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Using popular education in an online environment: lessons learned from the Community Health Worker Common Indicators Summit

Using popular education in an online environment: lessons learned from the Community Health Worker Common Indicators Summit

By Keara Rodela
on December 7, 2020

Popular (people’s) education is a philosophy and methodology that has been used widely to balance power and voice and build trust in diverse contexts, with the broader goal of creating a more just and equitable society. Never has such an approach been so necessary. In the US, we stand at the crossroads of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprising against systemic racism and police brutality. In every educational setting and workplace, we need strategies to change how everyday interactions occur.

On May 14-15, 2020, we conducted a virtual Summit that brought together 39 people from around the U.S. We achieved concrete goals while lifting up voices that have been silenced and forging new kinds of relationships based on trust, equity, and shared commitment to justice. In this blog, we define popular education (PE), describe how we used it, and offer some pointers for others who may also wish to take popular education online in an authentic and effective way.

Popular education (PE): a tool for systemic change

Most closely associated with Latin American struggles for social justice, forms of PE have arisen in almost all human communities as a response to systematic oppression and a mechanism to bring about change. Strands of PE can be found in Indigenous ways of knowing around the world, in newspapers and clandestine schools meant to uplift and empower US Black communities from the 17th century to the present, and in many other times and places. The “popular” in “popular education” means of, by and for the people, specifically the marginalized and the dispossessed.

Basic principles of PE include the ideas that (1) knowledge gained through life experience is as important as knowledge gained through formal education, (2) marginalized people are the experts about their own experience, and (3) our educational settings should prefigure the world we are trying to create. These principles become embodied through techniques that include brainstorming, dinámicas (aka movement building activities), cooperative learning, and a range of dramatic techniques. While similar in form to adult learning, PE is a collective endeavor that aims at societal as well as individual liberation.

Historically, PE has taken place in churches, in schools, in streets, under trees – anywhere people can physically come together. Taking PE online, while initially challenging, can be done authentically, opening up a whole new realm of possibilities for co-learning and action across geographic divides.

Using PE in the CHW Common Indicators Summit

Community Health Workers (CHWs) are trusted community members who promote health in their own communities. The goal of the CHW Common Indicators Project is to contribute to the integrity, sustainability and viability of the CHW profession through the collaborative development and adoption of common indicators for evaluating CHW programs across the U.S. Since its inception, the CI Project has centered the experience of CHWs through the use of PE.

Our May 2020 Summit was the last step in a process to gain input from various stakeholders on 10 newly developed indicators. Summit goals were to present the indicators, discuss operationalization and piloting, and identify ways to encourage systems to adopt the indicators. The pandemic motivated us to approach the Summit as an opportunity to adapt our PE methods to an online environment.

Summit facilitators met multiple times in advance of the Summit to identify objectives and methods and divide up facilitation responsibilities. So that participants could come to the table with a common knowledge base, we sent background information and materials to be discussed prior to the Summit.

We used a variety of techniques to optimize participation, help participants feel valued and included, and maintain interest and motivation. Dinámicas helped build trust and re-engage participants after long breaks. Music set an uplifting tone before heavy brain work. We reviewed and revised a pre-made list of group agreements early in the Summit to create a safer space. We asked participants to use the chat box for brainstorms and the hand raise function for large group discussions. Using the chat box allowed participants who were not in a place to speak verbally to contribute to the conversation. To assure that everyone had necessary foundational knowledge, we used a brainstorm and then filled in essential content. To bring participants up to date on what had been learned from our previous work, we presented a simulated “talk show” and then reflected on major themes.

We used the breakout room function in Zoom for three cooperative learning activities, organizing each group to include a mix of CHWs and other stakeholders. This method reduced the anxiety of speaking in large groups for folks who may have felt less knowledgeable or experienced in participating in this format. To reduce on-screen fatigue and reactivate the mind through body movement, we included multiple short and long breaks. When facilitators were not speaking, we took notes to capture thoughts and conversation, monitored the online room security and technical issues, or monitored the chat box so questions and comments could be added to the conversation in real time.

Key learnings and recommendations

Based on highly positive verbal and written evaluations from our participants, we offer these key learnings and recommendations:

  • Focus on PE principles: At many times and places around the world, educators have reduced PE to a “bag of tricks,” leaving aside the important social justice principles on which the methodology is based. Simply interspersing dinámicas throughout a session does not constitute doing PE! Learn or recommit to the principles of PE, and then think about how those principles can be applied in the online environment.
  • Share the principles behind the techniques: Especially for analytically-minded participants, sharing the principles behind the PE methods can help participants feel more comfortable with methods that may be new to them.
  • Engage participants in a personal way both before and during the event: The potentially impersonal nature of the online environment means it’s important to engage participants in a personal way. Strive to establish a personal connection in advance, especially with participants who are new to the group. Nurture that personal connection by recognizing the value and uniqueness of all participants throughout the event.
  • Engage participants in the planning: Participants need to see themselves reflected in the facilitation team, just as much online as in person. Participants will also bring to the planning process an invaluable sense of what will and what won’t work.
  • Provide enough breaks: Participants and facilitators can tend to think, “Let’s just keep going so we can finish sooner.” This tendency is counterproductive in in-person settings, where retention and effectiveness decrease as people get tired. It’s especially counterproductive in online environments. Giving participants time to move away from their computer to take a break or get a glass of water will pay off in better work and relationships when they return.
  • Create a detailed lesson plan: Dealing with all the complications of the online environment and facilitating as a group requires a detailed plan of action. Though it may seem counterintuitive, having a detailed plan actually allows for greater flexibility when the need arises. It’s important that all facilitators deeply understand and feel comfortable with the lesson plan.
  • Identify and practice with technology: Provide sufficient practice to allow facilitators to get comfortable with the technology. Running through transitions and working out technological issues in advance will help all facilitators enjoy themselves. It’s also important for participants to feel comfortable with the technology. This can be achieved through special tutorials for participants who are new to the technology.
  • Learn more about how another group has adapted PE to the online environment here.

The CHW Common Indicators Summit was supported by Federal Award Number5-NU38OT000286-02, CFDA Number: 93.421, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, via the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors. The observations and recommendations in this post reflect the opinions and findings of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About the SHAPES article series

Welcome to the SHAPES article series, hosted by IHP. SHAPES is a thematic working group within Health Systems Global, which facilitates discussion, debate and collaboration around social science approaches for research and engagement in health policy & systems. In the months leading up to the 6th Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Dubai (Nov 2020) SHAPES members will be blogging about the Symposium's theme of "re-imagining health systems for better health and social justice" through a social science lens.

View entire SHAPES series

About Keara Rodela


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