My name is Kadi Kass, I am 42-years old and I am a volunteer trainer / adult educator in the fields of organisation study and safety at the Women’s Voluntary Defence Organization (Naiskodukaitse) in Estonia. I also work as a youth leader at the local division of the Estonian Defence League’s Girls’ Corps. I have a Master’s degree in Social Sciences (teacher of History and Social Studies) from Tartu University. During the spring of the Coronavirus outbreak, I passed an online qualification exam to work as a level 6 youth worker. I have been one of the ambassadors of EPALE in Estonia since the winter of 2020.
I heard about EPALE when I attended training on how to motivate adults. From the moment I joined the EPALE team I was amazed by the new insight into the community of adult education I gives its users. I began to monitor continuously the events on the platform in the field of adult education. Cooperation and exchange of experience with other ambassadors, and exploring the resources and blogposts of EPALE has had a positive impact both on my self-development and self-awareness. Every time I went onto the website, I was keen to follow the discussions and interact on the platform, as there was always plenty of exciting and thought-provoking discussion going on. I have only been using EPALE for seven months but it has given me numerous new ideas and perspectives to put into practice in my everyday life.
I would like to share with you my experience working in the area of voluntary work. I will focus on some of the aspects of how to adapt to the new situation in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, emphasising those relating to adult education. I have a unique community, Naiskodukaitse in Estonian, which means Women's Voluntary Defence Organization. We offer women an education and other challenging experiences. Each member receives basic training, and then chooses additional courses based on their specialty or interest. The aim of the training and organizational activities for members is to assist the Kaitseliit (Defence League), so each member can play a substantial role in developing national defence, and thereby improving society in general. The basic training includes an introduction to the organisation, (first aid) medical training, catering management skills, and basic military training.
Challenges during the crisis
Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, all the trainings of the Women's Voluntary Defence Organization had to be suspended. As an organisation, we received many new requests due to the unique situation – such as from a telephone crisis helpline, security service and squads of drive-through testing sites, medical triage in hospital yards and assisting a Border Guard. However, it was a pity that so many exciting and necessary activities were postponed due to the restrictions on gatherings. Nevertheless, our women are very proactive and new solutions were looked for where obstacles were met. Thus, one of the members with a background in educational technology made a call to all the volunteer instructors in the community asking who would be willing to conduct a basic training in organisational training and safety as an online course. Together with several other volunteer instructors, I was ready for this new challenge, and became an online trainer overnight. During the pandemic crisis, it seemed that our members needed even more guidance, and therefore I am strongly convinced that it was a good choice to offer web-based training for members instead of cancelling the events due to the emergency situation.
What were the challenges of e-learning?
First of all, of course, the same innovative training environment – online learning meant for me and to many others the first introduction to Zoom platform. We tested and rehearsed it all together with other trainers several times, and in the end, it turned out to work fine. But I have to admit that I was quite nervous before the real training began. Questions about the reliability of my internet connection, or whether I would be able to hear and see how to monitor the chat window, whether the battery of my devices last, etc. In other words, although I had a lot of experience with conventional classroom training, I had never had to concentrate on technical issues. I felt like I was doing the training for the first time. The discomfort was manageable, but it was all outside of my comfort zone.
How to get them involved?
Another significant challenge for me with the online training was how to get students involved in the process. It is relatively easy to read from the faces as well as the body language of participants in the classroom whether the students are following you by raising questions or asking for further explanation. But during the online session, even if you see everybody on the screen, it is still quite difficult to gauge their feelings. But as the involvement of learners is a top priority, and contribution by the participants is essential for the learning to be a two-way process, I did everything I could to encourage the students by asking questions, inviting feedback in the chat room or using the microphone to open the debate.
I have to admit that I was met with silence on many occasions but luckily, there were enough people who opened up the conversation, which saved me from the feeling that I was talking to myself. In the large group, as I mentioned earlier, the contribution of the participants was more modest, dividing them into smaller groups worked reasonably well. As a result, more lively discussions took place. Group work is a good method of conventional training as it initiates the willingness and contribution of each participant, but the use of the “breakout room” tool in the Zoom platform is a good option for facilitating social interaction and exchange of experiences that can be used in the future.
Having participated in several long online courses I realised that six-hours of online training was much more difficult to handle than conventional classroom training. The need to take breaks in between sessions should be noted (as pointed out on my EPALE blogpost about Environmental Awareness in the Training World In Spite of the Crisis). Once again a comparison with contact learning emerges.
Coffee breaks offer free communication among the participants, which is hard to replicate online. This is a huge plus for contact learning. However, the disadvantage can be alleviated a bit during e-learning if not everyone disappears from their screens during breaks, I used these breaks to chat with some of the students using conversation starters like, "I haven't seen you in a long time", "it's nice to meet here at least!", "how are you doing there in Saaremaa?" or "what kind of duties have you had to face during the emergency?" etc. One morning, before the training on Zoom started I broke the wall of silence by asking for feedback about home safety issues learned the day before. For example: “Did you look around in your home after our course? Who would like to share, did you find any signs of danger or what could be done to improve personal safety?”
Feedback from learners
• The study day was very educational, it was very easy to study without leaving home - saving numerous hours of commuting. And the topics were smoothly, intelligibly and exemplarily covered.
• Very good and nice as a whole! Both methods of learning (classroom vs e-learning) have their pros and cons.
• The trainers were excellent and competent in their field. Better or worse than classroom learning, hard to say, but online learning reached its mark. As I am currently a mother with two small children (10 months and 3.5 years old) at home, it was convenient for me to take the course without leaving my home.
• Innovative (a completely new experience for me).
• Everything was well organised. Only problem was when my computer died during the online sessions sometimes. Having training in the same room with all of us would be easier, I believe.
• Very interesting and exciting course in general. E-learning is also great, because everyone can take the course at the same time and together, and there is no need to go anywhere else. As it is not always possible to go gather in one place.
In other words, like me, many participants highlighted that they still rather prefer contact training, and we did face some technical problems during sessions. Well, in general, the participants appreciated the possibility of finding a new way to conduct training in complicated and unexpected circumstances, helping them to develop their digital skills. Moreover, for some of them it was better suited than a conventional classroom learning process, as it allowed them to study at home and save time.
The continuation of the learning process is essential
The positive experience highlighted by learners outweighed the technical issues and the unfamiliarity of e-learning. The new, collaborative online form of learning that connects regions provides a "boost" for further development, which also affects future activities and curricula. It has already been decided that, at least once a year, our basic training will be conducted online in order to enable learning and development for those members who, for some reason, are unable to attend the training, for family reasons or due to time constraints. This will increase the flexibility and diversity of training, save valuable time and advance the good collaboration that has begun between volunteer instructors. In conclusion, it is evident that my community, Naiskodukaitse as a learning organisation, learnt various lessons from that pandemic crisis, and it moves forward vigorously, continuing the comprehensive development of its members.