Dan Bunter, Luz Azlor del valle

The first half of 2020 has brought about massive changes to all areas of our lives – both personally and professionally. Businesses across all sectors have had to adapt to the restrictions put in place by Governments to reduce the spread of Covid-19. 

At EDI Global, and all other organisations in our sector, the challenge has been to identify strategies for continuing operations whilst ensuring the health and safety of our employees, partners and respondents and protecting the quality and integrity of the data we collect.  In March 2020, all of our team members transitioned to working from home and all of our field-based in-person data collection activities were suspended.  Following this decision we have worked together with our partners to identify which of our planned studies could be transitioned from in-person surveys to ‘remote’ alternatives, such as phone, SMS and web-based surveys.  Remote data collection does not lend itself to all studies leading to some surveys having to be postponed until it is safe and practical to return to the field.

Two postponed field projects – one quantitative survey and one qualitative survey – have now been switched to phone based data collection modes and have been successfully completed. EDI Global has a long track record in conducting remote data collection, particularly phone surveys, leaving us well placed for this shift in operations, however, we had to revisit all of our protocols and adapt them to the ‘Covid-19’ world. 

Our existing phone survey model assumed our teams would be conducted from our data collection hub in Bukoba, Tanzania with centralised training and teams working at the same site. With all team members working from their homes across Tanzania and the UK, our systems and protocols needed to be updated – starting with our enumerator training programme.

In switching to an online enumerator training format,  EDI Global has had to adapt to participants being in multiple time zones, unstable internet connections, video-conferencing software and project teams working from home with no in-person interactions at all. As we planned and implemented these online training events we have learned many valuable lessons and strategies. 

The lessons that we have learnt have been summarised in the tips below which we believe will assist any organisation wanting to deliver effective online enumerator training.

Tips for Conducting an Effective Online Enumerator Training

1) Smaller groups are easier to keep engaged – where possible, reducing the number of enumerators involved in a remote data collection project is essential to minimising logistical and accessibility issues (e.g. monitoring the internet/video conferencing access of a large number of people can be challenging). This will likely have budget implications or reduce the scope of a project, but it is essential to ensure effective enumerator training. For large-scale projects conducted remotely, consider conducting training sessions with smaller groups to keep sessions more personal and facilitate the participation of all enumerators. This is possible by either repeating the sessions at different times or having more trainers conducting the sessions simultaneously.

2) Restrict the length and quantity of sessions – video conferencing can be tiring. The delivery of training content such as questionnaires or protocol reviews should last no longer than one hour and ideally, there should be no more than two sessions per day, giving sufficient time for enumerators to have independent learning and practice. The training materials should be self-explanatory and be shared with the participants in advance, which will facilitate independent work and allow for shorter training sessions. During the sessions, the facilitator should ask direct questions to random enumerators to ensure they are kept engaged. 

3) Respect time zones – there will always be a compromise when conducting online training across different time zones. Be transparent and suggest workable times with all stakeholders to ensure sessions can be delivered at productive times of the day. Starting later in the morning and allowing for a longer break at noon has proved effective. If one or more of the facilitators are in timezones not compatible with the training schedule, facilitators can video record the session in advance and then allow for remote play-back to the enumerators. Overall, the training timetable should be agreed and shared prior to the training so that all participants can plan ahead.

4) Use a compatible video conferencing software – when selecting the most suitable video conferencing software (e.g. Skype, Webex, Zoom, Google Meet), accessibility and efficiency is key. Ideally, you should choose a software that trainers and enumerators are familiar with, or if not, choose one that is straightforward to set up. 

5) Audio calls also work well – if the participants are having issues connecting their video or have an unstable network connection, encourage them to join with audio only. They can still access any shared materials and easily contribute to the sessions. While video is great for group introductions, it is not absolutely necessary when session content is being delivered.

6) Screen Sharing and Text Window Functionality – the video software must have a screen sharing facility as this enables interactive online learning. This is also useful when conducting mock interviews for the trainers to confirm that the data is entered correctly in the data collection device. Text window functionality allows participants to have discussions, ask questions and share files during a session, increasing interactivity.

7) At the beginning, be patient – the beginning of a session may be delayed due to participants having connectivity issues. Take a few minutes at the start to give participants every opportunity to sort out these issues. For those struggling to get connected, a good tip is for participants to use a separate mobile device to generate an internet hotspot as connection is often lost when a mobile receives a call or a text. If they are unable to join through the internet, most video conferencing providers enable access via phone networks so this option should be tried by the session organiser. If connection issues persist, consider restarting the call.

8) Find a quiet space – all participants should find a space in their homes or elsewhere where they can attend the training and conduct the surveys. Given that schools have been closed in many countries and working from home was not a common practice, finding a suitable place of work within the house may be a challenge, and assisting participants in finding such space, which may require funding, will benefit their participation and performance through the training and data collection.

9) Record training sessions (with relevant permissions) – one advantage of conducting training sessions online is that they can be recorded. Provided all session providers give permission, training sessions conducted online should be recorded – allowing participants to review training sessions at a later date while also enabling access to those unable to attend the live session. This is a tool that is not normally accessible in face-to-face training so it should be taken advantage of! 

10) Have designated Q&A sections – to ensure efficient session delivery, those leading the session should allocate specific times for Q&A. This focuses the Q&A and avoids disruption of the training content which can take much longer if participants are encouraged to ask questions throughout.  

11) Avoid background noise – encourage all participants to be on mute when they are not talking to reduce disturbance. Alternatively, the training organizer can mute all participants and give them the option to un-mute themselves when necessary. Besides, instruct trainees to connect only one device to the call. Having more than one device connected to a conference call causes echo when the participant unmutes.

12) Create an effective daily routine – remind enumerators to fully charge their devices and check their internet bundle balance on a regular basis, prior to each session. This prevents participants from dropping out during the session due to running out of internet balance and should also help avoid disruptions due to power cuts. 

13) Have a practice session – before starting the first session, it is helpful to have a short call with all the participants a day or so before to test the technology and the online training format. Participants should use this session to decide which device works best and whether a headset with a microphone is necessary. Participants should also take notice of the internet networks available and decide the most reliable connection although this can often vary from day to day. 

Successfully adapting our classroom based enumerator training programme to an online environment has been a challenging but satisfying experience for the whole EDI Global team.  By questioning our preconceptions of how a normal training should happen, harnessing technology and working together as a team we have in place a new robust approach to online training.

We have now completed two phone-based data collection projects with all team members working from home and utilising our new online training programme and have been able to maintain the same high data quality standards that our clients expect.

We hope that these tips will help other researchers as they transition to online enumerator training. Our experiences summarised in the “13 Tips for Conducting an Effective Online Enumerator Training” are not unique to EDI Global and we are sure that many of you will have been through a similar learning process.  

We would love to hear from you about your experiences, so if you have any other tips please join the discussion on Twitter.

Dan Bunter & Luz Azlor del Valle
Assistant Research Officers at EDI Global