“Change is not always bad. Change can be good.” By Dries van Noten
Currently, here in South Africa, the seasons are changing. Autumn slowly bids us goodbye as winter says hello. During this transition, we can anticipate shorter days, colder weather, and changing leaves. In our lives, transition is about a process of changing from one ‘season’ to another.
The human species has often been faced with necessary transition when the status quo changes. Such a transition can be introduced at a personal level by a new job or a new house. At a more systemic level, we have seen humans tested with change as a result of natural disasters such as famines, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, or manmade ones such as wars and civic uprisings. Sometimes such changes are new and exciting, providing learning opportunities. At other times, we find ourselves completely out of our comfort zones, with much uncertainty and never-ending questions.
The global COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be a time of transition, and for the evidence-informed decision-making (EIDM) community, that transition is positive because like never before, research evidence is being used by decision-makers in making choices about how to navigate COVID-19. Just as I am now personally realising how crucial it is to learn how to cope with change, make adjustments, and learn, so too has the global COVID-19 pandemic sharpened the appetite for evidence and its critique in decision-making. The debates and controversies by default have enhanced the public’s skills in demanding, interrogating, (and dismissing) information, research, and evidence relating to this pandemic.
Enhancing digital capabilities
COVID-19 has had a massive impact on all sectors of society, and education is no exception. Teachers and students alike have had to adapt to online education and develop the skills that online learning and teaching require. Within the EIDM community, organisations such as the Education Endowment Fund are supporting the efforts of learners, parents, and schools in shaping their teaching and learning environments around guidance informed by evidence. Corporations and employees have had to convene meetings through various digital platforms and find ways to stay connected to each other. The COVID-19 crisis has also freed up time because of the overall slowdown in activities, hence the need to make good use of that time. For instance, an organisation can develop its employees’ capacities through online courses on different topics related to their work. Creativity as a result of limited internet access has resulted in new ways of working. Many organisations - including the Africa Evidence Network - have changed the way they plan to conduct conferences for example, with large gatherings such as Evidence 2020, going virtual.
Some of the specific skills and attitudes that have benefitted from working and learning online include improved computer literacy, public speaking skills, effective online communication skills, increased confidence, readiness to tolerate technical problems, effective time management skills, interpersonal skills, good collaboration skills, and improved reading and writing skills. The work and learning transition (whether temporary or longer-term) has enabled many individuals to access different tools and resources to enhance their digital capabilities. The above list, of course, does not discount or downplay factors which may inhibit individuals from acquiring any new skills, such as multi-tasking, competing responsibilities, dealing with stress, digital fluencies and literacies.
Democratisation of learning content
The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen an unprecedented surge of open-access learning material to enhance a wide variety of capacities necessary to engage in EIDM during this time. In order to support people learning new and different things from the comfort of their homes in the event they have the time, several institutions have created open-access free online courses and events (such as webinars). The course providers include Coursera, World Health Organisation, Audible, Balance Small Business, Harvard University, Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, Education World, Common Sense Education, Techradar, Jisc and others.
There are some online tools that have been made free during the COVID-19 crisis, such as online learning tools, the COVID-19 self-assessment tool, the COVID-19 surge planning tool, the COVID-19 online healthcare platform, and the South African Resource Portal, amongst others. Whilst some of these virtual events and digital courses have been available long before the COVID-19 pandemic, for those with some more spare time during lockdown (and with internet access), they provide opportunities for learning.
The International Network for Advancing Science and Policy (INASP) hosted a webinar which focused on effective online approaches to research capacity development. INASP decided to share some of its important lessons to assist research and knowledge organisations across the globe as they contemplate on transforming their usual face-to-face activities to a virtual setting since the world is now looking into online alternatives due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Curation of knowledge and learning
There’s vast evidence of how much people are prepared to share resources online. The Africa Evidence Network has created a page to share, showcase, and celebrate evidence-use during the COVID-19 crisis. The Global Evidence Synthesis Initiative has a series of ongoing webinars on issues related to the pandemic. There are a number of webinars on COVID-19 that were hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the South African Monitoring and Evaluation. The Centre of Excellence for Development Impact and Learning also recently hosted a lecture on evidence-use in policy and practice, drawing lessons from Africa. The Africa Centre for Evidence is also working with a number of organisations to create a hub of hubs. The COVID-19 Evidence Network supports the use of synthesised and quality evidence in decision-making.
Celebration of cultural and geographic wonders
COVID-19 has not only resulted in an increased appetite from the EIDM community for evidence and the skills to use it in decision-making. The crisis has also resulted in the opening up of different country's cultural and geographic riches. A number of museums are offering free virtual tours and webcams during the lockdown. The opportunity to see renowned opera singers such as Andrea Bocelli perform for the world, to witness performances such as Cirque du Soleil that don’t make it to Africa, and to watch magnificent elephants in Kruger National Park from the comfort of one’s home is truly amazing. There is also an educational benefit for children considering that David Attenborough is now offering virtual geography courses to kids.
We find ourselves living through a period of transition due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. This transition has caused many of us to feel vulnerable, uncertain, uncomfortable, frustrated, and scared. Though COVID-19 is stressful, there are opportunities to learn and to be innovative in how we respond to the need for evidence and the capacities to draw on it. During this period, there is vast evidence of enhancement of people’s personal capacities to operate virtually as well as healthy signs from the EIDM ecosystem that the world is ready to enhance its capacity to use research evidence to inform decisions.
About the author
Charity Chisoro is a programme officer, responsible for leading the capacities workstream under the communities portfolio for the Africa Evidence Network. She is also a communications administrator at the Africa Centre for Evidence.
The author(s) is solely responsible for the content of this article, including all errors or omissions; acknowledgements do not imply endorsement of the content. The author is grateful to Nasreen Jessani for guidance in the preparation and finalisation of this article, as well as Linda Etale, Siziwe Ngcwabe, Dr Carina van Rooyen and Dr Laurenz Langer for their feedback on a previous version of this article. The author would also like to thank Natalie Tannous for her editorial support.