Applying lessons from the MicroMasters—together—in Botswana

Team meeting

Moitshepi Matsheng, Young 1ove Co-founder and Country Coordinator, introduces the team to the MicroMasters. Photo: Ron Wilson PWB

This is a guest post from Hannah Blair and Efua Bortsie at Young 1ove, a youth-focused NGO that scales evidence-based programming in health and education in Botswana.

Young 1ove was born out of evidence.

Our first program, “No Sugar,” was inspired by a 1-hour class that a randomized trial by a J-PAL affiliate showed could significantly reduce teenage pregnancy—also a proxy for unprotected sex and HIV—by 28 percent.

We keep testing our programs to ensure they work as we adapt and scale. From 2015 to 2016, we partnered with J-PAL, Baylor University, and the Ministry of Basic Education in Botswana to run a randomized trial to ensure the “No Sugar” program from Kenya still worked in our context. Now, we are using the lessons learned from this second RCT to implement an adapted version of the “No Sugar” program, in order to maximize its impact in Botswana. We take evidence seriously.

But the J-PAL/MITx MicroMasters in Data, Economics, and Development Policy (DEDP) has given us an opportunity to take this commitment to the next levelensuring that all staff not only get an introduction to "good evidence" (which is part of our onboarding process), but also that everyone at Young 1ove, not just our research team, is connected to the evidence. This enables all decisions at Young 1ove, from  public relations to nudges for office productivity, to have a link to evidence.

Thus, this past spring, a group of seven of us decided to take a DEDP online course on The Challenges of Global Poverty together, so that we could discuss the weekly lessons and brainstorm how to apply them in our context—and hold each other accountable for completing the assignments!

Out of the seven team members from Young 1ove who enrolled in the course, none work in our Research and Innovation Department. We come from diverse backgrounds: administration, social work, education, international relations, and communications. These are essential skills for our respective positions, but prior to this course we had little experience in understanding the complex issues that our beneficiaries face from an economist’s point of view.

Our individual reasons for persevering and completing the course were largely intrinsic; we approached it as an opportunity to develop ourselves and engage with familiar topics from a new perspective.

For example, I (Hannah), a Princeton in Africa Media Fellow at Young 1ove, spend much of my time writing about and explaining our research methods for various stakeholders, supporters, and collaborators. Taking the course makes my job easier because I have a deeper understanding of the history and importance of running RCTs.

Similarly, Dorothy Okatch, the Development Manager for Young 1ove, found the course helped her justify our work as part of a global movement.

“It has assisted me, when meeting with stakeholders, to reference other programs similar to ours, and validate that we are working as part of a greater movement towards evidence-based development interventions across the world.” -Dorothy Okatch, Young 1ove

Neo Molefe, the Senior Human Capital Officer, echoed this sentiment, finding that the MicroMasters courses not only helped her learn about new programs but also allowed her to better understand current programs being implemented by Young 1ove.

“The module on Teaching at the Right Level really helped me understand that program in a more in-depth fashion. It helped me understand the relevance of education in the real world in terms of economic empowerment, and showed how the program was developed by Pratham in more detail than I knew beforehand.” -Neo Molefe, Young 1ove

The experience was not without its challenges, however. We navigated low-quality Wi-Fi, international travel, and tight schedules.

At first, when the opportunity was presented to the Young 1ove team to enroll in the course, a number of our colleagues jumped at this opportunity to acquire new skills and knowledge. We did not anticipate the challenges that we would face in juggling our workload with course work.

Many of our peers snuck in lecture videos during lunch time or came to the office on weekends to access the internet. Those of us who traveled abroad for work had to find enough time and quality internet to complete the weekly assignments, which was not always possible. We initially had scheduled a weekly discussion session to discuss the course material together in more detail, but finding time when our schedules aligned was more difficult than we anticipated.

Despite tight schedules, we engaged in informal discussions around the weekly lessons. These discussions sparked interesting conversations and debates, which helped bring useful context to our answers to course exercises and homework.

Having a group of peers with whom to take the online courses was similarly encouraging—we helped each other stay on track and were motivated to keep up with the course so that we could fully engage in the group conversations. The MicroMasters website notes that each online course is equivalent to a full-semester course at MIT, requiring a commitment of about 12 hours per week, and we’ve found this to be true. The course certainly was not easy, but the skills we gained are already incredibly useful for both our day to day work and for developing a more long-term vision of Young 1ove and our impact.

As much as we learn on the job, it has been enormously helpful to take a course that details the evolution and use of RCTs across the world. Another program we work on, Teaching at the Right Level, was even referenced in the Education module of the MicroMasters course. We have a newfound appreciation for the decades of refining and testing that has gone into the programs Young 1ove has adapted from randomized trials.

“At the heart of all we do, every decision that we make, from the age of the facilitators implementing a program to the duration of a training, is evidence.”

This is a phrase every member of our team has repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times. Thanks to the MicroMasters in DEPD, this phrase now has an even deeper meaning, as we are able to place our work as part of a historical, international movement to learn, apply, and hone evidence into effective action.

The next MicroMasters semester begins September 11, 2018sign up here. Applications for the new blended online and in-person Master’s program in Data, Economics, and Development Policy will open in December of this year.

Posted by Hannah Blair, Princeton in Africa Media Fellow (Young 1ove) and Efua Bortsie, Curriculum Officer (Young 1ove)