Q&A with Chris Walter of OOR

Georgia (Learn.ink Co-founder) chatted with Chris about his experience using Learn.ink to train citizen journalists in Sierra Leone and Kenya.

So tell us a bit about On Our Radar and what you're working on

On Our Radar is all about engaging with communities who are at the frontlines of some of the world's most complex issues. Our belief is that unheard communities, who have been left out of the conversation for so long, often actually have the solutions for a lot of these issues themselves if you just take the time to listen to them.

What we do is train people to become what we call community reporters or citizen journalists. We train them in various reporting skills like how to sensitively interview others, what makes a compelling story, how to keep safe, how to gather and crowdsource information. We use a solutions journalism approach, so it is not just about them reporting "this is my experience, this is the difficulty" but sharing "here is my idea for how it can be better".

This first project we engaged with you guys on was called Beyond the Bite in Sierra Leone. We're working with a group of community reporters to report on what's it's like being at the sharp end of the healthcare system in Sierra Leone. For example, what's it like to be pregnant and turned away from ANC (antenatal care), and what's it like to be cut off by the rains in a really remote village and not be able to access healthcare.

What brought you to Learn.ink? Have you ever done remote training before?

No. It was very new for us. We've always tended to train our communities in a workshop environment. In Sierra Leone, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, our team had delivered five two-day training sessions all around the country. We'd cover transport costs, put them up, have dinner together every evening etc. so it requires them to travel to us and be a part of that.

It almost replicated the workshop environment and we really didn't expect that. It kind of reignited that project because if everyone's working through a course, the same course, then it's almost like you're doing a group activity but from miles away.

What we used Learn.ink for was to design a refresher training. We shared the link to the training in the WhatsApp groups we had created for our reporters and immediately we had people asking questions, following up on the challenges, posting their certificates. The WhatsApp group was firing off and there was a real buzz. It almost replicated the workshop environment and we really didn't expect that. It kind of reignited that project because if everyone's working through a course, the same course, then it's almost like you're doing a group activity but from miles away. (For more info check out Chris' blog Empty chairs: training in a pandemic)

What we also didn't realise is how much people would appreciate that kind of self-paced learning: being able to do it around their day jobs, families and other commitments. Towards the end of last year we worked on a new project in Kenya with the Fairtrade Foundation who wanted to understand the impact of Covid-19 on flower workers around Naivasha. The people working on the flower farms were never going to be able to take the time out to do a two day workshop, especially given the restrictions, but with Learn.ink they were able to do the training in their breaks or in the evenings. So that project in Kenya we were able to do 100% remotely and it worked really well.

What were some of the tactics you used to make your digital training a success?

I think demystifying the process can really help so if there's a small pioneering group within a larger network, and we've done this subsequently with the platform, then send it out to a small group of individuals to almost be the pilot testers. If you've got a small group going through it they can say "that module is a bit too long", "I know for a fact that some people I know would find that bit difficult", or "could you change that bit?". And then you tweak it. The idea that we'd sit here in London and design a course and just whack it out to people who are having a really tough time in flower farms in Kenya is ridiculous. But if we kick start the co-design process and send it to a core group of 5 or 6 and say "we've had a little go to start us off, work through it, give us your feedback" and give them a stipend for their time, then immediately the group feel invested in and part of the team - they are the pioneers. And then when we did roll it out the community already felt invested in it and they acted as champions in their peer group. Once you've got 2 or 3 people posting a certificate in a WhatsApp group and talking about how excited they are then it gains momentum.

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One of the things I've noticed about the OOR courses is that they always feel really fun and engaging. What would your advice be to others looking to learn from you?

I think it's about being personal. Straight away in the course we dropped in a photo of who we are, people they knew, people they recognised from the project team. I think that's probably a big part of the demystifying process, if you can make it feel like they're engaging with someone they already know.

For us I think cracking jokes is also really important. I think that's the beauty of what you've made. The conversational style lends itself to that informality.

For us I think cracking jokes is also really important. I think that's the beauty of what you've made. The conversational style lends itself to that informality. Obviously there's some learning points you want to get across, and you don't want to lose that, but making it more chatty and informal really helps and I think Learn.ink is really built for that. If people use certain words and communicate in a certain way in their real-life environment then use that. Don't suddenly, just because it's learning, revert to a textbook, classroom style of talking. If you're chatting and sharing memes on WhatsApp and that's how people engage with you, then put that in your course because that's what people will react to.

Finally, I would say keep it short and sweet. And that's some feedback that Adam (Learn.ink Co-founder) gave me and Paul which really helps. Don't be tempted to just keep going! It's fine to have it short and sweet, you can always create a new module, but if you lose someone halfway through then they're going to be fed up.

Do you feel like you can get the same level of engagement with digital training as you can in-person?

There is nothing to say you can't have incredibly meaningful engagement with someone through their mobile phone. It's how you are engaging with that person, making them feel valued.

I don't think you can necessarily replace that in-person community building but there is nothing to say you can't have incredibly meaningful engagement with someone through their mobile phone. It's how you are engaging with that person, making them feel valued. I think that can happen in a classroom, and that's great, but that can also happen through our phones. A lot of the reporters that we've worked with, especially over the last year, we've never met face to face but they would tell you they are a part of the On Our Radar family because they know their voices and insight is valued, and they feel invested in.

I think there's often a presumption that a certain tool will be right for a certain person. But I think what's actually more important is the infrastructure built around that individual that supports them to participate. You might just presume that an elderly woman living in a rural community wouldn't participate in something like this but actually, that's not necessarily the right way to look at it. If you provide, as we do, each of our reporters with phone top-up, a dedicated mentor, a safe space for them to participate, then you can really nurture and work with that person.

Chris Walter is Head of Communities at On Our Radar. On Our Radar is a specialist group of journalists, technologists, digital storytellers and development practitioners with a mission to surface powerful stories and insight from marginalised communities worldwide. They've spent almost a decade collaborating with communities, from garment workers in Bangladesh to people with dementia in the UK, to share their stories.

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