Plugged-in learning reaps results

The time has come to explore radical alternatives for in-service teacher training. In an article in the South African Medical Journal titled: "Text messages as a learning tool for midwives", Dave Woods, a retired professor of ­paediatrics at the University of Cape Town, reported on the capacity of cellphone messaging "to improve access to healthcare education in under-resourced settings". What he and fellow authors say has exciting possibilities for in-service teachers.

The health and education sectors have similar histories and face similar challenges for similar reasons. Under apartheid, colleges of nursing and education proliferated in the rural areas in response to particular resource needs and shortages, but also as a means of dispensing patronage and advancing political ambitions.

All in all, 105 nursing colleges and 102 teachers' training colleges were established. Entry requirements were low, often just a junior certificate (grade 10) or even lower. The National Audit on Teacher Education (1997) showed a massive over-production of poorly qualified teachers. These teachers, the audit also revealed, had a lack of commitment to education and low levels of professionalism.

Although enormous efforts were made to improve the capacity and qualifications of under- and unqualified teachers, with literally billions of rands being spent on in-service training, these efforts have been to little effect as declining standards and performance, well documented over the past decade and a half, attest.

Part of the reason for the poor results of in-service teacher training can be attributed to the highly centralised model used in the production and transmission of knowledge. That is, teachers on upgrading courses are taken out of their schools and transported to a central venue where they are taught, housed and fed. It is costly, time-consuming and ensures that they remain passive recipients of new information rather than active makers of meaning.

Nor has there been any significant follow-up to ensure that what has been learned is applied in the classroom. While teachers are away from school, of course, substitutes have to be found and paid, increasing costs.

An innovative, decentralised self-help model for healthcare workers, the Perinatal Education Programme, developed by Woods and colleagues, has important lessons for an alternative to in-service teacher training and professional development.

Extensively evaluated over the past 20 years, the programme enables practising midwives to manage their own continuing education without taking them away from their place of work or their communities. Participants are encouraged to form study groups drawn from colleagues in their immediate communities to promote co-operative learning and peer tuition. The study groups are also responsible for managing a formal multiple-choice examination for which the pass mark is 80%.

Studies have shown that midwives and neonatal nurses in rural and urban hospitals can significantly increase their knowledge of perinatal care using this mix of study methods. On average, test results improved from 55% to 88%.

In addition, a pilot programme was set up to assess whether weekly cellphone text messaging from the programme was a viable option in promoting in-service training. Over a period of six months, practising midwives received a short essential learning text message every Tuesday morning for 26 weeks.

A survey of 50 recipients revealed that 86% enjoyed and learned from the weekly text messages, 72% believed the messages helped their clinical practice and 68% regularly shared and discussed the messages with their colleagues. All wanted text messaging in related topics.

The programme's model is economical, saves time and places the responsibility of learning on the students at their place of employment.

Alternative needed
Current in-service teacher training and professional development is expensive and largely ineffective. An alternative that is cost-effective, professionally viable and educationally sound is urgently needed. The  programme's model, adapted for the education sector, offers just such an example.

In the envisaged programme, teachers register for an accredited course focusing on content know-ledge and classroom methodology.

Study material is sent to them once a week by cellphone and also placed on a website. This material is integrated into the course in such a way that it can be accessed for private or group study in professional learning communities. All the learning material is made available in hard copy and electronically on a website. Cellphone numbers and/or email addresses are used to communicate essential exercises and support material, together with suggestions for their application, where appropriate, in the classroom.

The amount of information that can fit on to a cellphone screen limits this method. However, this limitation will not apply to tablets, which will provide fuller explanation and remediation opportunities. In any event, each message will be linked to the website, from which all course materials can be accessed and downloaded.

Individual codes received by cellphone will allow timely assessment and access to specific sections of education material stored on a tablet. Exercises on the website will be structured so that the student must master a particular skill before continuing. Tests will precede and conclude each section of work so that students can gauge in real time how much progress they are making. No section can be completed until the student has managed to pass.

Participating teachers will be encouraged to form study groups with colleagues to enhance co-operative learning and peer-group tuition while remaining in their schools.

Once a study group is established, it should be encouraged either to find an outside facilitator or nominate one from within the group who will take responsibility for organising meetings, see that the study material is ordered, field queries and manage the final examination.

Keep roles separate
It is important that the facilitator does not take on the role of the teacher, as to do so would disempower the participants and reduce them to passive recipients of information. The additional help of a local mentor would be invaluable. The emphasis throughout is on teachers taking responsibility for their own professional development.

This model contains incentives that have been shown to be effective by the programme. First, it is voluntary. There is no coercion. Second, although participants must pay a modest fee for the course and final exam, on passing, they receive their money back. Participants remain in their familiar environment. The course will provide content know-
ledge, practical teaching methodologies, supplementary teaching materials and lesson planning that participants can use immediately in their classrooms. And last, exam success and certification will be linked to promotion.

This approach has not been conceived as a big bang that is going to solve all the in-service teacher training and professional development issues in one fell swoop. There is considerable resistance within the profession to teachers taking on any responsibility that might be perceived as adding to their workload. However, if the programme's experience is anything to go by, we can expect this distance-education model to attract those teachers who have a genuine interest in their professional development. Thereafter, it can be expected to grow exponentially.

This approach is truly democratic in that it gives teachers back their dignity as self-empowering professionals. Change is unnerving and is often, especially in the educational context, associated with the potential loss of control. But the alternative to not accepting the challenge of change that the new technology and this methodology offer will lead to escalating costs, more frustration with a system that is patently not working and ultimately to educational failure and the sacrifice of millions of young lives.

Dr Michael Rice taught at the Johannesburg College of Education for many years. He was subsequently special adviser to former education minister Kadar Asmal. He now runs the Programme for Educational Tablets in Schools (PETS) Foundation.

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