This article was written by Dorothy Kyamazima, Communications Officer with Enabel Teacher Training Education (TTE) Project in Uganda.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world have ordered for the closure of schools in quick succession to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Because of this, more than 60 per cent of the world’s learners, around 1.5 billion students are unable to go to school in over 107 countries, according to UNESCO. Given the grand scale of education disruption and the uncertainty of schools re-opening, this has led to a global education crisis. What this means for Uganda is that since March 20th, over 15 million learners are shut out of classrooms and confined to their homes without access to instruction and uncertain of their future.
Even though Uganda, has managed to take the necessary steps to ensure that the infection rate in the country remains low, the hope for schools resuming is one that relies heavily on the ability of the Education Ministry to raise funds for regular testing of learners and teachers in what is termed as a phased reopening of schools. Currently, the Education Ministry’s COVID-19 response plan involves the distribution of home study kits and broadcasting lessons on both radio and television directly to learners at home. This is has created a shift from learning face-to-face in the classroom to adopting distance learning and virtual teaching methods.
Introducing a New Normal with the TTE Sandbox
With the significant change to the way learning is presently operating, teachers must inevitably re-skill at a record pace to support the continuity of learning. This means stepping away from traditional teaching methods and embracing the use of technology. A concept that Enabel has long since been supporting in the National Teachers’ Colleges (NTCs) in Uganda.
Through the Teacher Training Education (TTE) project, Enabel has placed priority on “leaving no one behind” by investing in sustainable infrastructure, innovations in management and teaching practices in the NTCs that aim at producing competent secondary school teachers.
It is from the latter that the distance learning strategy is now established. Dubbed as the ‘TTE Sandbox’, it serves as a testing environment for education technology (EdTech), fully utilising the potential of teachers to respond to the current education crisis. It introduces ICT tools and educational practices aimed at facilitating and enhancing distance learning during and post COVID-19 pandemic.
Through the sandbox, Enabel has organised innovative collaborations with NTC lecturers and ICT champions to introduce new ideas and technologies into the NTC ecosystem.
Maintaining Communication with Staff and Students
One of the first steps of the sandbox was to ensure that communication is maintained between NTC management, staff and students. Enabel has provided support for this by using a bulk SMS system. With the availability of 8,000 messages per month, NTCs can customise information to their staff and students in preparation for distance learning and official communication. This is complemented with an annual video conference subscription for each college that allows them to host up to 100 participants and hold an unlimited number of meetings to support management and teaching.
Harnessing the Power of Innovation
From this sandbox, a virtual hackathon was organised to kick start the lecturers’ involvement and inspire creativity in unpacking the different technologies to plan their digital lessons. More than 70 NTC lecturers participated in this hackathon, each pitching several tools they intended to use to develop and deliver lesson content.
Bolla Norbert, a music lecturer from NTC Mubende was one of the participants with a winning pitch on how lecturers could use Google classroom, YouTube, Prezi and WhatsApp to deliver lesson content. The latter being his most remarkable achievement so far. What initially started as a way to keep in touch with students via WhatsApp quickly turned into a lesson delivery tool as more students joined the social media platform. From a class of 38 students, he now has access to 29 learners and shares lessons every day at 3:00 pm.
“My desire to learn more about ICT has given me the ability to stay relevant and support my students. I have been sending learning content through WhatsApp and when I realised my students were responsive; I resorted to starting lessons on a regular basis. Now I look forward to using tools that are more sophisticated, like Goggle Classroom. ” Bolla Norbert, NTC Mubende.
Realising the Potential of Teachers
Borrowing from this collaborative effort, Enabel also introduced a series of Community of Practice (CoP) sessions, taking place every Thursday at 2:30 pm via ZOOM video conferencing. Through these knowledge-sharing events, college lecturers attend virtual meetings where they learn how to use the different digital tools for lesson delivery such as tutorials on screen-casting, podcasting, video conferencing, E-books and padlet, among others. These sessions have gained popularity in the teacher colleges as the numbers of participating lecturers has steadily grown from 82 to 160 over a period of 2 months.
Esther Katate, a female lecturer from NTC Kaliro, shares her experience in participating in the CoP sessions:
“I find the demonstrations for each of these digital tools quite fascinating. Because of these sessions, I have been able to introduce lessons using podcasts.”
While the concept of CoP sessions is intended for the benefit of lecturers in the teachers’ colleges, the idea has also trickled down to secondary schools. So far, teachers in the network of partner secondary schools surrounding the NTCs have expressed interest and are taking part in these virtual meetings aimed at gaining new skills.
Ojok Simon Stephen, a teacher from Ocer Campion Jesuit College, a secondary school in Gulu, had this to say:
“I have attended four Community of Practice sessions and my favourite tool is PowerPoint because it doesn’t require constant use of the internet. I can work on my laptop and later share work with my students online. It is something I am happy to use even when schools resume.”
The colleges are also each provided with a 2,000 Euro package to support the continuous professional development of their staff by undertaking several online courses.
Making Sure Students Access Educational Resources
Aside from the hackathon and the Community of practice sessions, Enabel has invested in setting up a number of interventions to make sure students have access to educational resources during the closing of their NTC. One of these is the ‘Help-desk’, a peer-to-peer support system that consists of lecturers from each of the NTCs. Through the help-desk, lecturers provide support to each other across the colleges to undertake distance learning by developing lesson content with the appropriate ICT tools.
When the lesson content is developed, it is then uploaded to a one-stop portal for easy access to both lecturers and students in the teachers’ colleges. Created through Padlet, this portal hosts all teaching and learning resources, such as tutorials on ICT for distance learning, lessons developed by lecturers on different subjects and open education resources for secondary education.
From Lessons Learnt to Policy Development
In July, Enabel, organised a high-level eDialogue which brought together participants from the public and private sectors, as well as development partners, to feed into the development of an ICT tool in education policy.
Enabel has supported Uganda’s education sector for about 20 years with a focus on teacher training and vocational education. Even during these times of COVID-19, learning should not wait. The organisation is offering various forms of technical and financial support to ensure learning continuity including engaging authorities about the need to align education with advances in technology.