This article is about the journey thus far travelled in research mentorship by a community of researchers, learners and educators under the wings of Eider Africa, through the use of the social media app called WhatsApp.
Eider Africa is an organization based in Kenya working with emerging researchers within the continent and beyond. The organization designs and implements collaboratively, offline and online research mentorship programs for and with emerging scholars in Africa (students in and out of university). Our goal is to improve their research training, provide a supportive space and promote leadership in the responsible production and use of knowledge in the continent.
We believe in peer-to-peer learning, learning research by practice, dismantling hierarchies in research and academia, caring for the whole researcher, and lifelong learning. We have grown and retained a vibrant community of emerging and seasoned researchers in our research journal clubs and work with university lecturers to develop transformative inclusive research training and mentorship. See some of our work: Eider Africa YouTube Page- Scholars Presentations Best Practices in Peer Review and Peer to Peer Research Mentorship.
WhatsApp: A Space that Enables Learning
WhatsApp was founded in January 2009. The application is versatile because it supports different forms of communication for example text messages, voice message,s and video calls. Users can also share videos, images, audio messages including files. For smartphone users in Kenya, WhatsApp is used for multiple uses including and not limited to promoting businesses by connecting sellers and buyers; networking by enhancing social connections and drawing people together in groups to fundraise, plan for burials, weddings, family events, baby showers among other activities.
There is also growing recognition of the value of WhatsApp in providing a space that aids learning and promotes peer-to-peer sharing. See some studies on the use of WhatsApp for learning. Using WhatsApp to enhance online learning; Effectivity of E-Learning through WhatsApp as a Teaching-Learning Tool; Student’s Responses Toward The use of WhatsApp in Learning; Blended Learning Using Peer Mentoring and WhatsApp for Building Capacity of Health Workers for Strengthening Immunization Services in Kenya.
Mobilizing a Community of Researchers on WhatsApp.
Eider Africa began its research mentorship activities with face-to-face meetings where scholars (Masters and Ph.D. candidates) from different universities in Kenya, would meet and discuss research concerns while sharing tea and snacks.
These informal organic meetings were important for learning, building relationships, and promoting a mindset that research discussions can be fun. For example, we once had a meeting at the Arboretum Park in Nairobi, while the rest of the meetings were held in university classrooms. As the group begun to grow bigger, from three consistent members to 15 and more, we began to discuss how to ensure the members stayed together and could continue the research conversations. That is when the idea of forming a WhatsApp Group modeled as a Journal Club was born.
The Eider Africa WhatsApp-based online journal clubs were formed in March 2018 to help students who were seeking research support and desiring to build a dynamic community that would share research resources and develop research skills with other scholars in Kenya and beyond. The Journal club community also addressed the isolation experienced by many scholars as they navigated their scholarly journey.
The clubs were multidisciplinary so as to promote rich peer-to-peer exchanges and focused on dismantling hierarchies in academia and across disciplines. The membership of our journal club spans across 15 disciplines in social sciences mostly and natural sciences. The Journal club philosophy is pegged on the acknowledgment that in as much as these scholars and researchers had research capacity needs, they also had a wealth of resources based on their particular contexts and this was important to harness and share amongst each other. That’s why journal club membership spans across 15 universities in Africa, with membership from different academic levels (lecturers, undergraduate, graduate, postgraduate, postdoc). and disciplines.
Currently there are 4 WhatsApp Journal Clubs with 815 members in total some of whom are spread across five specific discipline groups. One WhatsApp group page can host 256 members only hence the 4 groups. Four administrators run the groups. The clubs provide a rich network of a human database that ensures rich discussion and a healthy exchange of ideas. The club had tried creating a telegram group (telegram groups do not have a maximum number of members) but it was unfamiliar to the older members of our club, who also do not prefer using many apps. Thus, we had to use WhatsApp which has enabled us to connect with different members of the club.
Designing and Delivering Online Research Mentorship Activities on WhatsApp.
We have used WhatsApp to design and deliver research mentorship activities in combination with other online tools. These activities include;
Peer mentorship activities; members have volunteered to be peer mentors or session panelists. Peer mentors can participate in group mentorship or individual mentorship. Group mentorship involves a class like setting where a peer mentor gives a lecture in an area of research that he/she would like to share in. The mentor can be a member of the club or any scholar of repute. Individual mentorship involves one on one correspondence between mentor and mentee for period of six months. WhatsApp makes it possible to identify potential mentors by posting call for mentors and because one can share a Google Form link, it is possible for potential mentors to register.
The backbone of our clubs is peer learning and this covers different activities developed over time within our community. Through WhatsApp, we are able to offer peer mentors who want to present on a topic, quick feedback on their presentations. Peer mentorship involves presentation before other members of the club by one of them on any research related topic. In addition, the platform enables the sharing of webinar posters which makes it easy for members to share with their other networks. Through the constant sharing of posters, resources and information by members to other WhatsApp groups they belong to, the clubs have grown organically and increased the groups diversity.
Moreover, through WhatsApp, members have formed discipline specific thematic groups. These include Early Childhood group, ICT group, Demography group and Mental Health group among many others. Through these groups, members can share information unique to their disciplines.
The club facilitates Mock Defense Thesis Presentations as well. This involves creating a peer review platform for journal club members who would like to present their thesis presentation with other journal club members for comments and feedback. There is mutual benefit to the one receiving comment and to those giving comments. WhatsApp enables rich pre mock defense planning and post presentation deliberations.
Through WhatsApp we are able to connect members who want an accountability buddy from the club for encouragement and motivation to complete the research related tasks that they have set out to undertake. Procrastination affects many researchers. One way to address it is to have someone to motivate you and to hold one accountable.
We have what we like to call Uliza Swali. Uliza Swali is Swahili for “Ask a Question”. This an activity of where members are encouraged to ask each other questions in the group, or by sharing questions with the Programme Coordinator anonymously by Wednesday midday by Friday, a group of mentors and journal club members will answer the questions through a zoom meeting or on the WhatsApp page. Questions are usually one of the best ways to learn.
After all is said and done, one has to write and for this we have adopted the Shut Up and Write co working model. This is where journal club members dedicate 2 hours to write their various research projects. They literally Shut up (keep quiet) and Write from whenever they are. Members may be writing their thesis, a conference paper, a publication or a report. WhatsApp enables us to mobilise members on Saturdays 9 -11 am and members share feedback of their writing sessions through WhatsApp chat.
As the Eider Africa Journal club, we champion African led peer learning, we encourage members in the group to share funding opportunities, trainings, employment, reading material, research opportunities and any other relevant resources. We encourage journal club members to share their publications so that members can know what they are doing and reference them.
Navigating Challenges related to WhatsApp as a Space for Learning
In as much as WhatsApp is a valuable space, there are specific challenges related to using WhatsApp as a learning space well as challenges related to online learning in general. One is the limited number a group can hold, this means the admin team has to navigate different groups and discussions. Second, WhatsApp unlike Apps like Telegram does not allow new members to view previous messages, therefore some of the messages are repeated for new members to keep abreast with the group activities.
Third, WhatsApp can be overwhelming for members due to the flurry of posts. Fourth, as with online learning, some members can tend to feel lost, are unclear what is happening and remain silent followers. This is exacerbated by the fact that most members have not met before and also people learn differently.
In light of these challenges, we have applied the following strategies to try and address them. One, we have developed a Journal Club Handbook and shared it with members to guide their conduct on WhatsApp and provide a clear understanding on how learning takes place in the clubs. We also send bi-weekly audio messages to the clubs to reintroduce the goal of the clubs and encourage members with any concerns to reach out individually to the admin team.
Second, we collaboratively agreed with members to post messages related to research only between 7- 10 pm EAT to allow members to rest. Third, we have a Telegram group where members can post any scholarship or external webinars to minimize traffic on WhatsApp clubs. The Journal Club Program Coordinator also collates opportunities shared by members and sends as one document on the WhatsApp groups. We also ask members who want an individual 30-minute session with any of the two admin team members, to call WhatsApp (which is free) or book a zoom session on Calendly every second and third Saturday of the month.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, we had been provided a free meeting space at the American Corner in Nairobi, Moi University on Saturdays (Bi- Monthly), where members could hold scholarly writing sessions in face-to-face meetings. The aim of this blended approach (online and face to face) was to minimize the alienation that may occur on online learning. We still value face to face meeting because members have bonded better and collaborated in different projects. We use our zoom-based webinars to connect with members from the clubs and put a face to the name.
Without WhatsApp we would not have been able to bring together different scholars from Africa. WhatsApp has been an important learning enabler and we hope to continue using the platform as we leverage on face to face and other online applications. The mentorship activities are offered for free to any researcher who has need and is funded by Eider Africa together with some contribution from the members through crowdfunding mobilizing. These funds pay for a monthly modest incentive to only support internet costs for the administrators, pay for poster designs, pay for online platforms like zoom and space on Google since we keep an online resource space on Google Drive. We welcome grants and donations from the state, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, as well as partnerships that believe in our ethos.
At the moment we want to develop research mentorship resources to consolidate all the rich learning that has taken place in the clubs and to provide research materials that are contextualized to the realities in Africa. We hope to co-create these materials with the members of the journal clubs as well as with other communities. We believe in the power of Africa-led scholarship and that with great commitment we can make a difference in research. This year we will start to deliver cohort-style research mentorship in partnership with different organizations for a subsided fee to ensure our sustainability and to address some members’ requests. This year we became a registered training provider approved by the National Industrial Training Authority in Kenya (NITA).
We thank the great Journal club admin youthful team for their volunteerism, dedication, and passion. They include Joyce Wangari (Lead Mentor), David Nene (Knowledge Management), Raymond Munene (Programs Coordinator), and Aurelia Munene (Founder and Journal Club Coordinator). We thank all the members who continue to volunteer their time to mentor and support the clubs. We also thank all the journal club members. We thank our partner Training Center in Communication (TCC- Africa), https://www.tcc-africa.org/, for our complementary collaboration, whereby, they provide research training and we provide research mentorship. We thank our board members who provide us with great technical support. We value you.
Disclaimer: Though all these mentorship activities there is no point where Journal club members write papers, articles or any other content for other members, our ethos embraces a strict sense of integrity.
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