On World Teachers’ Day (5 October) we celebrate the wonderful people all over the planet who have dedicated their lives to the education of others. Without the commitment and patience of teachers, none of us, the educated, would be where we are today.
However, on this day we also know there are not enough teachers in the world. In fact, to meet the first target of Sustainable Development Goal 4 — ensure that by 2030 all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education — is it estimated that 69 million new teachers will need to be recruited. Furthermore, pre-service and in-service teachers need to be trained and supported throughout their careers. All viable options, including digital technologies, need to be leveraged to achieve this goal.
In the spirit of solving the twin challenges of teacher supply and teacher quality, UNESCO recently released the report Supporting teachers with mobile technology, which draws lessons from UNESCO projects implemented in Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Senegal between 2012 and 2014. I managed the project in Nigeria along with Mark West, the report’s co-author. The projects, implemented through a partnership between UNESCO and Nokia (now part of Microsoft), aimed to explore how mobile learning technologies can support teacher development.
The report offers rich descriptions of the four different project contexts, approaches and evaluations, and is well worth reading. Below is a selection of key points from the conclusion, some well known in mobile learning, others new. Hopefully they inspire the edtech community to keep working to support teachers.
Findings about the perceived impact of the projects
- Contrary to the notion that educators are tech-phobic and resistant to change, in all four projects the participating teachers were enthusiastic to experiment with ‘outside the box’ approaches to teacher professional development.
- Teachers wanted more training. Even though there were significant efforts to provide initial and ongoing support, more can only help. The range of tech troubles also cannot be underestimated, which require on-site and virtual support.
- Unsurprisingly, teacher use of ICT increased substantially as a result of the intervention, which led to them reporting dramatically improved ICT skills. This, in itself, is noteworthy (as reported in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2018), as teacher digital literacy is crucial for mobile learning.
- While teacher pedagogy was not formally measured by the project evaluations, in all countries teachers reported increased learner participation in the classroom, especially in Pakistan and Nigeria.
- No clear increase in communication between teachers was found. This result is somewhat disappointing as mobiles have been shown to enable peer-to-peer learning amongst teachers. The report notes that more attention could have been paid to encouraging this type of communication.
- Mobile phones appear to provide a viable means to expand access to professional development opportunities. As the report notes, this is exciting because it means that an increasingly widespread technology offers a vehicle to support teachers living in areas where traditional capacity building opportunities are scarce.
- Access to mobile phones should not be conflated with a mobile learning solution. An ecosystem approach is needed, including compelling content, institutional partners, extensive teacher training, ongoing project support, communication campaigns and buy-in from education leaders.
- Consistent and well-curated educational resources appear to be hallmarks of effective mobile learning content. The report describes how the UNESCO projects seemed to work best when they provided teachers with discrete, well-organized and sequenced packages of learning resources that established clear learning pathways. Highly interactive content is not always needed or appropriate.
- Mobile learning solutions carry significant costs. Digital is not always cheaper, not only regarding the tech itself, but the complementary activities. For example, the teacher training workshops proved to be the most expensive and logistically complex aspects of the four country projects.
- Mobile learning solutions for teachers have numerous limitations and are not yet substitutes for traditional and evidence-based teacher training and development. While mobile phones offer much potential for professional teacher development and support, they also come with limitations such as small screen sizes that limit interaction possibilities. Tablets and laptops overcome some of the barriers but, even for them, mobile learning solutions should supplement rigorous teacher training programmes, not replace them.
The report offers a few recommendations for the continued efforts to support teacher professional development using mobile technologies.