This blog is based on the findings of Distance learning and teacher training strategies. Lessons from the Caribbean, a recently published report by the Teacher Task Force. It was written by Anna C. Conover, Consultant
Distance teaching and learning have expanded rapidly around the world since COVID-19 school closures first began in 2020. The transition exposed a wide digital divide in many countries, where lack of access to devices, online content and internet connectivity hindered universal access. Equally crucial, the shift shone a light on the need for more and better teacher training in digital and relevant pedagogical skills.
However, in spite of this urgent need, ministries of education in many countries are only now integrating ICT competencies and standards into teacher policy frameworks. Moreover, traditional teacher training programmes do not necessarily adequately cover digital and related pedagogical skills in initial teacher training and continuing professional education.
Teacher training can help improve learners’ and teachers’ experience of distance learning
In response to the demand for training in distance learning and technology integration in small island developing states (SIDS) in the Caribbean, the Distance Learning and Teacher Training Strategies in the Caribbean SIDS teacher training programme was created to enhance the capacity of national education systems. The Teacher Task Force, UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, Blackboard, the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning (CCEP), UNICEF Jamaica, and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development collaborated to develop, implement and monitor the programme.
Building on the 2020 pilot project, Professional Development for Teachers for Blended Learning and Online Strategies, the programme was designed to strengthen teachers’ digital and related pedagogical skills. It took a holistic and context-sensitive approach to strengthening teachers’ capacity to guarantee that the most vulnerable students were not left behind during the crisis.
The project aimed to confront challenges such as: how to maintain engagement and interaction for learning; how to convert content into appropriate online learning formats; how to handle school management issues, such as the need to respect normal school hours; and how to work with students with diverse needs. Providing support in these areas also helped to address teachers’ psychosocial well-being, since the abrupt transition to online teaching led to significant disruption of teachers’ professional and personal lives, causing uncertainty and other emotional challenges.
Careful course design, adaptable materials and supportive communities of practice are essential for successful distance learning
A key lesson from the programme was the importance of high standards for course design, content, and capacity for collaboration and delivery. Online platforms or learning management systems must be intuitive and user-friendly; courses must include different forms of interaction and student-teacher feedback loops; and time and space must be allotted for collaboration, reflection and experimentation. Since parental involvement is important for successful distance learning, course design should also include guidance for parents and reliable channels for them to communicate with teachers.
Preparing and adapting materials for online learning is one of the most challenging and time-consuming tasks for teachers in transitioning to distance learning. So, teacher training should include guidance on tools to facilitate this work, such as “live worksheets”, which are interactive and support assessment at a distance. And programmes should use open-source materials where possible, or explicitly state copyright conditions when needed, to increase scalability and enable teachers to re-use materials.
Teachers who participated in the teacher training programme particularly appreciated being part of a community of practice, enabling them to make new connections with distance education experts and other teachers in similar situations across their country and region. This feeling of belonging to a supportive network, as well as their newly acquired skills, boosted their personal and professional confidence in applying digital technologies and the required skills in their classrooms.
Teacher training for distance education should prepare teachers to create inclusive online learning environments
Ensuring inclusive education should be a priority in distance learning. Even though this form of schooling can limit teachers’ interactions with students (e.g., by reducing opportunities for spontaneous communication and gestural cues), it can also provide opportunities to promote inclusion. Designing courses with accessibility in mind is essential to create inclusive learning environments. For instance, to accommodate the needs of learners with disabilities, participants should be given a range of ways to access materials and participate in courses. This may include offering asynchronous* and synchronous** options for discussion, multimodal (visual, aural, textual, etc.) delivery of content, and downloadable as well as livestreamed content.
In multilingual contexts, adapting to teachers’ language needs is also essential. In the SIDS programme, course content was often only available in French or English. However, to allow participants to conduct discussions in the language with which they were most comfortable, course facilitators allowed participants to form online breakout groups using other languages.
Flexibility is a key feature in planning for teacher training
Training teachers for distance education must be flexible, since teachers have competing and sometimes unforeseen demands on their time. Course content, pacing and assignments should be adjusted throughout the course according to participants’ changing needs. This is particularly important during emergency situations. For accreditation transparency and to maintain teacher motivation, courses can adapt to teachers’ time constraints by offering different levels of certification and micro-credentials for specific ICT skills.
Careful planning that considers school calendars and teachers’ accessibility needs, as well as good communication campaigns, are essential to ensure successful enrolment and sustained attendance in teacher training. Registration should be easy and obstacle-free, and directly available online. In general, teacher training should not be scheduled at the beginning or at the end of the school year when teachers are busiest, or during long summer vacations when many teachers are not available.
Partnerships are important for developing teacher training programmes for distance education
Partnerships are particularly important in delivering distance education, since it requires considerable expertise and resources, including costly devices, uninterrupted connectivity, education software, open educational resources, and pedagogical and organizational expertise. Given that connectivity and device availability are often a barrier in online education, governments and stakeholders should develop partnerships with technology companies and internet providers to identify solutions, while ensuring that data security and participant privacy are respected.
Educational technologies have proven to be useful to ensure continuity of education in emergency situations. Increasingly true to all societies, they are also among the basic tools needed to fully participate in our contemporary world. However, investing in these technologies will not achieve the desired results unless we also invest in teachers’ digital and related pedagogical skills. Initial and in-service teacher education must therefore be re-imagined including these skills and technologies. With their first-hand experience of the challenges and opportunities of remote teaching, teachers must be involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of distance learning and technology integration. In such a way, they must effectively be placed at the heart of wider education transformation.
*Asynchronous online learning: Education and learning that occur online at a different time compared to when the teacher is instructing.
**Synchronous online learning: Education and learning that occur online at the same time, but not in the same place with teachers and/or other learners.
Photo credit: Abir Roy Barman/Shutterstock.com