was working with) had to un-learn/re-train over 20 years ago to be able to facilitate participatory face-to-face workshops, online facilitators need to do the same.

People might be great at e-tutoring but not have the right skills to facilitate participatory eWorkshops. It’s much more complicated. It’s more rewarding too. And the good news is, with the right facilitation philosophy, it doesn’t take long to ‘click’. A first step in the right direction is to recognise the difference.

How do I know what e-learning approach is right for what topic?
Using an eWorkshop to initiate or enrich a community


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