MOOCs help researchers and librarians in developing countries access the latest scientific information

In new online courses, Research4Life users are finding the information they need to improve life in low-income countries

By Domiziana Francescon - July 15, 2020
R4L Mooc in New Guinea main
A participant at the last in-person Research4Life training at the University of Papua New Guinea School of Medicine and Health Sciences. (Photo by Stephen Jnr Taera for Research4Life)

Dr. Lenny Rhine is used to being on the road. A retired librarian from the University of Florida, he’s been working with Research4Life as a trainer for 13 years. Lenny leads the Librarians without Borders (LWB) program, which the Elsevier Foundation supports, and has conducted more than 70 workshops around the world.

His work continues in changing times. Now, he’s giving weekly webinars to hundreds of researchers and librarians from the least developed countries through massive online open courses (MOOCs), making sure they can still benefit from the latest and best information.

Training moves from face-to-face workshops …

Lenny Rhine teaches in Papua New Guinea
Dr. Lenny Rhine gives his last in-person Research4Life workshop in Papua, New Guinea. (Photo by Stephen Jnr Taera for Research4Life)

Transversing the globe from Georgia to Bhutan, from Myanmar to Cairo, Lenny and the Research4Life team have given workshops for medical practitioners, university librarians, and professionals from NGOs and government organizations. Research4Life workshops deal with all aspects of information literacy; despite gains in research access, researchers in low-income countries still face a significant struggle in getting professional training to make the best use of new resources.

In November, Lenny flew to Papua, New Guinea, for what turned out to be the last in-person training, at least for a little while. He welcomed over 40 participants from key health-related organizations in the region of Port Moresby, the capital, showing them how to find evidence-based medical resources and teaching practical exercises on how to write a scientific paper.

“Participants immediately started thinking of how their colleagues or students could benefit from the access to Research4Life,” Lenny said. “This awareness was a very pleasant surprise – such a different situation since I was there the first time 10 years ago!”

R4L workshop in Papua New Guinea
Health workers take a Research4Life course taught by Lenny Rhine in Papua, New Guinea – the final workshop before the pandemic. (Photo by Stephen Jnr Taera for Research4Life)

Since 2016, Librarians without Borders has also been awarding annual grants to support a growing number of librarian trainers. To date, the partnership between the Elsevier Foundation and the Medical Library Association has awarded 20 training grants and conducted 90 workshops in 42 countries.

… to online communities

Fred HayiborThe 2020 grants will be different: Fred Hayibor of the University of Health and Allied Science in Ho, Ghana, originally planned to conduct three face-to-face workshops for faculty and researchers on using Research4Life to improve productivity and output. But as Ghana faces a halt on travels, and large events cannot be scheduled, he’s now discussing with Lenny the best way to organize a hybrid training that could take advantage using online learning platforms.

In 2019, the Elsevier Foundation started supporting the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) to create a MOOC with the idea that online webinars could complement and scale up the Research4Life training, reaching more participants than ever. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, accessibility and virtual training quickly became the only way Lenny and team could reach their audience.

The first MOOC, in November 2019, saw 2,207 participants enroll from 95 countries. The 22 lessons were aimed at equipping Research4Life users with the knowledge and skills needed to develop capacities in information use, scholarly communication and information management in low-income countries.

“The course was an eye-opener to me,” said Dr. Reuben Waswa Nabie, a participant from Kenya who provides community-based medical training with his wife. “I used to hear my colleagues mention words like ‘bibliometrics, Scopus, dimensions, ClinicalKey.’ I would wonder which world they were coming from. I now have a clearer concept of this hidden world of academia.”

“As a health educator, understanding online information can be challenging,” wrote Claire Tomdia, MD, a Lecturer in Medical Education in the School of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Papua New Guinea, after the workshop. “Finding resources accredited by experts provides an endless world of information that I can tap into and use to better assist students. It ensures continuous improvement for practitioners.”

The second edition of the MOOC, in April and May, included four webinars with an average of 115 participants each from more than 70 countries – some of them logging in in the middle of the night. Talking about having to switch to a different approach, Lenny noted that the first challenge was simply to adapt to the technical aspects of a new technology.

“The key was that we had a team of three with Kathy Kwan (a retired NLM Health Information Specialist) and Ilkay Holt from FAO as coordinator,” he said. “We needed to be comfortable with the process, effectively stress key points and quicly respond to questions.”

But creating an interactive environment online is not easy: in face-to-face trainings, Lenny can interact with participants at lunch or during a break, which is almost impossible to do online, where he also cannot use much non-verbal communication. “But from chat comments, forum discussions and surveys we were able to connect with the audience – and they became more comfortable too,” he noted. “Finally, my personal challenge is that I had to be ready at 8 am for the webinars, and somehow look awake. Then again, I didn’t have to travel for 20 to 30 hours and cross 6 to 12 time zones!”

The unprecedented situation has also changed the way Research4Life operates, with a growing number of webinars being organized to make sure users can make the most out of the of the available resources – and know what are the best tools they can use to access quality research even when they’re far from their institutions. After the biomedical database Embase was added to Elsevier’s offerings to Research4Life in February, the team was able to offer training in English, French and Spanish.

Diana Skopina“It was a nice surprise to realize how many people worldwide consider Embase essential for biomedical research” said Diana Skopina of Elsevier’s Life Sciences team, who worked with Research4Life to deliver the webinars. “Despite sometimes unfavourable internet connections, attendees had a true interest, they were engaged and actively participated in the trainings.”

In an effort to maximize engagement, her colleague Nadège Krebs, who co-delivered the webinars, took an extra step and asked participants to perform some of the searches demonstrated during the session by sharing their screens.

Abeer Mohamed Salah El-din Khalil, PhD“I learned so much,” wrote Dr. Abeer Mohamed Salah El-din Khalil, Lecturer, National Institute of Laser Enhanced Sciences, Cairo University (participants at the second MOOC) after the event. “It took a great effort in the preparation and great care for facilitators in the forum and webinars. I feel no words can describe what I feel about my thanks to all.”


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Written by

Domiziana Francescon

Written by

Domiziana Francescon

Domiziana Francescon serves as the Elsevier Foundation’s Program Officer and is a strong supporter of the company’s Corporate Responsibility program. Domiziana obtained a master’s degree in Book and Digital Media Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, with a specialization in Publishing Studies. She grew up in Italy.

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