Virtual Capacity Building: 5 Lessons From COVID-19
From a virtual training for city leaders as part of the Vision Zero Challenge. Photo by WRI

This is part three in a series on capacity development for city leaders.

The first two posts in this series discussed how effective capacity development should be rooted in the immediate needs and mandates of all stakeholders, and how collective action must be fostered not only among individuals but among teams and institutions. The ways in which we interact with one another, though, have changed dramatically during COVID-19. The pandemic catalyzed a paradigm shift from in-person to virtual engagement, and while there has been great difficulty and tragedy associated with the pandemic, this paradigm shift has motivated WRI to rethink how we can utilize virtual engagement tools and practices to optimize learning.

During the past year, WRI has evolved its practices to support better virtual learning and engagement experiences, not only for the duration of the pandemic, but as a core part of our capacity development engagement model for the future. We have found, so far, that virtual platforms expand access to capacity development activities, including to new and more diverse audiences. There remain, however, many challenges to online training. It is difficult to replicate the dynamic engagement of in-person activities in a virtual setting, and screen fatigue can become detrimental to learning.

These challenges may be new to many of us, but they are not insurmountable. In our experience to date, we have identified five guiding principles that make virtual capacity building relevant, engaging, precise and accessible.

1. Blended Learning Options

Like in-person audiences, each audience for a virtual capacity development engagement has different needs, expectations and availability. Creating synchronous and asynchronous learning modules helps to customize the learning experience of trainings and offers flexibility to participants, who can choose to attend at the scheduled time or when it’s most convenient for them. A recent Global Road Safety Facility virtual workshop series on road safety considerations for transit-oriented development (TOD) projects, conducted by WRI India in association with the World Bank, offered such blended learning opportunities. The workshop series saw 500+ professionals join from around the world, and we were able to offer a consolidated program by utilizing such a blended approach.

One element to consider in this virtual context is how to responsibly and effectively provide supplementary learning materials, and access to relevant data, to participants. For in-person trainings, we typically provide printed materials or other resources for use during activities, which we collect at the end to ensure we don’t violate protections regarding proprietary material. This is inherently more challenging in a virtual setting, yet such supplemental resources are essential to the learning experience. Blended virtual learnings, then, require an open data approach for enabling content sharing with the audience, as well as for allowing republishing or usage of data or materials without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.

2. Flexible and Contextual Content

Like in-person activities, we need to make sure we can adapt our training content to the particular needs of our various audiences. When we interact with decision-makers and elected officials, the engagement focuses more on big picture strategy or goal setting. When we work with middle-level management, it is more about how to translate a particular policy or big picture strategy into a project.

As such, while virtual learning enables us to reach more people at once, it does not obviate the need to curate content for our audience and learning objectives. For example, during a virtual training on financing and implementing road safety in TOD, the case study example of the Haryana Vision Zero road safety funding model methodology was discussed in light of its possible applicability for road safety projects in TOD areas.

3. Focus on “How To”

It’s imperative that the content of a virtual capacity development engagement offers actionable information that enables the audience to understand the methodology for putting theory to practice while explaining the possibilities of contextualizing for various settings. Unlike in-person trainings, virtual sessions lack site visits that help exemplify good practices and problem areas. One way we’ve found to replicate the site visit experience is to include case studies that showcase the journey of theory to practice. Case studies not only provide real-world contextualization of concepts, they also serve as good facilitation devices for small-group discussions in which participants can apply theories to practical scenarios.

For example, we have drawn on WRI Ross Center’s history of working with various cities and stakeholders on the policy-planning-design-implementation continuum to offer content that provides detailed “how to” guides. For example, the Safe Access to Mass Transit toolkit has been used to build capacities of stakeholders regarding processes involved to ideate and co-create last-mile connectivity with community and city representatives through a virtual role-playing activity. Similarly, virtual trainings and e-courses on subjects like TOD at Corridor Scale that are based on action-oriented research have helped in comprehensive capacity building of key decision-makers. And virtual dissemination of content through knowledge products like electric mobility roadmaps for smart cities or greening Indian cities through efficient buildings are helping stakeholders to understand the methodology for adopting and scaling urban transformations.

4. Interactive Learning

Our experience over the years has taught us that knowledge is most effectively transferred when participants are able to practically deploy concepts rather than be lectured at. While we are more familiar, and admittedly more comfortable, facilitating interactive sessions in person, we are continually developing and refining ways of conducting interactive sessions in a virtual setting.

To facilitate virtual experiential learning, training should give opportunities not just for listening and reading, but also for hands-on application. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to invite audience participation. Through quizzes or surveys, you can engage the audience to brainstorm, share their point of view, or understand the process of an activity. Other mechanisms include facilitating discussion among a targeted group of stakeholders that you know will bring diverse experiences to the table, moderating an open discussion with stipulated time for brainstorming, and designing breakout group sessions using materials like the Safe Access to Mass Transit (SAM) toolkit and the Urban Community Resilience Assessment (UCRA) as discussion guides.

The SAM toolkit offers strategies to create safer conditions for pedestrians and cyclists in station areas, while the URCA is an evaluation framework and bottom-up process that amplifies vulnerable communities’ voices in adaptation decision-making to advance effective, equitable and resilient urban development. Since SAM and UCRA are both discussion-based resources, they are easily adaptable to virtual engagements, particularly if they are combined with one or more of the tactics noted in the prior paragraph.

5. Adapting to Changing Demands and Fostering Collaboration

To adapt to changing dynamics during these uncertain times, several of WRI’s offices have become more embedded in stakeholder organizations, especially government or public offices, to understand their mandates, leverage our local and global knowledge to offer contextual solutions, and offer key insights for strategic interventions.

During COVID, we have worked with stakeholders to guide them in deploying limited responses by formulating standard operating procedure documents, such as COVID-19 Safety Measures for Public Bus Operations in India and guidance on safe public transport and public spaces in times of a pandemic and beyond. This type of direct, deep engagement has helped urban stakeholders respond to rapidly changing conditions, and it’s also helping to build long-term capacity within city institutions.

As we’ve responded to the limitations of the pandemic – in particular the inability to conduct in-person activities – we’ve recognized that designing trainings for virtual delivery is in many ways a more detailed process than creating a tutorial that will be delivered in person. In person, facilitators can observe how participants are responding to the information and activities, and then adjust from moment to moment. In a virtual environment, facilitators must assume that there will be a lack of understanding and include extensions and remediations in the engagement design without having those complications distract participants from the main objectives and outcomes of the engagement.

We don’t see this as a drawback to virtual engagement, though – to the contrary, this experience has led us to be more thorough and considerate in our preparations, and more attentive in our facilitation. Indeed, the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic will help us to design and deliver better capacity development offers moving forward, both virtually and in person.

Prerna Mehta is Associate Director of Urban Development at WRI India.

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