The COVID-19 pandemic informed both the content and the delivery of the 2020 IFSTAL summer school. Graduate students Katharina Wabnitz and Viola Graef reflect on their experience.
Before the pandemic reached the UK, students would get up early to catch a bus, train or even cycle through the busy morning traffic to be on time for lectures. To participate in the fifth IFSTAL summer school, things were quite different. One click shortly after waking up and we were all together in a virtual space, joining in from our home desks. A very unusual yet surprisingly enriching experience.
After experiencing disruptions on various levels: weeks spent under lockdown or having to leave the UK to go back home, seeing 23 students from the 2020 cohort during the summer school was remarkable. Meeting this group and the IFSTAL staff again, albeit online, was a nice reminder of the diverse network we created over the past year in the workshops. It says something about the IFSTAL programme that even students who went back to very different time zones were willing to turn their sleeping rhythms upside down to participate in the event.
This summer school did not fall far from our expectations: again, the line-up consisted of a range of thought-provoking lectures delivered by reputable speakers as well as inspiring insights into individual careers related to the food system. Some of these presenters might not have been as easily available had this summer school not been an online event, as indicated by John Ingram, the IFSTAL Programme Lead.
The summer school provided a particular challenging task on the topic of disruptions in the UK food system caused by the COVID-19 crisis. In small subgroups, we took the perspectives of several food system actors on how to increase the national food system’s resilience and presented solutions – this time not on a whiteboard or flipchart but by creating a 5-minute video!
All teams rose to this challenge remarkably well, especially after learning about communication strategies and media engagement from communications consultant Eleanor O’Kane and Amy Jackson, Director of specialist communications agency Oxtale. Through this project, we discovered the value of role play and first-hand experiences in conveying a message – both will be useful in the future when we might be asked to make statements on current events or explain our research to a diverse audience!
Despite the opportunity to catch snippets of people’s private homes, a virtual meeting lacks the ease and spontaneity of personal thought exchanges – in particular, informal chats over coffee during breaks were missed by participants. However, going online requires good communication etiquette – maybe to an even higher extent than in a physical meeting, as questions and statements have to be moderated well. We felt that this led to people asking a number of highly relevant, well-curated questions. Also, posting additional links to the chat whilst people were talking added a new type of richness to the discussion.
In the end, as one of the students pointed out, an online meeting might even have a lower carbon footprint and be less resource intense – which are certainly criteria the IFSTAL programme should and is already striving to achieve regardless of whether future events are held in person or online. The value of meeting people in person cannot be dismissed but this experience showed that the intended learning outcomes can equally be achieved in an online event and that there are even some (unexpected) benefits from going virtual.
The virtual summer school adds to the IFSTAL programme’s own resilience since flexible shifting between physical and online delivery modes was proven to work. We hope that future cohorts of IFSTAL participants can therefore continue benefitting from this unique opportunity, even under unusual and unexpected circumstances.
Katharina Wabnitz is a medical doctor from Germany and current student of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She has a special interest in sustainable development, systems thinking and health issues of global scale. By participating in IFSTAL, she hopes to lay a solid foundation for her future career as a food system transformer.
Viola Graef has a background in biomedicine and is currently studying Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is particularly interested in working with an interdisciplinary approach to tackle issues at the interface of human and environmental health. Participating in IFSTAL has given her many skills she hopes to apply to this work in the future.