Online education enables research aid project to continue through worst of COVID-19

Online Education

For years now, there has been continued growth in the online education space. Online learning provides flexibility to enable those who may otherwise be unable to learn, gain knowledge and develop personal and professional skills. Digital learning provides time and reduces physical restrictions but at the beginning of 2020, no one could foresee just how much influence digital learning and online engagement would come to have. When COVID-19 took hold and nations grappled with restrictions, border closures and international travel constraints, online engagement and learning became a ‘safe’ and effective option for interacting and educating.

While school and university students have been the obvious focal point when discussing online learning, there is also another segment that has improved its use of digital education. Early in 2020, research institutes and research programs around the world faced immediate rejection of funding requests for flights and accommodation for planned research-related travel. By introducing the use of digital education, research teams have been able to continue their research, as well as capacity and capability building processes.

One such team was the Griffith Agribusiness team, already almost halfway through a research development project benefitting Vietnam. Funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the Improving smallholder farmer incomes through strategic market development in mango supply chains in southern Vietnam project is three years in length and, as the title suggests, aims to improve incomes in Vietnam by helping farmers to produce better mango crops and trade through more efficient supply chains.

Various activities for the project involve Australian researchers visiting southern Vietnam to conduct research and to inform and teach in-county partners. With international travel cancelled for the foreseeable future, the Agribusiness team needed to consider alternatives to face-to-face research and capacity building activities. Working with the Professional Learning Hub, the project team developed a series of online micro-credential courses to deliver the preparatory training. The courses include orchard nutrition, impact evaluation, fundamentals of value chain research and socialising research outcomes.

The micro-credential courses are directly aligned to the project activities. The capacity building training, which would have been conducted in-field, has been divided into reasonable learning modules delivered on a weekly basis. After each weekly session, the Vietnamese researchers complete a small activity, designed to consolidate learning and contribute to the overall research activity planning. The final assessment forms part of the research required to prepare for the in-field activities scheduled for the following year.

Australia and Vietnam have enjoyed friendly and positive liaisons since the first diplomatic relations were established in 1973. The international relationship has been based on mutual interests in maintaining peace and stability in the region, and trade and educational investment, but has also had an underlying element of respect as Australia is recognised as an aid donor for its South East Asian neighbour.

In 2018, the prime ministers of Australia and Vietnam signed a joint statement to establish a strategic partnership. Under the Strategic Partnership, three main objectives were identified as part of an ongoing development cooperation:

  1. Enabling and engaging the private sector for development
  2. Assisting the development and employment of a highly skilled workforce
  3. Promoting women’s economic empowerment

This project is just one example of the ways in which aid funding presents opportunities to promote and cement Australia-Vietnam intercultural, developmental and economic ties; the project clearly aligns with these objectives.

Use of digital engagement and online learning has been a key mechanism for the researchers and collaborators in this project to maintain momentum. Although the final project outcomes won’t be known for some time, it’s expected that by completing the digital courses team members will be able to progress the design, research instrument development, and analysis and reporting of research outcomes. The expectation is that project members will be suitably prepared to undertake in-field research and analysis as soon as restrictions are lifted.

Allowing team leaders to interact with in-country project researchers, provide new knowledge and develop their research skills from an online platform ensures the project outcomes can still be attained, even if there is a delay in execution.

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