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COVID-19 and facilitated engagement online

Laptop image by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

In a blog written for this series, Dr Fidele Mutwarasibo, Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership (CVSL) at The Open University reflects on how the COVID-19 pandemic has created new opportunities for online, virtual facilitation. Fidele uses the example of local learning clubs to demonstrate the positive outcomes of moving facilitation to online, including the opportunity to expand participant reach, beyond Milton Keynes, into Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2018, The Open University’s Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership launched its pilot local learning club in partnership with MK Community Foundation and Community Action MK. The idea behind the local learning club in Milton Keynes was to complement CVSL learners’ experience of individual online learning with peer learning, facilitated through structured sessions, bringing together other learners. A few years ago, CVSL produced two courses on leadership in the voluntary sector. They were updated, and new versions launched earlier this year. These courses are Developing Leadership Practice in Voluntary Organisations and Collaborative Leadership in Voluntary Organisations. The learning club model proved successful. As a result, CVSL was invited by Dr Peta Wilkinson, Chief Executive of Willen Hospice to facilitate a learning club for senior management there. In addition to Willen Hospice, in 2019, CVSL ran a leadership development learning club at The Children’s Society. Testimonies by Peta, Ian Revell (MK Community Foundation), Dr Catherine Oakley (The Rowntree Society) and Louise Ennis (Community First Yorkshire), captured the value of CVSL courses and the local learning clubs. CVSL continued to successfully extend its local learning clubs thanks to a new partnership with Community First Yorkshire which launched in January, running until the beginning of March 2020. Until then all seemed well. Participants were meeting weekly and facilitating sessions themselves. CVSL was also working on launching another local learning club in Leicestershire and discussing the potential of running local and/or virtual learning clubs with UK Community Foundations to cater for leadership development needs across their network of community foundations.

By mid-March 2020, the pandemic’s developments raised alarm. CVSL and UK Community Foundations had planned an event for representatives of the community foundation’s network to explore the courses and resources developed by CVSL. The event aimed to encourage registration for local or virtual learning clubs. As the date of the event got closer, there were signals that the meeting might have to be in the virtual space. It turned out to be the case.

Following the lockdown, like for many of us, the priorities of UK Community Foundations were forced to change. They had to respond to emerging needs. It is understandable that after the lockdown, leadership development in a conventional sense had to be temporarily relegated as a priority. This development, among other things, prompted CVSL to go back to the drawing board. The first step was to launch a call for applications for a virtual learning club. In North Yorkshire, the learning club session could not happen in a physical space. Following consultations with CVSL, the learning club sessions continued but this time virtually. This move has proved to be a significant success and the group has not looked back since. They are even exploring sustaining the learning club beyond the current CVSL’s Collaborative Leadership course.

CVSL received applications for the virtual learning club from across the UK, Italy and France. After initial training on the use of Microsoft Teams  and a couple of test sessions with members of the team, the virtual learning club launch took place in May 2020, and it is going smoothly. Although the virtual learning club expanded the CVSL’s horizons, it did not take CVSL's offer beyond Europe. This changed when CVSL received an inquiry from Vereinte Evangelische Mission - United Evangelical Mission (VEM). After following up discussions with VEM, CVSL went global with the VEM Africa leadership development learning club. The group includes participants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, Rwanda and Tanzania.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the lockdown that introduced social distancing and avoiding meeting with people outside your household. These developments made the traditional approach to the learning club, as outlined earlier, redundant. But going virtual has allowed us to share research and resources with a wider, global audience. While this is a positive development, there are new challenges we now face and continue to review, including catering for cultural differences and the adaptability of resources developed for an entirely different audience.

Going global has also brought richness to discussions in the learning club session. Cultural differences aside, one of the most recent developments is exploring leaders’ unconscious bias. There is no doubt that the globalisation of the Black Lives Matter social movement has encouraged much-needed reflection on unconscious bias in leadership. This is helping to move debates beyond the reflective practices embedded in the CVSL courses into practical action. It expands on the reflexivity that leaders are encouraged to consider and explore on an ongoing basis in their leadership practices. As CVSL continues to expand its reach, there is no doubt that new insights will emerge that will further enrich CVSL’s work and that of its partners.