International Literacy Day 2020 focuses on “Literacy teaching and learning in the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.” As school systems worldwide adapt to tremendous changes in how they teach and how best to support student learning, the pandemic may also present opportunity to build and improve educational technologies that may help “leapfrog” progress in education.
At RTI International, we value our role in equipping teachers and students with the resources and information they need to effectively adapt to the changes imposed by the pandemic. Lessons from the Samoa SchoolNet and Community Access Project (SchoolNet) provide useful guidance for creating technology resources that are easily accessible and attractive to teachers and students, ultimately leading to improved learning. While focused on science, the lessons learned are applicable to literacy teaching and learning as schools move more to online environments.
Specifically, SchoolNet “provided several lessons in how technology can enhance education in low resource settings and how technology supports teachers,” says Dr. Carmen Strigel, RTI’s Director for Education Technology and Project Manager of SchoolNet.
One recurrent theme in what the RTI team learned is the importance of considering the individual user. “As the consequences of COVID-19 intensify threats to low- and middle-income countries and amplify the need for high-quality, technology-based education at scale, the design and development of these products must ensure the input and co-design at every stage of the teachers and students who will be using them. Even in times of COVID, such user input can be rapidly collected through phone calls and interviews, online focus groups, or surveys,” said Strigel.
Strigel further reflects on the lessons learned working with the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture (MESC) to develop curriculum-integrated and technology-enhanced model learning activities, and designing and conducting school administrator and teacher training that promote the integration of technology to sustain student learning outcomes:
Lesson 1: Identify the needs and interests of teachers and start your design from there
We set up a “living lab,” a model resource center open daily, in Apia, the capital city. This openness really helped. Teachers could come in to use the technology or receive mini trainings using a demonstration version of the SchoolNet eResources.
Teachers often just came in to conduct their personal business—using the center to type and print documents—and while they were there, we used that opportunity to show them the SchoolNet resources and get their feedback and buy-in early.
We learned a lot from these impromptu conversations and familiarization sessions which allowed us to refine our approach to teacher training and project roll out.
Lesson 2: Give teachers a choice in new technology implementation
Up to three times a week—over months—project staff met with champion teachers for each subject, and often with staff from the curriculum unit at MESC, to develop model learning activities (MLAs) that linked the eResources to Samoa’s curriculum and learning standards.
MLAs gave teachers two suggested scenarios for using the eResources in the classroom: one as part of student self-directed study. In this scenario, the teacher introduced the topic, raised an overarching question and task, and then students worked with the selected eResources for the duration of the lesson.
The other implementation scenario was for teacher use, or shorter lesson activities. For this scenario, the MLAs included tips for teachers on integrating an eResource element (e.g., an audio clip or a science simulation) to augment their lesson presentation, or tips on giving students just a short time for targeted lesson practice with the eResource, while also including other activities in the remainder of the lesson. This approach aimed to provide instructional guidance to teachers, while promoting their autonomy in adapting the guidance to their own lesson plan.
Not all teachers used the MLAs but for those that did they provided a helpful starting point for when and how to integrate the use of the eResources with their lesson.
Lesson 3: Meet teachers where they are and only train them on what they truly need to know or do
Early in the project, we learned that all teachers had telephones, and most had some basic experience using technology like a computer for typing a letter. However, from my previous work experience, I knew that teachers may know how to use technology but may not know how to use it for teaching and learning.
As a result, rather than focusing our teacher training on the use of the technology (computers), we made sure that students knew how to access the eResources and prioritized our work with teachers on the pedagogical decisions of what eResources to select and how to integrate them in their lesson.
Lesson 4: While localization is critical, international resources may be a good fit
Initially, we had hoped to use open educational resources as the foundation of the Samoa SchoolNet content library. However, one of the drawbacks of such materials, aggregated from different developers and sources— including teachers around the world—is that their user interface, language (e.g., British English versus American English), and metrics differ.
Given that Samoa SchoolNet aimed to cover most of the curriculum for six different subjects and two upper secondary grades, this would have required a significant training effort for teachers and students to ensure they could effectively use these many different materials. We thus abandoned the effort to curate existing open educational resources and bought rights to an existing international platform in which all resources for a subject were following a consistent user interface, design, and terminology. These eResources were also of extremely high quality. We addressed the need for localization in our MLAs, suggesting eResources with high relevance to the local context and curriculum. In some instances, we developed original eResources, such as for Agricultural Science, so that these would address the climate, soil type, farming techniques and resources unique to Samoa.
Lesson 5: Support the individual interests and motivation of students and teachers
As mentioned above, we decided not to conduct traditional trainings. Instead, we essentially held a “party” at every school to kick off the program and invited students and teachers to learn about SchoolNet together. Our primary goal was to get people logged into the system and leave the school knowing they can search for resources in the platform. This kick-off day was then followed by a year and a half of teacher coaching delivered through the same group of champion teachers who already helped design the MLAs.
We learned that continued and effective use of the Samoa SchoolNet technology really came down to supportive school principals and committed teachers. Some principals were afraid of students damaging the technology and some teachers did not want to try using it, no matter what the program or MESC did to encourage them. For the teachers and students who wanted to learn, SchoolNet gave them the tools to excel.