Making Remotely-Lessons Learned from Hosting Virtual Innovation Challenges in Kenya

Since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic in 2020, learners and educators across the world experienced a shift in their way of learning and teaching. In Kenya, schools were closed in March of 2020 and later reopened in October of 2020. This meant the parents and guardians stayed home with their children. Some parents explored online learning to keep their students engaged. However, a large number of students who had no access to the internet and digital resources continued to wait for schools to reopen. Many organizations launched remote programs for students to engage with educational activities while at home. At Global Minimum Inc., we shifted to remote delivery of our programs. In this article, I will share lessons learned from facilitating our InChallenge program remotely

Global Minimum Inc (GMin) is an international non-profit organization that encourages young innovators and leaders in Africa to engage with critical thinking skills and hands-on learning programs to tackle challenges affecting their communities. GMin provides enabling tools, safe spaces, workshops, mentorship, resources and network, ultimately equipping young people in Africa with unique opportunities to take their future into their own hands. Since 2008 we have worked with over 10,000 youth aged 13- 20 years in Kenya and Sierra Leone through our programs. GMin believes all youth have the potential to learn and create innovative solutions in their communities.

The InChallenge program is a national innovation competition for high school-aged youth in Kenya and Sierra Leone. Every year, participants are invited to identify a social problem in their community and create a project to solve that problem. Finalists of up to 15 teams of 4 students each are invited to a one-week long Innovation boot camp where they attend workshops on innovation, human-centred design, entrepreneurship and responsible leadership. They also get technical mentors to assist them in building the first prototypes of their proposed solution. Mentors are typically young professionals and industry experts in the respective fields where the participants are building solutions. 

Remote Workshop delivery

One of the things that changed during remote workshop delivery was the style of facilitating our workshops. Shifting from in-person workshops to virtual workshops meant reorganizing our presentation material and activities. For instance, we redesign the presentation slides to be more visible when sharing screens via video conferencing and incorporated more visual presentations to keep our learners engaged. Unlike in-person camps where we could play games outdoors, virtual camps limited us to online activities. Even so, participants were creative in utilizing local materials available to them to build crafts. 

Participant displaying her spaghetti tower

For example, when we did the marshmallow design challenge, participants were supposed to build a tower using 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 yard of string, and one yard of tape. They were then required to place a marshmallow on top of the tower and the tallest free-standing tower wins. We use this challenge to demonstrate the iterative nature of design thinking. Since some of our participants were not able to collect all the materials, they used alternatives they could find in their houses. For instance, instead of spaghetti sticks, they plucked sticks from bushes around their homes and in place of tape and string, they used fibres from banana stalks and some recycled old clothes to make their strings. The flexibility they displayed reminded me why cultural making is important. As educators and makers, we need to account for the needs of all learners when designing activities.

Remote mentorship

When we started hosting virtual innovation boot camps in 2020, one of the major challenges we experienced was the difficulty in delivering technical mentorship remotely. First, because students of a given team lived in different geographical regions across Kenya away from their mentors. Learners and their mentors had limited time to build their prototypes. As a result, many teams expressed frustration over the inability to finish building their solutions. In April 2021, we hosted our second virtual camp and started utilizing WhatsApp groups to allow mentors to have extra time with the teams and offer consistent technical support. The groups were more accessible as most teenagers who had access to a smartphone were familiar with WhatsApp. With the increased mentorship time, the teams got to work on their solutions and made impressive presentations.

Internet connectivity

Another major challenge was internet connectivity problems especially for the individuals who were connecting from remote areas where the coverage is not as strong. Moreover, some of the participants did not have access to a computer that they would use to sign in to the workshops. One solution that helped was purchasing generic smartphones, which we sent to the finalists’ parents to help them set up for the camp. We further provided data bundles for all the participants who did not have wiFi in their homes. Over 90% of the finalists were able to participate in the workshops successfully.

Online collaboration

Prepping materials before dispatching to team representatives

Collaboration is a fundamental part of the InChallenge boot camp. Each team of students work together to build a prototype for the solution they have proposed. During in-person boot camps, every team gets a chance to buy materials for their prototype. For the virtual camps, teams had to select a member to take the lead in the building process.  The team representatives received the materials sent from our office in Nairobi to their homes and built the prototype on behalf of the team. Although one team member was building the solution, all other members were supporting the process remotely via video calls. This ensured the participants learned how to work in teams to achieve their objectives. At the end of the 10-day boot camp, learners were able to document their progress through video recordings and photographs.

Making remotely has been a rewarding and fulfilling experience. Even though it came with challenges, it also presented us with an opportunity to learn new methods of delivering learning remotely. We continue to explore and utilize available technology to engage our learners and educators to ensure we create enabling environments for our students. Making resources such as the internet, prototyping material and electronic gadgets accessible to the students is fundamental to encourage participation from learners especially those in underserved communities.

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