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Knowledge Exchange Goes Virtual

10th July 2020

For many plant pathologists in the UK, now would be the season of field events, agricultural and horticultural shows. These events are key dates in the calendar, where experts; scientists, growers, agronomists and service providers alike – share their knowledge, recent research findings and thoughts for the future. COVID-19 put a stop to the majority of these events in 2020. However, a new breed of knowledge exchange events are emerging – virtually.

A move towards enabling on-line participation at scientific and industry focussed conferences, and the use of webinars to disseminate information was already gaining traction before the pandemic. For example, the AHDB live-stream their annual Agronomists’ Conference. This year, the APS’s Plant Health 2020 conference will be delivered online, as will the ASPB’s PB20 conference.

Disruptions due to COVID-19 have brought to the forefront the need for innovation in how field events can also be delivered to increase participation.

The majority of event organisers didn’t have the time and/or resources to transfer activities to an on-line format. But could those that did be laying the foundations for a revolution in knowledge exchange?

In the arable sector for example: in June, Cereals, an event normally attended by over 20,000 was replaced by Cereals LIVE 2020. There were attendees from 78 countries; with 67,000 page views and 9,260 webinar attendees at which 568 questions were asked.

On July 2nd Arable Scotland went live. Plant health and disease management were featured in a number of webinars. The importance of KE in translating research into practice was highlighted, for example, in the uptake of Integrated Pest management (IPM) and one webinar focused on an EU funded project promoting peer to peer learning to increase uptake of best practice.

BSPP member Fiona Burnett is Professor of Applied Plant Pathology and Head of Knowledge Exchange at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and has been busy delivering virtual KE at both Cereals 2020, Arable Scotland and Farm Advisory Service events.

“We’ve tried a range of platforms and for those portions of the audience that do engage they seem most comfortable doing this through written questions/chat functions. Smaller groups who know each other are OK to contribute verbally in Teams type meetings, but for large events, written questions work best. For me, I’ve enjoyed the events with audience participation best –where formal presentations are short and the majority of the session is panel discussion with live Q and A (Arable Scotland). This format also allows you to bounce off the other presenters. Cereals 2020 was a more traditional webinar structure so 80-90% content as presentations with just one or two questions to each presenter.

We’ve learnt a lot along the way – some people embrace and enjoy online delivery but not all of our audience find digital delivery easy to access or comfortable to engage with. So, for that reason I see a future with a mix of  ‘in field’ or ‘in venue’ live events, combined with the best of the digital delivery methods to complement.”

It’s hard to argue that attending events in person can be replaced by virtual interactions. Swapping boots in the field for slippers in the office (especially when your “office” is a spare room, kitchen table or shed) isn’t a substitute for one-on-one conversations with experts and sharing experiences with fellow growers. It does, however, enable those who otherwise might not have been able to attend an event benefit from the key messages being disseminated and participate in Q&As sessions that are fundamental to knowledge exchange.

So perhaps when the restrictions due to COVID-19 are a thing of the past, the lessons learned this year in delivering effective knowledge exchange can be built on and future events can integrate attendees wearing muddy boots or slippers – depending on their circumstances. Undoubtably, the key is to maximise interactions, so these events are not just about knowledge transfer, but crucially enable knowledge exchange and all the benefits that that delivers.

A BSPP comment piece by Jennie Brierley.