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Driving knowledge and supporting researchers through online courses

By Dr Funmilayo Doherty | July 4, 2017  | Researcher Experience

Dr Funmilayo Doherty is an environmental toxicologist and a lecturer at the Environmental Biology Unit at Yaba College of Technology in Nigeria. We asked her about her experiences of organizing and running successful online courses, and why this is something she is so passionate about.

- Interview by Katie Lewis

How did you become interested in online courses?

My interest in online courses developed after I won an AuthorAID grant to organize an online course on grant proposal writing – the first ever one at my institution. It was aimed at researchers, academics and professionals. Since then, I have been invited back as a guest facilitator on AuthorAID MOOCs. I saw the flexibility in online courses – the fact that people can participate anytime and anywhere seemed to me to be a big advantage over the face-to-face approach.

What did you do?

With the support of INASP’s AuthorAID programme, we organized a five-week, international, online course in grant proposal writing at my institution, Yaba College of Technology (YCT) from 1 February – 6 March 2016. This was the first time an online course had been run in the College so it garnered considerable publicity. INASP provided the materials for the course, as well as a financial grant, while YCT’s UNEVOC Center facilitated the course.

The course was hosted on the Center’s Moodle learning management system. The UNEVOC Center had a Moodle installation on its website that had been used for some local cohorts, but our course was the first time the platform had been used for an international course. After we received the grant, INASP personnel conducted a three-week training course on how to administer the online course, which was very helpful.

Who did you work with to run the online course?

I worked with a very strong IT team at YCT – Ayo Salau, John Okewole and Clement Olarewaju. We worked well as a team, and everyone was hard working, committed and passionate about running the online course and supporting the participants. INASP’s Ravi Murugesan was also part of the team and he was very supportive.

Who participated in this online course and why was it so successful?

Some 200 people from over 30 countries across six continents expressed interest in the course via a registration form, with the highest number of requests coming from Nigeria, including YCT staff and participants from other institutions. A total of 71 participants from 12 countries enrolled on the course (53 from Nigeria and the other 18 from 11 different countries).

Out of the 71 participants enrolled on the course, 46 fulfilled the requirements and were awarded certificates. The completion rate was impressive and the learners gave positive feedback. The success of the course was due to: flexibility in the way it was structured; the fact that course content was delivered in simple language appropriate for the participants’ language levels; and keeping in touch with the learners throughout the course by answering questions promptly in the discussion group.

How did the course benefit the participants?

The course gave participants networking opportunities and allowed them to gain knowledge about grant proposal writing. Also, holding the course provided a foundation for establishing a blended method of teaching at YCT, as well as developing staff capacity in running online courses for the future.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in running this course and how did you overcome them?

The main challenges included electricity problems, extensive work commitments and unreliable Internet connectivity. Despite these challenges, we remained motivated due to the flexibility of the course, the relevance of the course content and the lively interactions on the discussion forum. It was great to see the interest, passion and commitment of the participants.

Did any other opportunities come up as a result of running this course?

We presented a poster about the course at the Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF8), organized by the Commonwealth on Learning, in Malaysia in November 2016. YCT is a partner of the Commonwealth of Learning, and we felt that this forum was a great opportunity to showcase the success of our online course and inspire individuals from institutions in other developing countries.

From November-December 2016, you ran the grant proposal writing course again – this time without financial support from INASP. What motivated you to do this, and how did you manage to find the resources to run such a large course?

We were motivated because of the strong demand for another course from prospective participants. I used my personal Internet modems for connectivity, INASP’s Ravi Murugesan provided us with technical support, and Dr Adeleye Okewole and Idowu Aneyo, both lecturers at YCT, also acted as facilitators on the course.

Why did you set up a WhatsApp group for the course participants after the course finished? How has it helped them?

Before the end of the course, some participants expressed interest in having a WhatsApp group where we could continue discussions, networking and mentoring. We posted the idea on the discussion group forum, and many participants sent us their number. We set the rules, which everyone follows, and the group has really helped the participants in terms of networking and knowledge sharing. We even had a WhatsApp class on ‘time management’. We also held a session on predatory journals using Google hangouts – and we shared the resources with our group members using Google drive.

Why do you think it is so important to run online courses? What is the demand like from your perspective?

The demand is high – we often discuss this on the WhatsApp group, in fact! Many researchers in developing countries are not aware of key issues like plagiarism, predatory journals and conferences, or basic research ethics, etc. The AuthorAID course has been able to fill that gap, but there are still many, many researchers that need to be reached. Very few have access to this vital information in developing countries, and online courses can help enormously with meeting this demand.

Why do you think online training, in particular, is so important for your community/network? Do you have plans to run more courses in future?

Online courses are flexible, and can be done at one’s own pace and convenience. Academic staff are busy, but they can always do online courses outside of office hours. I am currently planning to develop another online course in my own field of academic expertise.■

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More about Dr Funmilayo Doherty

Funmilayo Doherty has an MSc and PhD in Environmental Toxicology and Pollution Management from the University of Lagos in Nigeria. For the past 10 years, she has lectured and mentored students at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, and she is the President of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Pollution Mitigation (SETPOM). She has over 35 publications in reputable journals, she has co-authored a book and she writes a blog at www.drfunmilayodoherty.blogspot.co.uk

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