Thursday, 2 April 2015

ICT4RED Research adventures part 2: How to build the nation – teachers’ narratives in a changing context

Last weekend Phase Three of the ICT4RED project came to an end with a joyful celebration (see previous blog). Facilitators, Phase Three teachers, ICT4RED staff, and government representatives came together in Cofimvaba to celebrate the project as much as themselves. Alas, I had to leave the country just before the graduation; but the live tweets from the event spread the pride and joy of all participants even to a cold grey London morning. That’s right, from a town hall in a small settlement deep in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape detailed live tweets updated the rest of the world in real time. ICT4RED clearly revolutionized teachers’ use of social networks but reflecting back now four weeks after my research, I sense this might just be the tip of the iceberg.

The above pictures are from Zamuxolo Junior Secondary and show the educational conditions in which many teachers and learners in the Eastern Cape operate. Often the understandably outcry in civil society and media focuses on the impact of these conditions on learners; far less attention is paid to the effects such conditions have on teachers. For example, what happens if you are determined to change the lives of your learners for the better, but on a daily you are working in a professional setting lacking crucial resources necessary for you to do your job to a standard you deem appropriate. How does this affect your motivation and your self-perception as an individual? 

In our interviews, the teachers and me talked a lot about the value of being a teacher, and what the ideal teacher would be able to do. These were fascinating discussions and it emerged strongly that teachers associated their professional standard with the achievements of their learners. That is, teachers gained pride and confidence the better their learners were doing academically. A major theme in the interviews was the idea of ‘we are building the nation’ and that ‘all professions come from the teaching profession’ because engineers, politicians, businessmen all alike were educated by teachers at one point. The professional self-perception of teachers then will be strongly affected by any factor prohibiting or facilitating teachers’ ambition of nurturing the learners ‘to build the nation’.

Teachers welcomed the ICT4RED initiative so strongly because they regard the introduction of tablets as putting them on par with the better resourced schools in urban areas. They feel that their learners will be able to compete with urban learners now that they have access to the same advanced technological inputs. Sensing that using the tablets will provide their learners with better chances to achieve the same learning outcomes and be as prepared for joining tertiary education fostered teachers’ embrace of the technology.

In addition, the usage and mastery of tablets as an educational tool made teachers feel part of the modern education community of practice. There was an overwhelming sense that ‘the times are changing’ and that ‘in these new days’ teachers are required to adapt to the technological change in order to provide their learners with the highest quality education. As one interview expressed: ‘Using it [technology] is very important. The world we are living in is advancing; if you are left behind – it is up to you.’ Technology mastery was since seen as an integral part of the ideal vision of a teacher as this mastery was assumed to support the communication of knowledge to the learners. 

Teachers explaining the use of tablets to learners at Mvuzo JS (@fincaluvoz)
Though, it was clear that the teachers saw themselves in control of the integration of technologies into the classroom. While the world is advancing and technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the tablets were seen as a supplement to existing educational strategies. Teachers continued to apply their established teaching methods and adopted teaching with tablets as another teaching strategy of choice in their wider pedagogical repertoire. They felt it was crucial for teachers to be trained on tablet use before introducing the technology to learners in the classroom so that teachers remain in control of the educational process.

However, during the interviews teachers believed that in a world of instant access to information and ever connected social and digital realities, the role of the teacher is indeed changing. Teaching – they believed – becomes more about facilitating access to knowledge rather than the teacher acting as the source of knowledge. This went together with distaste for teacher-centered educational strategies in which the learners mainly paraphrase the teacher's monologues. In the times of Google, they felt asking learners to repeat teacher's words has little relevance given the knowledge source (i.e. the tablets) right in front of them. To cite one interviewee ‘learners have become the problems solvers; they can come with their own strategies to solve problems, you (teacher) just show them the way’.    

Learners learning independently using both technology and pen & paper
Teachers used the tablets for a variety of things: to record and motivate learners; to facilitate examination; to videorize community events; to connect to colleagues; to access departmental information. The list goes on. In common though was a sense of recognition as professionals, which they felt they received from being given the technology and trained on its usage. Teachers reported how learners now too aspire to become teachers seeing how teachers are valued by the government that provides tablets for them. Teachers compared themselves ironically to beneficiaries of BEE (a South African affirmation action policy) when using their tablets in public. To many in rural areas, the use of expensive gadgets such as tablets is associated with urban office workers and consultants; seeing teachers with such technology since incites great respect.

In sum then, ICT4RED has reshaped teachers’ professional standing. Mastery of a sophisticated technology not widely spread in their social context gives teachers recognition and respect required to support their daily activities. The ICT4RED teachers see tablets as a tool for their learners to have access to better educational opportunities. To themselves, tablets present a tool to be taken more seriously as professionals. The tweets from Saturday’s graduation thus appear as a statement of confidence. They represent a new voice and optimism that the ICT4RED educators have gained as teaching professionals. To be sure, it suits the South African teaching profession and sheds light on a different narrative of teaching in 21st century South Africa.  

Teacher leading the technological and educational change in South Africa

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Phase 3 teacher graduation- celebrating our success!

On Saturday 28th of March, the hills of Cofimvaba came alive with the sound of jubilation! After a whole year of intensive training and dedication on the part of facilitators and teachers alike, everybody (yes everybody-100% pass rate) graduated in grand style. This occasion was held at the Cofimvaba Senior Secondary hall and took the form of a banquet lunch. Representatives from the National Department of Education as well as the Eastern Cape Provincial Department of Education were present to celebrate our success with us.

Apart from all the teachers completing all of their compulsory badges, 58% of them earned merit awards which means that they have achieved at least half of the challenge badges as well. This reflect the enthusiasm that the teachers have shown. Even though they were under severe pressure towards the end to find the time to implement each badge strategy, they came through with flying colours and now own their tablets as a result of their hard work.

As part of the celebration we had a cake that represented each of the 3 phases and ICT4RED cupcakes to make sure everybody felt part of this success story. The hall was dressed up in celebratory banquet fare and there was an atmosphere of achievement and joy.

Each school was represented by a champion who was chosen on the basis that they were recognised by their peers as being a model of implementation and a support to their colleagues. They had to do a presentation of their favourite strategy and tell the story of how they implemented each strategy in their classroom and school.

There was lots of singing. The facilitators and the teachers composed various ICT4RED songs to show how they have enjoyed this intervention and the ST James choir did a wonderful rendition of our beloved anthem. This graduation has special meaning to all present and this is what some of the teachers, district and facilitators had to say:
Some of the photo moments that were captured on the day:

Created with flickr slideshow.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Reflection as a teaching strategy

During the past week we had a very emotional trip down our ICT4RED memory lane while doing our last ICT4RED Module, aptly named, Reflection. We have so much to reflect on. Not only did we immerse ourselves in the nitty gritty practical implications of learner based teaching strategies, but we also formed strong bonds of camaraderie and learning networks.

Module 10 is a time for looking back and evaluating what we have learned, how it has impacted on our classroom practice and how we can take it forward. It is also a time for celebrating our success. At the end of every module we took time out to reflect:

  • What worked?
  • What did not work?
  • How did we use what we have learned in the classroom?
All these reflections formed part of the learning journey and counted towards the reflective practitioners badge. all reflections were captured in a portfolio of evidence using an app called Memoires which can be used in offline and online scenarios. During Module 10 the teachers did a final reflection and exported their course reflections to share with us and as well as our monitoring and evaluation team. It will take us some time to marvel at all the classroom moments, lesson plans and photo portfolios that the teachers shared with us. 

Some of the comments from the teachers during the week:

Stesh Gcobo: The joy of the Lord is my strength, I will forever love this project

Monica Phumeza : This course encourages learners and teachers to enjoy teaching and learning. It makes teaching and learning fun.

Maneli Nosiho: I found that its easy, not difficult to use a mobile device to prepare a lesson. Everybody, that is the teachers and the learners, are working together!

Mandisa Soboyise: The way we were taught about the strategies was the best! The course was very fun and excellent as I am able to use different apps in my classroom. 

Nokuzola Finy: It taught me to share the information I have with my colleagues. It has also taught me that no man is an island, I have to connect. The 21st century skills came up tops in that I can transfer them to my learners. 

Nolita Koyo: It was very interesting and it gave me full potential of using the mobile device in my classroom, in the school and also in the community as a whole.

Thilantle Lamfiti: This course was absolutely excellent for me. It helped me to know how to use technology information using my tablet. 

Noziphiwo Twalo: This course developed my creativity. I got lots of teaching strategies to use in my classroom. I wish it could continue to develop other schools and teachers as well. 

Themby: Wow what an exciting program, its marvelous to be on ICT 4 Red. It has revived my spirit in teaching. I'm a new person with new technological skills ,Viva tech 4 red.

Nokuzola Fini: 
Project (ICT4RED) is developmental just have to change your attitude and go with the flow.It has stood the test of time, it has equipped educators with 5C's ( Creativity, critical thinking,collaboration, connectivity and good communication skills) These are the 21st Century skills.The project knows no boundaries and age restrictions. It cuts through, its for all.

Thank You
We thank the learner teams from Arthur Mfebe and St James Secondary schools, who assisted with the collection of all the reflections. 

A special thanks to all our teachers, who so diligently showed up, always! We appreciate your commitment to this project. We salute your enthusiasm in implementing what you have learned in your classrooms. We loved the singing, fun and collaboration. We loved the hugs and smiles. We are looking forward to your graduation on the 28th of March where we will celebrate your success!

Some of the photo Moments:

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

ICT4RED Research adventures part 1: Education of choice

I am a PhD student at the University College in London. I have lived and worked in South Africa for seven years. I am on my way to Mvuzo Junior Secondary, a school in the rural Eastern Cape province of South Africa in which each learner and teacher has access to a tablet device connected to the Internet via the school’s WIFI network. The contrast between the school’s socio-economic setting and its way of teaching and learning couldn’t be stronger – fascinating stuff for a PhD. Right now, I couldn’t care less about this though. I am hectically staring on my cellphone waiting for the YouTube app to open. Google map tells me I am 1h42 minutes away from my destination – more like 1h42 minutes away from anything! Although I must admit that my rental car’s tire did chose a rather convenient place to deflate: coming from East London, it quit 5 minutes before the Great Kei River Pass. The views up here over the mountains are amazing and the altitude means I should get a 3G connection after all to access a YouTube tutorial on how to change my car’s tire.

Four hours, a fully successful tire change experiment, and a semi-successful Odyssey to receive a new tire from the rental car agency later, I smile as I pass the scene of my earlier incident – I didn’t really expect to drive more the 500km every day over four weeks without a little mechanic glitch, did I? Also, I know that some teachers in the schools that I am visiting spent an equal amount of time on their daily or weekly commute. Let’s face it, the Cofimvaba school district is rural and even the next town – by the name of Queenstown fittingly – does not really deserve its suffix. Cofimvaba is not the destination of choice if you are a teacher or a learner in South Africa and the constant headlines about Eastern Cape ‘education refugees in the country’s other provinces don’t help much either.

Cofimvaba school district: To turn or not to turn?! 

Mvuzo JS, as the other four schools that I have visited (Gando SP, Bangiliswe SP, Khwaza SS, and Zamuxolo SP) have rising learners’ numbers though. Their teachers attend Google summits and meet MECs. Classrooms have a whiteboard and a projector. Lessons are facilitated via PowerPoint and chances are you will bump into learners on your way to the school either mapping their community using GPS technology or recording the inflation rate in primary goods sold by local businesses. Teachers proudly rename their schools as ‘University of Gando’ and ‘Mvuzo Institute of Technology’ – in their words, ‘it is us how know about this technology, it started here in Cofimvaba’. 

Financial Maths lesson at Mvuzo (follow @fincaluvoz)

Much has been written about the impact of the ICT4RED initiative on learning outcomes; the innovative training style featuring an earn-as-you-learn badge model; as well as the 21st century teaching strategies communicated by the project. This is well-deserved but neither was the reason I got excited about the project and sought permission to use it as a case study in my PhD research. In my understanding, ICT4RED supports in particular teachers to lead the kind of life they have reason to value. ICT4RED through the provision of a status symbol (that is a Galaxy 10” Tablet in rural areas) to teachers, through connecting teachers with each other and the wider educational community of practice, through the facilitation of an individual process of technology mastery and thereby earned ownership, has allowed teachers to create new opportunities for themselves. To me, this is the most exciting part of the ICT4RED story.

Technology is all about opportunities – good and bad. The interviewed teachers feel for example that they have more choices in how to teach with the tablets allowing them to access a wider range of educational materials and teaching strategies. Teacher feel like they have more control over their professional tasks being able to prepare lessons at home or during the long commute to work. These educational opportunities are complemented by new ways to use information and to communicate. One teacher shares lesson plans through the tablet with her former university roommate, who now teaches in Botswana. Another teacher stays in contact via Viber with her PhD-pursuing daughter in Sweden. Others complain that the constant access to Facebook is distracting them (Note: them, not the learners!). Each of these examples show new ways of beings and doings that the ICT4RED has created, but which often are not part of the main narrative of ICTs in education.

A lesson prepared at home by the teacher

One might wonder how a teacher’s use of Facebook or Viber is relevant when reviewing a multi-million Rand project such as the ICT4RED.  It is quite simple actually: Teachers value the new opportunities the technology allows them to create for themselves. They might not value the same opportunities the project intended to nurture. For example, a teacher might not be fond of collaborating professionally via email; the very same teacher, however, will tell you with glazing eyes how she is the star at her local church reciting bibles verses from the Bible App she downloaded on her tablet. This teacher has created a new opportunity for herself and making use of that opportunity has increased her well-being. Her status within her church has changed and she has enhanced her means to live the life or be the person she has reason to value. How could a government programme be any more successful than allowing citizens to achieve individually valued beings and doings? Further, while not necessarily using the tablet to enhance her own role as an educator, she has no objections to learners doing so and believes that the tablets are of great benefit to them – an educational impact indeed.   

Technology as an educational input, in particular when combined with Internet connectivity, will not be limited to affect educational processes only. It affects social and economic processes alike, and the holistic long-term impact of ICT4RED might surprise policymakers, researchers, and even participants. Nevertheless, what emerges strongly already is the transformation of education in the Cofimvaba to become an education of choice. Each time an ICT4RED teacher is the center of attention at a regional teachers’ meeting for recording the event with her tablet; each time teachers of more affluent schools in East London ask an ICT4RED teacher to show them how to use tablets as an educational tool; each time policymakers, researchers, and tech geeks make their way amidst flattening tires to the Cofimvaba schools; the daily work and profession of the ICT4RED teachers is recognised. This recognition and respect might just be the motivation teachers have needed to persist with the work they love anyway despite the challenging socio-economic structure. Technology, in the short run, cannot fix any of the underlying structural challenges of rural education in Cofimvaba. It can, and does in the case of ICT4RED, however, serve as a ‘cherry on top’ of a profession already valued, present a means to ‘motivate learners to become me’ and aspire them to pursue a profession increasingly valued, and act as ‘a tool to become a mobile teacher’ to enhance one’s practice of a profession dearly valued.

Teachers having fun exploring the tablets together
It is a long drive back from Mvuzo and despite the South African summer heat the coffee in my thermo mug somehow has become lukewarm. There is no coffee shop anywhere within the next hour. The lesson I observed used a cupcake maker app to explain the idea of food processing to the learners. The learners stirred dough on their tablets, added sugar, and decorated their virtual cupcake creatively. It might be a long shot – but maybe some years from now there might be a coffee shop in Cofimvaba famous for its delicious cupcakes. I, for sure, would be a loyal customer!