Simone D. McCourtie

Tapping the potential of mobiles and instant-messaging to train teachers

By Dr Heike Kuhn, Head of Division, Education, Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany, Co-Chair of the Teacher Task Force, UNESCO (with South Africa)

The 2023 GEM Report calls for us to decide what we want to improve in education and then decide what technology can help us achieve that, rather than purchasing technological solutions for the sake of it. An event held in Germany on November 27, 2023 to discuss the findings of the report co-organized by the Federal Foreign Office, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the German Commission for UNESCO demonstrates the importance we place on making the right decisions about when digital solutions are the right ones and when they are not.

One challenge where we believe technology could help is the urgent global need for equipping a massive number of teachers with the necessary skills. Globally, the Teacher Task Force estimated this year that we need to increase the number of teachers by 50% by 2030. We need solutions that can be implemented rapidly and at a low cost while meeting the quantitative and qualitative challenges of in-service teacher training.  And in this context, ‘low-tech’ solutions, including mobile phones and instant messaging systems such as WhatsApp, appear most promising. They are not only scaled but also highly appropriate among teachers in low- and middle-income countries.

The discussions at the Federal Foreign Office did focus on the report’s message that only some technology helps some learning in some contexts. We know that the high enthusiasm and expectations vis-à-vis digitalization have not yet delivered at scale solutions for problems such as teacher training. Investments in digital infrastructures are still too low and slow. In addition, the chronic lack of reliable evidence highlighted in the GEM Report has led to a tendency to opt for project approaches and a lack of large-scale system transformative solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, landed heavily on discussions about technology’s place in education, including in the area of teacher training. The lack of systematic support during school closures encouraged teachers to use mobile and messaging systems to access information and connect with their peers or students. The benefits of low-tech have been recognized by the international community, inter alia within the teacher policy recommendations formulated in preparation for the UN Transforming Education Summit 2022, stressing that “strategies that make use of already available technologies, including low-tech solutions, should be considered in order to ensure rapid impact and high inclusion.

As this recommendation suggests, there is no need to start from scratch when looking for scalable teacher training strategies. Here are the reasons why:

Firstly, the ingredients for efficient teacher training are already well known: the research and international education policy community agree that in-service teacher training has to be teacher centered, embedded in a collaborative community of practice, organized at a distance so that it is easier for more teachers to attend, and, most importantly, trigger teachers’ motivation.

Secondly, instead of attempting to introduce and scale technology for educational purposes, why not use technology that is already scaled, such as the use of mobile phones, which are owned by 73% of those aged 10 and above worldwide today?

In addition to being logistically appropriate, the messaging-based groups have multiple other benefits highly suited to teacher training as well.

In Germany, we looked at these benefits using mixed method research including an activity research component, a literature review on existing evidence in developing countries, along with analysis of qualitative and quantitative datasets. Ultimately, we studied the use, need and perception of messaging systems for teacher training among 2486 teachers across the Caribbean, Botswana, Tanzania and Malawi.  We call our instant messaging supported teacher training approach a Future Teacher Kit. Our research around it was described in a background paper for the 2023 GEM Report, which we believe shows that it could be a scalable solution with rapid positive outcomes on teaching practices worth investing in.

A few reasons led us to this conclusion.

Mobile phones enable teachers to compensate for what they all identify as one of the biggest constraints to professional development: the lack of materials and content and the overall lack of support, including access to training. Resources and in-service training possibilities are identified by over 70% of teachers as a core challenge on a daily basis in Botswana and over 74% in the Caribbean region.

With a training process using such systems, the format and content shared were adapted to teachers’ rhythms and needs. Even though there was no extrinsic reward for taking part in the test module, teachers were intrinsically motivated to join the training experience and perceived the training content as so useful that they decided to share it with non-participants. Most importantly, teachers reported positive outcomes on their student behavior.

Teachers turn towards messaging systems to develop multiple communities of practice that allow them to improve collaboration with their peers, whilst simultaneously exploiting the potential of anonymous instant messaging-based teacher networks. From that perspective, teachers autonomously create a self-training process. This finding is of critical importance: teachers are intrinsically motivated to adapt the usage of messaging systems for educational purposes. This is because this type of training allows teachers to acquire new knowledge, to be connected with their peers while learning independently. Its usage has not only been an indispensable tool to cope with the pandemic but is now largely embedded in teachers’ daily work life. Simply put – messaging systems are a scaled EdTech tool created by teachers themselves.

Most importantly, the use of WhatsApp is not an ad hoc reaction – it has reinforced an existing appropriation process. In the future, it can be expected that teachers will embed messaging systems even further in their professional work routine.

Where we need caution, however, is outlined perfectly in two of the questions the GEM Report asks us to consider before any investment in technology for education.

Is it equitable? Even if the emergency of the situation calls for rapid solutions, teacher training remains a public responsibility. This requires us to continue to invest in digital infrastructure that will enhance all areas of education systems and avoid leaving anyone behind. The provision of teacher training and support should never be a financial burden for teachers. As our own action research component indicates, partnerships with mobile operators must be an integral part of a national training strategy and are an extremely important signal for the recognition of the teaching profession. The rapid usability of mobiles and messaging systems will benefit from a mature digital education system.

Is it scalable? To tap the potential of a scaled technology, and hence exploit the full potential of messaging-facilitated teacher training, it is necessary to introduce scaled approaches from the start. The international technical cooperation and donor community must facilitate approaches that shift away from the pilot-based approach towards the country-wide integration of low-tech solutions in education systems.

During the national launch event of the report in Germany on November 27, 2023, it became once again clear how crucial the framework of this new GEM Report is on a global level: Therefore we hope that other countries will use it to analyze their own decisions on technology and see where new ideas might meet requirements to find solutions for teachers to educate. Students and teachers need it and deserve it – now!



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