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22 November 2016
by Paul Moclair, Aflatoun
In 2017, if all goes according to plan, some brave soul will be tasked with digitizing the TiCCWG Teacher Training Pack (TPP). That person may wish to consider Aflatoun International’s (www.aflatoun.org/) recent efforts at creating a TPD platform, which we offer humbly as both inspirational and cautionary tale.
A brief initial description of our platform, and of its raison d’être is necessary before we can use it to illuminate the challenges facing the TTP. Aflatoun delivers its open-source program of Child Social and Financial Education to over four million children in 119 countries through 160 partner organizations. Lifeskills and economic empowerment are taught in classroom lessons (or non-formal equivalents) leading to a range of savings and social and financial enterprise projects carried out as club activities. Participating teachers receive packs of lesson plans. To ensure quality we have invested heavily in teacher-training workshops. We have a global network of 250 master trainers and have partnered with teacher-training institutes in 14 countries. We believe unequivocally in the primacy of face-to-face workshops but their cost prohibits us offering refresher training. We had previously considered what other forms of continuous support might look like but in the absence of concrete funding this remained purely speculative.
In 2015, an Orange Foundation grant of E100K gave us the chance to engineer a solution to this problem. On Thursday 3 November 2016 we launched our own teacher-training platform (www.education.aflatoun.org/) which is piloting in 150 schools in Niger, Cameroon, Senegal, Madagascar and Tunisia. As well as a library of multi-media lesson plans, it offers 14 one-hour, self-study modules for teachers whom we have previously trained face-to-face. The 14 modules echo sessions teachers have already completed in actual workshops. Within each module the teacher reads some text, listens to an audio file, watches some animation or film footage and then takes a multiple choice quiz. Seven of the modules remind teachers how to use a range of active-learning methods. The others look at promoting gender-equity in the classroom, what the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) says about quality education and how to organize children’s savings and enterprise activities. Foundation for Learning Equality in San Francisco were the technical providers and designed the platform for both online and offline access. They had previously developed the offline version of Khan Academy. Orange Foundation provided pro bono tablets for teachers students and raspberry pi offline servers. The raspberry pi server, housed in a plastic box no larger than a packet of cigarettes, includes a power supply, a USB WiFi dongle, a network aerial and an SD memory card which contains the educational content. The server communicates via a network with other IT devices such as digital tablets.
Now, back to the TTP and its great leap forward off the printed page and into the digital realm. Clearly it would appear to make sense to have a product that was available both for situations where there was or wasn’t internet connectivity. The latter would certainly seem relevant to many emergency settings. Beyond that though, the person charged with this task will have to ponder the following questions.
If the intention is to use the digitized version as the primary resource for traditional, face-to-face workshops with a trainer guiding teachers through the exercises in the TTP, what are the benefits of a tablet over the printed page? Not many. After all the dynamic of the workshop hasn’t changed. It’s just that the trainer now holds a tablet and works from it rather than from a paper manual as she guides teachers through a series of activities. Now, the printed TTP is a bulky beast and paper is perishable so the tablet does at least have the modest advantage of being compact, lightweight and durable. And you can fit all manner of supplementary materials onto it. If the trainer has an internet connection all she needs is a tablet costing $60 - $100. That’s still more expensive than a big paper manual. If she does not have connectivity and goes for the offline server approach the cost-advantage of the printed manual increases - the raspberry pii unit cost (including wifi toggle and USD card 128G) running at around $80-100 printing is still the cheaper option. That’s hardly a compelling argument in favour of digitizing, is it?
Clearly the best use of the platform is as one that features a mutli-layered strategy that includes face-to-face workshops, teacher-learning circles and systems of peer-mentoring and coaching. Digitalizing the TTP as a refresher resource has many advantages. As trainers we all know what tends to happen in the wake of a workshop. Teachers leave on a high but over the weeks that morale can wither and dissipate. Confidence ebbs, the sense of camaraderie forged in the workshop might be lost and they may face skepticism or resentment from head-teachers or colleagues. But, what if we decide to provide teachers with access to a refresher training resource? Then the case for digitization and multi-media features grows. Let’s take the session on Active and Engaging Learning from the Pedagogy module of the TTP as an example to help us visualize what its digitalized counterpart might look and sound like. Some of the advice issued by the trainer can be replicated in simple PDF text, but recordings of some of the whole group discussion can also be offered as an audio file allowing the user to relive that exchange of ideas. Where the trainer or participants model activities, animation can fill the gap and can be played and replayed. Animation has the advantage too of being quickly rendered into different languages through the creation of audio files that even a luddite like myself can manage with a lap top, a mic and some open-source editing software.
The question currently haunting us in these days following the launch of our platform is, how to incentivize teachers to use the thing. We feel we have created a lovely resource, but if teachers aren’t tackling the self-study modules, our platform risks falling into the dreaded albino pachyderm category. Why would an overworked, underpaid teacher choose to access our platform in her own spare time to complete 14, one-hour modules? The temptation is to link the completion of digitized exercises with some form of certification, itself a vexed question. Which of us, seeing the excitement in a teacher’s eyes as we hand out worthless certificates embellished with an NGO logo, has not felt like an undertow of guilt? By embarking on a strategy of certification however, we painted ourselves into the corner of assessment. Certificates as a carrot-on-a-stick led us to create interactive multiple choice questions at the end of each module. There are two flaws with that. Firstly, our tiny budget prevented us creating a system whereby teachers could only progress from one module to another if they first succeeded in answering a set number of answers correctly. Secondly, unless you want to pay a moderator to sift through teachers’ answers you are limited to asking only closed questions, the answers to which the platform can respond either ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. The use of closed questions sits uneasily alongside the TTP module on questioning with its promotion of the ladder model. And this has resulted in an unfortunate contradiction. While our training constantly urges teachers to use higher-order questioning, our own means of assessment fails to do so.
Many of us who once entertained fantasies about the ability of digitized resources to quickly create autonomous, self-learning teachers have been forced to a more sober assessment of their value. No matter how good your hardware and software, we are never going to parachute such resources into emergency contexts and expect teachers and trainers to ‘just get on with it’. Our self-study, digitized platform will never succeed unless we first invest in further face-to-face training ensuring teachers are happy and confident in using it. I don’t want to exaggerate the difficulty. From now on we will simply add on a half-day to our normal workshops showing teachers how to use the resource. Perhaps that’s another paradox: in creating a platform designed to replace our presence on the ground, we have ended up creating a situation where we must first spend an extra half-day longer in the field. But that half-day investment potentially enables us to offer teachers a lifeline of continuing support even considering the teething problems listed above.
All those challenges that we are currently facing at Aflatoun risk being magnified and amplified when it comes to digitizing the TTP. The TTP is a wonderful resource but nobody will deny that currently it is dense and immense. A direct translation from paper to digital would result in a platform that teachers might struggle to navigate. Of course it can succeed, but like a hero on some mythological quest, whoever assumes the role of digitization will first have to pass three tests. Firstly, imagination and creativity must lead to multi-media resources that engage and excite users. A vast digital repository of PDFs will not suffice. Secondly, we must acknowledge that any investment in digitizing the TTP will have to be matched many times over so in training teachers on how to use it. And thirdly teachers need to see why it is in their interests to pursue such self-study in the absence of monetary awards. In the meantime, our own modest platform will surely continue to shed light on this issue as we seek to roll-it out across our global network of partners.
Paul Moclair has worked as a teacher-trainer and curriculum writer for Aflatoun for eight years, recently venturing into the creation of animation and other digital resources. Paul has a background of teaching and a MA in Theatre for Development. He currently lives in Ireland with his wife Lucy.