The Dgroups Foundation hosted our first Online Peer Exchange session on 15 November 2012, in order to strengthen peer-to-peer learning among Dgroups Partners, moderators, and users, earlier. The meeting, organized in the context of the 2012 Dgroups Annual Meeting, brought together some twenty people to learn from two organizations how they have put Dgroups to work. Sean Furey explained us how the Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) has been using Dgroups as a membership database and to facilitate time bound discussions. Myra Wopereis gave an overview of the from FARA network on Dgroups and how the platform is used to communicate easily with its different stakeholders.
A lively conversation followed the presentations, with participants exchanging experience on how to manage conversations across multiple languages, how to foster user participation, and how to develop and teach facilitation and moderation skills.
Networking, collaborating and communicating with Dgroups
The RWSN had joined Dgroups just over one year ago, and the presentation from Sean Furey brought an interesting perspective on how his organization has used Dgroups and where it fits in their digital ecosystem.
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RSWN is a network of over 2400 members across more than 94 countries. Members are all professionals and practitioners working on the different aspects of rural water supply such as sustainable groundwater development or equity and inclusion.
In 2011, the Secretariat of the organization turned to Dgroups as it seemed ideal to fulfil different tasks such as managing members with an easy to use membership database, sending out a monthly newsletter to the network and fostering interactions and peer exchanges amongst members.
In practice, Dgroups is used as central members database where users can opt in and register. Other social media tools such as LinkedIn and Facebook are used for promotion and to raise the online profile of the network. Social media channels attract interested users back to the RWSN website and encourage them to register on Dgroups.
Once registered, RWSN members participate in thematic, structured email discussions; outputs from these discussions have often fed into related work on the international agenda. Members also engage in ad hoc discussions and, increasingly they provide support to each other with technical queries.
In the 12 months it has been using Dgroups, RWSN has experienced clear benefits in terms of networking amongst its members. Further, Dgroups has made collaboration and communications much more effective. The main challenges ahead now are to engage more practitioners in the network, and how to be more inclusive and have more multilingual discussions.
Engaging stakeholders in agricultural research in Africa
Myra Wopereis looked at the issue of managing conversations in different languages in her presentation on how FARA uses Dgroups.
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The organization uses Dgroup to connect to its wide network of diverse stakeholders working in agricultural research in Africa. These actors meet face to face every three years during the African Science Week. Dgroups allows for easy communication and information sharing, to keep stakeholder connected and engaged in dialogue. A total of over 2500 members from 102 countries are currently part of the FARA network on Dgroups.
About 50 sub-communities have also been created over time. Some of these have been created as part of thematic projects such as PAEPARD, RAILS and AfricaAdapt and they see a steady increase in terms of membership and interactions.
FARA finds that Dgroups is especially beneficial in terms of broadening the participation of different actors in the agricultural research dialogue, with non-research stakeholders joining in the conversations.
Besides managing multilingual conversations, one of the main challenges FARA faces is to balance the trade off between having moderation and participation in the different Dgroups communities. On the one hand, having a moderated community ensures that the quality of the conversation is maintained and members are not receiving too many messages. On the other hand, moderation can inhibit participation from some group members.
In the Q&A and discussion that followed, participants exchanged interesting observations and shared their own experience in working with Dgroups:
- As RWSN example demonstrates, it is important to establish the specific role and benefit Dgroups has in the broader digital ecosystem of the organization. Likewise, it is important that all the different tools work together and reinforce each other.
- A key asset of Dgroups is the fact that it operates well in a low bandwidth environment. For development organizations, this is critical. Even if social media tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn are increasingly popular in developing countries, email based online groups are much more accessible to those with low bandwidth.
- Maintaining a good level of conversation is hard to achieve, especially in diverse online groups where members have different level of skills and experience in online discussions.
- More should be done to improve the knowledge that users have of Dgroups – both as email and online tool – so that their contributions can be of good quality. In turn, this will ensure that more members feel the benefit of participating in online groups.
- Online conversation doesn’t just happen that easily. But structured discussions that are time bound, short and specific, work well in Dgroups. In general members’ participation in these types of discussion is higher than in open discussions.
- When you have global groups, language is sometimes a barrier and exclude many from participating in online discussions. Organizations have been responding in different ways to this challenge. Some rely on volunteers to translate key messages in languages other than English. Other organizations have encouraged users to post in their own language and use tools such as Google Translate to translate messages from a foreign languages. Others instead have created language specific sub-communities that have different conversations from the global list.
- When it comes to group animation, the role of the group facilitators and moderators is critical in many aspects. However, the skills required to perform these roles are not always present. While different organizations use different approaches to find and train group moderators, the iMark module developed by FAO and other provides excellent self learning material to build skills in online facilitation. However, it takes long to go through the whole module before being able to apply the new knowledge or passing it on to others. Maybe Dgroups could look into working with the iMark partnership and develop specific materials to facilitate Dgroups.
As this session illustrated, Dgroups is used in many different ways and we have a lot to learn from one another to support knowledge exchange, communications and facilitation. This series of online Peer Exchange sessions will continue in 2013 to broaden up the discussions and hear from other Partners how they have used Dgroups in their own organizations.