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Online peer-assists: learning about concrete solutions for water and land management research

Since January 2012, the Challenge Program for Water and Food (CPWF) is holding more and more structured learning events. Communication specialists from five out of the six basins of the program (Andes, Ganges, Mekong, Nile and Volta) have been gathering every month at a fixed date to engage in ‘peer assists’. These social learning events have been very helpful so far to stimulate reflection about concrete problems in the five water and land management basin projects – particularly framed under the overall agenda of ‘How to develop more engaging communication processes leading to more engaging scientific research results?’. The CPWF peer assists are now growing beyond the simple remit of communication specialists.

What are peer assists exactly? 

The video below explains quite well what a peer assist is in general and how you can run one.

How are peer assists run in the  CPWF?

In the case of the CPWF, the peer assists are not face-to-face but virtual: they are run as a Skype conference and are complemented with live note-taking on an online writing pad called ‘MeetingWords‘.

Typically, one of the CPWF basin communication specialists comes up with a practical issue they face. The case or issue is shared with all participants a few days before the peer assist. After hearing the case again on Skype, other participants ask clarification questions to make sure they understand the case. In a second round they provide one by one some suggestions to address the issue raised. The case presenter reflects on the suggestions for a few minutes and shares what suggestions s/he will try and apply. In a final round all participants draw generic lessons from the case  presented, to document how to ensure engaging processes leading to more engaging scientific research results.

After the discussion, the notes are edited and saved on a Yammer network page so that all participants can always find it for the record.

In the subsequent peer-assist, the case presenter explains what happened, what actions they took, since their case was shared. These peer assists are facilitated to ensure that the 1.5-hour sessions are run as effectively as possible. ILRI communication staff usually facilitates these peer assists.

So far, six topics have been addressed in monthly peer assists:

  • How to convey and communicate research through participatory video?
  • How to make the best use of the CPWF website?
  • Documenting processes, why bother?
  • Yammer, a conversation space for 4-5 people only?
  • Engaging Ganges scientists in the communication work?
  • Why use innovation platforms and how can we link local with national platforms?

Usually the cases are presented by people working in different river basins. So far each basin and the global communication team have all presented a case for a peer assist.

Benefits, challenges and lessons learned of (virtual) peer assists

After six months it is a good moment to draw lessons from past practice.

On the positive side, these peer assists have helped in various ways:

  • The case presenter receives lots of useful and concrete feedback on their issue(s);
  • Other participants also collect feedback on an issue which they might very well be facing themselves;
  • The cases not only bring about concrete solutions but also a handful of questions that concern more programmatic or theoretical foundations of CPWF work; therefore they contribute to improving project design;
  • The cases help us understand a bit better what is happening in the other basins. This is a strong mechanism to get to hear about other basin work, which would otherwise happen only during the team leader and topic working group meetings;
  • They create an opportunity to work with each other, support each other and build a stronger rapport among CPWF staff from various locations, building more solid foundations for joint work;
  • The approach has attracted people outside the CPWF (e.g. from Bioversity International and from the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security [CCAFS] program);
  • The virtual peer assists have been a great experiment to pave the way for a series of online learning events which will help document CPWF work – the model is expanding and recently also involved a few scientists (as opposed to only communication specialists).

On the negative side, we have faced various challenges: The failing internet connection across locations means that some time is spent trying to get people back in the discussion – although the MeetingWords pad (used for live documentation by several people) has been a great help in ensuring everyone can follow the conversation even if they drop out; the cases need to be as practical and clear as possible to generate useful results, otherwise they end up being very vague discussions; some cases presented are complex and take time to take shape so it is  unclear how each basin team has really taken advantage of the peer assists to inform planning and activities; finally, although this is slowly changing, it has proven very difficult to attract non-communication specialists to these peer assists.

In the next few months, peer assists will be on hold to make way for online learning events aiming to document recent results and processes of the Challenge Program for Water and Food. They will resume later in the year, and perhaps reappear in other arenas of the CGIAR work.

Read more information about the CPWF peer assists on the ‘Comms4uptake’ Yammer network (restricted access).

More on ILRI’s support to the communication and knowledge sharing in the Nile Basin: Communication priorities for the Nile Basin Development Challenge, 2012–2013

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