Adapting to the new normal: Business as usual in unusual times – CoC experience

Posted on May 18, 2020

Covid-19 is challenging researchers to develop new approaches to working. Innovation and perseverance lie at the core of these new approaches. The Collaborative Centre on Economics of Agricultural Research and Development (CoC), with its facility hosted at University of Pretoria (UP), recently demonstrated this through a virtual week-long writing workshop (writeshop).

The CoC is a collaboration between the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development at the University of Pretoria (UP), University of Fort Hare (UFH) and University of Limpopo (UL).  The CoC hosts regular writeshops for staff and students affiliated with the Center. As the COVID-19 lockdown prohibits gatherings, the CoC overcame the impediments, hosting a successful virtual write-shop.

Led by the CoC Co-directors, Dr Petronella Chaminuka (ARC) and Dr Moraka Makhura (UP), supported by the coordinating team (Dr Colleta Gandidzanwa, Manana Mamabolo & Dr Kenneth Nhundu), the CoC hosted a week-long write-shop between 20-24 April 2020 with 20 participants from the ARC, UP, the University of Fort Hare (UFH) and University of Limpopo (UL).

The aim of the workshop was to conceptualise papers for the annual Agricultural Economics Association of South Africa (AEASA) Conference and identify issues for further research. In the past years, the writeshops led to the CoC members presenting the highest proportion of papers at the conference. This virtual writeshop was an effort to maintain the standard. According to Prof Charles Machethe, who serves in the Oversight Committee of the CoC and joined in the middle of the week,

“It is pleasing to see the Centre striving to maintain the standard and staying active during these challenging times. I have witnessed the Centre moving from strength to strength since its inception some five years ago. It always managed to be innovative to overcome the many challenges that similar collaborative initiatives face.  With the CoC, there are always solutions to impeding problems.”

How it worked

The write-shop was hosted using Google Hangouts, a communication software that brings together groups of people. The software includes audio and video features and also supports presentations. On the first day, objectives were set and clarified, with an overview provided, and four thematic areas around which to conceptualise papers were identified. A two-hour-long plenary session included all participants. On the second day, smaller groups exchanged ideas on possible papers with work continuing in groups. Participants would meet using this and other digital platforms to discuss ideas on the papers they were interested in working on. Every other day, the progress of the groups was reviewed, and a final three-hour plenary session was held on the last day (Friday). A total of 20 papers were conceptualised and drafts developed during the week.  According to Dr Chaminuka:

This initiative is motivating and exciting from the ARC and other partners’ point of view. It is amazing that the writeshop managed to facilitate conceptualisation of so many papers, surpassing our previous achievements.  Perhaps the major advantage was that the virtual connection enabled us to connect with almost everyone including those who would otherwise not make it for physical meetings”.  

This was also echoed by other partners represented by Prof Mushunje (UFH) and Prof Oluwatayo (UL).

Working out the kinks

The virtual write-shop was not without glitches. Although a test run of the workshop was conducted on the Friday before the workshop, the team still encountered several challenges. Issues of connectivity led to some members dropping and re-joining sessions, and some participants were not always audible. While sessions were only planned to be an hour, when they became too long, the organisers were concerned about participant’s data cost implications.    

The organisers were able to overcome many of these challenges and everyone reported becoming accustomed to online interactions. Some approaches to mitigating these challenges were for the organising team to meet 15 to 30 minutes earlier than the meeting to manage technical difficulties. Lack of human interaction led to presenters missing some facial and social cues. In reflecting on the write-shop, Dr Makhura said,

“Within ten minutes of active online engagement, you start feeling that the interaction is real. The online engagement was both positive and a challenge. You get comfortable with using it over time. One drawback is that you can’t see the expression on the other person’s face.”

Outcomes of the writeshop

This write-shop offered students, emerging researchers and senior researchers an opportunity to interact, with each mutually benefiting from the engagement. Students proposed new methodical approaches that they could apply to the papers. Professors assisted students in defining, refining and identifying gaps in their research. This process clarified and strengthened students thesis, paper writing and overall research skills. One participant reported,

“I found the virtual write-shop interesting and very productive. We had to optimise the limited time we had online because working from home requires balancing working and home responsibilities. So time was not lost/wasted on long discussions that sometimes happen when meeting face to face. The virtual write-shop showed us that if willing, people can adapt to change.”

Prof Sheryl Hendriks, Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development who joined the last session applauded the courage and perseverance of the CoC team.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way! The team has demonstrated that COVID difficulties can be overcome. Creative workshops such as this build cohesion, ensuring that we press forward with research and the dissemination of crucial research outcomes to support the post-COVID era while containing the spread of the virus.”

Published by Elizabeth Mkandawire

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