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When zoom is a verb: Sharing experience from our digital workshop for young researchers

Photo: Chris Montgomery / Unsplash.

Video calls and digital conferences have become a regular part of our work life. As of March 18, due to COVID-19 all Swedish higher educational institutions were instructed to transition to remote work.

Overnight, lectures, seminars, workshops, study trips, meetings and conferences were either canceled, postponed or transformed into online events. And so were the activities planned as part of the SIANI-SLU collaboration, including the workshop for young researchers who study sustainable food systems.

The workshop ‘Sustainable Food Systems: linking research to policy and practice’ took place during June 3-5, 2020. Twenty participants zoomed from all over the world for discussions about Food Security, Food Sovereignty and Climate Friendly Food Systems.

The idea behind this workshop is to help young researchers make their research more applicable in policy and more relevant to societal needs, incorporating thinking about the main stakeholders in the research plans early on. During the workshop, young researchers had the opportunity to engage in cross-disciplinary discussions and receive feedback from both senior researchers and other participants.

Going digital enables further outreach. Usually, the participants in the workshop travel from Sweden, the neighboring Scandinavian countries and a few come from the UK and the Netherlands. But this year we had participants from the Americas, Europe and Africa, South Asia and Australia, connecting all at the same time during three mornings.

The diversity was also reflected in research areas and subject matters, with both qualitative and quantitative approaches in social and natural science backgrounds. The themes varied between e.g. community school gardens in Nicaragua, promising crops in Ecuador, changing consumer mindsets in Nigeria, women’s smallholder bargaining power in the Eastern Gangetic Plain, adaptation of greenhouse gas mitigation in Argentina to REDD+ projects in Ghana.

Working across time zones can be tricky. Our participants from Colombia, the United States and Ecuador had to join early in the morning, while those in Australia called in after the working hours. They all showed admirable commitment and high engagement to participate. As organizers, we are, of course, grateful that they did so because this meant that our event gathered participants from 17 different countries, providing the space for knowledge exchange and interaction for people that might not have met in person.

Planning started early. Workshops, where you meet in person, can range from two hours to several days. But digital events cannot be as long, so we had to condense the agenda and think twice about the timing.

For the discussions to be active and challenging, a workshop neither can be too long nor too short. We had countless e-mails and pre-meetings between the senior researchers, to figure out and agree on how to make the best use of time for the participating young researchers and for us. In the end, we agreed on a three half-day digital workshop with eight 40 minutes sessions.

Our experience from participation in other digital events made us very aware that technology can and will be a hazard. So, to make the workshop run smoothly we had pre-workshop testing, which meant that we had four check-in sessions with all young researchers a week before the workshop. However, even with this diligence, it was impossible to entirely overcome the local realities of power cuts, unstable internet connections and different time zones.

Attending a digital workshop implies focusing on your computer screen and sound and usually involves a lot of seating. So introducing breaks and leg stretches is very important. Of course, you still have the opportunity to present and discuss your work and meet new collaborators, but going digital reduces the possibility for spontaneous small talk conversations during breaks and you can’t really bump into someone in the corridor.

We tried to re-enact this in a digital space. The participants were divided in smaller groups of five for easier interactions. And it was rewarding to see that both senior researchers and the participants stayed online during breaks to get to know each other (and each other works) better. We also created a LinkedIn group so people can keep in touch and continue the conversations after the workshop.

The pandemic brought about a lot of disruptions, but it also pushed us to learn a new way of working, opening the doors for wider research collaboration and inclusion, where visas, flights and hotel charges are no longer an issue.

Written by Therese Strimell Flodqvist, Communications Coordinator SIANI-SLU Global. Therese holds a Master’s Degree in agronomy with a focus on rural development and MSc rural development and natural resource management from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).