Revolutionizing teaching through online courses and teacher community of practices

By Victor Mugarura
On 16 June 2017 at 12:47

The media has been abuzz with interesting reports on ICT and cyber education, and most pronounced being an interview that appeared in The New Times of April 17 on “Rwanda’s education system to go digital in June”. In the interview, Warren La Fleur, an official from Microsoft describes an initiative with the government to improve Internet access for students, teachers and institution. A related report also appeared in The East African of April 15 – 17, 2017 about a project funded by the World (...)

The media has been abuzz with interesting reports on ICT and cyber education, and most pronounced being an interview that appeared in The New Times of April 17 on “Rwanda’s education system to go digital in June”. In the interview, Warren La Fleur, an official from Microsoft describes an initiative with the government to improve Internet access for students, teachers and institution. A related report also appeared in The East African of April 15 – 17, 2017 about a project funded by the World Economic Forum to connect 3 million more people to Internet. The target is to connect 25 million new internet users in the Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda.

Indeed these are timely initiatives in a country where internet penetration stands at 35 per cent, translating to around 4 million users. Among those in urgent need of Internet connection are teachers whose role is vital and foundational in transforming any education system. However, to play this role well, teachers should be able to utilize the internet to access and acquire more knowledge to be better qualified.

According to the Ministry of Education 2015 Statistical year book, Rwanda has about 39,453 qualified primary teachers, out of over 42,000, which is almost 94% of the teachers. But like other trades, teaching is not a static profession, but one that often evolves. It requiresfresh knowledge, attitude and practice for in-service teachers to be better at what they do – that is teaching. These opportunities are hard to come by.
Out of this dire need, this year’s National Leadership Retreat held in February focused on education as one of the priority areas, and made a resolution to “Improve quality of education at all levels, especially by improving the quality of teachers, infrastructure and equipment, by conducting regular inspections, and by promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

To drive the point home at the retreat, President Paul Kagame reflected on the need for ambition and sense of urgency while implementing development programs such as that on quality education. Here it is important to mark the focus on improved quality of teachers and use of technology in order to improve quality of education. In short, achieving meaningful transformation in the education sector requires teachers and technologies as critical elements to focus on.

Now the challenge for policy implementers is two – fold: how to come up with appropriate programmes that can bring the desired change and at the same time engaging change agents like teachers in the process of implementation. This thinking is well defined in a quote by Nancy Kassebaum that: “There can be infinite uses of the computer and of new age technology, but if teachers themselves are not able to bring it into the classroom and make it work, then it fails.” In short, any transformation for the education sector through technology must have the teacher as the core driver of change.

Let’s first look at what teachers need. A mini opinion poll among teachers at Kinyinya Primary School was so revealing – almost in the same measure as increase in salary, the teachers indicated their priorities to include refresher training and improved computer knowledge and access to ICT. Backed up with this knowledge, our focus should now be on how to make ICT work for teachers who, in turn, impart knowledge in our students. Yes the government can give direction and monitor progress, but the first step should be providing the necessary facilities and IT infrastructure for teachers to get access, get engaged and own the process.

While interrogating the crucial role that teachers can play in integration of ICT in education, author W.J. Pelgrum raised some crucial issues in a discussion paper on Teachers, teacher policies and ICT (2002). He poses several questions: (1) What is the impact of ICT on the work of teachers and their working conditions? (2) Are there ways that ICT can improve the effectiveness of the work of teachers?, (3) What types of ICT- skills do teachers need? (4)Which policies and programs seem to be effective to prepare and motivate teachers for their role in education for the information society? Raised almost 15 years ago, these issues remain valid today as we try to make ICT work for the teacher. Understanding ICT skills gap among teachers is as crucial as assessing how ICT can improve on quality of teaching.

Before looking at details on e-learning, take a glance at the risks associated with traditional classroom based training, right from the cost of training, to access.

Traditional classroom based training does not come cheap, and often times it requires a lot of time and resources that trainees do not have as they continue work. This is where technology comes in as an alternative that teachers ready for refresher training, can embrace and adapt easily.

Take an example of Nyirabashyitsi Valerie, a teacher at Bunyangurure Primary School in Nyamasheke District. Although a fully qualified teacher, Valerie always dreamt of upgrading and exploring new and appropriate technologies in education. Unfortunately her public school, with limited resources for teachers and students, could not offer much for teacher with such ambitions. Like most teachers, Valerie is often busy teaching without enough time to attend traditional classroom training. She had to find a way to upgrade and gain more knowledge.

In addition to being registered to the teacher community of practice (TCOP) with 1,000 other school-based mentors, Valerie enrolled into an online course a few months ago, but she is already reaping benefits. The platform is managed by Rwanda Mentorship Community of Practice (MCOP) initiative that is implemented by FHI360. Funded by US Agency for International Development (USAID), the initiative aims to scale, institutionalize, and replicate a model for supporting Rwanda’s school-based mentors.

Exposure is all a trainee needs. I was lucky to witness Valerie in action during the recent launch of the E-course in February as part of MCOP’s activities for USAID’s Early Grade Reading Project launch. As Valerie demonstrated for guests, I was particularly amazed by the ease with which she manipulated her computer, followed the course and interacted with fellow learners through the online teacher community of practice.

As a community of practice, TCOP supports these teachers to share their concern or a passion for their teaching profession, and exposes them to opportunities in IT to acquire more knowledge and share experiences through regular interaction.

For a teacher like Valerie that must be based at school for a whole term, the online course comes as the best alternative to class-room based learning that is costlier and time consuming. For her to take the course and its exams, she doesn’t need to leave her place, she does all in the comfort of her home.

A quick visit to the online platform, offers a glimpse on what the course offers, including a section for courses, discussion forum and online resources.

Learners are also able to access education tips, and information on news and events. All it requires is access to a computer and internet and online registration for the course. The course is also optimized for usage on web-enabled mobile phones. How it is conducted: trainees conduct a two hour expert facilitated session once every week, then take an online quiz for evaluation. They are then encouraged to conduct online discussion sessions with fellow teachers based in different schools countrywide, with support from experts.

Commenting about the e-course, MCOP Director, Mrs. EustochieAgasaro S said: “using the online platform, trainees/students participate in online discussions with other learners, thereby being able to share experiences, resources and best practices. Also, learners can post their issues and receive support from experts in real time without delayed response. MCOP online course not only saves teachers’ time, but it also allows equal access to continuous professional development as well as access to quality teaching resources. For example, a teacher seated in Nyamasheke can instantly share learning experience with a colleague in Kigali or Musanze without having to travel”.

For starters like Valerie, online learning offers added advantage of peer learning and access to quality material. Valerie and her colleagues are able to be in sync with each other, encourage each other and offer each other advice as they navigate through the course, while simultaneously getting guidance from the same instructor or facilitator. This makes e-learning more lively, interactive and interesting as opposed to traditional classroom-based instruction where different learners receiving different materials and instructions.

Supply of computers by REB and of internet by MCOP made a lot of difference for the pioneer trainees, bringing out the power of creating partnerships in transforming education. Having the e-course validated by the University of Rwanda College of Education (URCE) adds credibility to what the teachers are learning.

Such partnerships are what will make a difference in the educations sector of our country.

On a different front, e-learning enables quick delivery of materials and information to and among learners. For example, the e-course has enabled the school based teacher mentors to access online resources with ease, even via mobile phones especially around areas with limited internet. Some of the resources accessed include those on teacher professional development, English language and competency-based curriculum, among others.

With e-learning, government policies like that on foundations of learning in Kinyarwanda become easy to share, monitor and implement. For instance, the e-course is offering lessons on early grade reading in Kinyarwanda to the mentors and teachers. First cohort is of 150 teachers but MCOP hopes to scale it up to all lower level Kinyarwanda teachers. This is being implemented as USAID’s Early Grade Learning project, a partnership with the government to improve learning outcomes.

The beauty of this online course is its ease to facilitate social and collaborative learning, enabling learners to learn together. By making it easy to learn and digest information, such an e-course in turn enables the mentors to improve performance. Most have indicated that following their enrollment into the online course, they are now able to deliver their course assignments and respond to student needs better compared to the period before enrolling. Nothing sums this up well, like a quote by Ethan Edwards, Chief Instructional Strategist at Allen Interactions. He opines: "boring e-learning fails to engage the learner’s mind, and without that basic motivation and action, nothing can happen even when the learner goes through all the required motions." The interactive aspect keeps learners engaged and interested.

As an alternative to the paper-based learning, all e-learning programs offer less stress on the environment both in terms of paper waste and usage. Only a computer or a mobile phone and internet access is all a learner and course facilitator needs to complete the course.

Most importantly, it is the ease of access and facilitation by experts that make e-learning interesting for the trainees, thereby explaining the high interest and good performance of trainees. For instance, none of the 150 enrolled has dropped out of the e-course that MCOP manages, supervised by professionals from MCOP and the University of Rwanda, School of Education that certified the course.

This evidence only proves that with the right ingredients in place, e-learning can work even for the least privileged. For this to work, all that is required is a good mix of interventions right from good government policy to proper programme monitoring and engagement with development partners.

To quote Jim Crapko, "If you continue training the same way you’ve always trained, don’t expect to get better results." It is time to embrace new technologies that offer alternatives for teachers like Nyirabashyitsi Valerie to be able to upgrade, gain knowledge and contribute better to Rwanda’s improved education.

Teachers during a mentorship session