Tablets to teach

December 29, 2013

Tablets to teach

After reading my last article, which questioned the smartness of Punjab government’s plans to develop the smart school system, I received several perceptive email responses from interested readers. While most readers seemed to share my concerns about this plan, one of them also asked my opinion about what would I do if I were given thousands of free android tablets and asked to do something with them to improve teaching and learning in our schools. My response was, "If anyone can benefit from giving this technology to schools, it is teachers. If the Punjab government must give tablets to schools, then they should experiment with giving them to the teachers and not children."

In this article, the third and hopefully the last on this topic, I will explain how the android tablets, if part of a well-coordinated plan, could help teachers teach better.

Let me begin by observing that any initiative to improve teaching must address the perennial problems that afflict it. One of the foremost and widely documented problems with teachers in Pakistan is that of subject knowledge deficiencies. In a conversation I had with the legendary teacher of mathematics, Geoffrey Langland, many years ago, I remember asking him his opinion on teacher education. The seasoned teacher responded, "All you need for good teaching is sound knowledge of your subject and a passion to teach". My experience has taught me that Langland is right in his judgement. If teachers do not know their subject knowledge well, they cannot learn to teach.

Teacher education is typically not, or inadequately, designed to eliminate the subject knowledge gaps. The policymakers have tried to address this problem by accepting the suggestions to increase the length of pre-service teacher preparation. Yet, as a seasoned teacher educator in one of the premier institutions in Pakistan recently told me, the quality of teacher education programmes can be only as good as that of teacher educators.

In the course of a study that I recently conducted, many teacher educators I interacted with did not have a university degree in the subject of the courses they had been asked to teach. Thus, a teacher educator trained in Urdu literature could be found teaching mathematics and science. What other faculties in a university will let this happen? Can you imagine this happening in the Physics, Chemistry, or even Urdu department in a university? Yet it does happen in some faculties of education. As a result, the prospective teachers joining the teacher education programmes with subject knowledge deficiencies exit those programmes without much change in their state of subject knowledge. Thus unresolved, the knowledge difficulties of prospective teachers are routinely carried into nation’s classrooms.

While the pre-service teacher education fails to address the preparation needs of prospective teachers, there is no evidence either that in-service professional development courses are able to comprehensively address those needs. The in-service professional development activities, with some exceptions, usually consist of short spurts of training offered to the teachers during the summer holidays.

This tablet comes preloaded with short video lessons on every topic that you would be required to teach. Each video accompanies a quiz designed for self-assessment. You can watch the video to refresh your knowledge.

Provinces, with the exception of Punjab, are barely maintaining their teacher education institutions by paying the salary bills of their staff. There are no resources available for designing and implementing professional development activities, which are almost completely funded by project funds obtained from the donors.

Punjab’s situation is somewhat different since it has established an elaborate structure for continuous professional development of teachers by extending the reach of Lahore-based Directorate of Staff Development (DSD) to district and sub-district level. The district teacher educators regularly visit the classrooms, provide support to teachers, and also conduct regular student assessment.

However, the anecdotal evidence based on conversations with teachers and a study of transcripts of classroom observations show that even this system of regular support is unable to sufficiently address the subject knowledge difficulties of teachers. To my knowledge, no rigorous evaluations have so far been conducted anywhere in Pakistan to establish the usefulness of professional development in addressing teachers’ professional needs.

Now imagine a situation in which each teacher in Punjab has been provided with a virtual mentor in the form of an android tablet. Imagine that you are one of those teachers. You have to teach a lesson on division of fractions to fourth graders tomorrow, but you are not quite comfortable with your own knowledge of the concepts involved in this lesson and your skills in using them to solve problems.

You reach for the android tablet that has recently been given to you by the Punjab government. This tablet comes preloaded with short video lessons on every topic that you would be required to teach. Each video accompanies a quiz designed for self-assessment. You can watch the video to refresh your knowledge and also attempt the quiz if needed. It also has lesson plan ideas, several activities that you could use as part of your lessons, as well as tips to develop low cost teaching aids by using things freely available in the classroom environment. The video lessons, the quizzes, and the lesson plans are carefully prepared by the experts at the DSD who have taken utmost care to identify and respond to the teachers’ needs. Your district-based mentors have already trained you in the use of these video-based supplementary materials. They, in turn, were especially prepared by the DSD to help you use these new support materials in accordance with a user’s manual.

So you turn on your android tablet, open the short video on divisions of fractions and watch it. The video is in Urdu. Most of these videos are dubbed versions of internationally available videos. Some have also been prepared locally. DSD has approved them after a careful process of development. Each one of these videos was shown to a smaller group of teachers who evaluated them based on their usefulness to them. A selection from these videos was also piloted for their usefulness before they were approved for delivery to its users.

You pull up the video that explains the concepts you will be teaching tomorrow. You can obviously repeat it as many times as you wish, until you feel confident that you have a good grasp of the concepts. If you wish you can take the quiz as well.

Mobility of mentors and supervisors, especially in the rural areas, has always been seen as a major impediment in the way of efforts to provide on-the-job support. Your mentor was also unable to come because his motorbike was in need of repairs. But you can no longer complain now as you have a virtual mentor, that you can access as much as you want.

I am not sure if it is feasible to provide these android tablets with data connections and hence have only mentioned the possibilities associated with preloading the tablets with supplementary materials designed to help the teachers teach better. But if the androids were to have a data connection as well, even if very limited, the possibilities of professional developments would simply multiply.

In fact, the Lahore-based DSD could reimagine itself, at least partially, as a provider of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are a recent development in distance education and involve unlimited participation through the web. MOOCs can be easily developed by the organisations, even the individual course authors, and the course building tools are freely available through website such as MOOC.ORG.

I recently attended an MOOC on classroom-based student assessment. The course participants included teachers from different countries and they were completely free to enrol. Doing professional development courses in MOOC format offers an efficient solution for institutions such as DSD with a mandate to provide professional development opportunities to a massive number of teachers.

Since the MOOC is a new mode of distance education, even AIOU can explore using it to design and offer short professional development courses to target various aspects of teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills. It is entirely possible for the teachers to benefit from such focussed MOOCs if they had access to android tablets connected to Internet.

We know we will never be able to improve the quality of education in our schools without good teachers. We also know that subject knowledge deficits are produced due to many years of flawed education and cannot be addressed comprehensively by pre-service teacher education. We also have no evidence that in-service professional development has addressed these difficulties. The anecdotal and piecemeal evidence from the classrooms suggests that they have not. But teachers have a better chance of overcoming their content knowledge deficiencies if they had a virtual mentor (the tablet) at their beck and call.

While I believe that giving tablets to teachers, and not children, will be a good step towards addressing the real needs of the teachers, I would still advise caution and analysis. Like any other policy idea, this suggestion should also be scrutinised by relevant experts, and, if considered good enough, piloted with a smaller number of schools to see whether and to what extent it can help teachers teach better.

Tablets to teach