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Sierra Leone series: Freetown Teachers College and its multimodal approach to teacher professional development

Over the past few months, the EdTech Hub team has analysed and mapped the EdTech research landscape in Sierra Leone. In doing so, we have met a number of individuals and organisations that are exploring if and how technology can support the country’s education sector. 

In week two, we connected with Dr Samba Moriba and Prince Brainard from Freetown Teachers College. Dr Moriba currently serves as the principal of the college following a career in research and curriculum development. Meanwhile, Prince has contributed to several teacher professional development programmes as the college’s planning and quality assurance officer. In this interview, we discussed their research on multimodal approaches to teacher professional development in Sierra Leone.

Can you tell us about the background of Freetown Teachers College? 

The college primarily aims to support the development of effective teachers in Sierra Leone. Over the past few years we have shifted our focus away from sporadic, single-session training courses that lack a connection to the classroom. Instead, we have tested the use of different technologies to facilitate teacher professional development in schools. The Covid-19 pandemic has enhanced our dream of using technology to support teachers: people should be able to learn wherever they find themselves.

What research have you conducted on EdTech in Sierra Leone? 

Recently, we piloted and evaluated a professional development programme that combined different technologies to deliver bite-sized content to teachers in schools. As part of the programme, we developed a web-based learning management system and a mobile application to share materials. Teachers could use these platforms to access content, take quizzes and share learnings on an e-portfolio. At the same time, we set up a WhatsApp group for each school and a WhatsApp group for all programme participants to foster a virtual community of practice. In the groups, mentors from Freetown Teachers College posed questions for discussion and activities for teachers to try in the classroom. In turn, teachers used the groups to exchange reflections on instructional practice and ideas for effective teaching.  

How did you approach this research?

In our research, we wanted to explore the effectiveness of using a technology-enhanced microlearning strategy for school-based teacher professional development. We evaluated the impact of the pilot using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. During the study, we employed a series of tools such as classroom observations, focus group discussions and questionnaires to understand the experiences of a sample of 150 participants from 14 schools in Freetown and Kono. Separately, we monitored teacher engagement with the WhatsApp-based virtual communities of practice. In doing so, we looked at the number, type, content and timing of messages.

What are the key takeaways from your research?

Our research found that teachers preferred to access content on virtual communities of practice. These communities greatly improved collaboration among participants: you can have a group of 30 teachers in different places who exchange ideas without ever leaving school. Our study showed that teachers frequently used WhatsApp to ask each other for advice on difficult topics and to form informal teaching teams.

We also identified a number of challenges relating to virtual communities of practice through our qualitative work. Teachers often spent more time preparing responses for WhatsApp discussions than they would for face-to-face peer group meetings. Participants noted that they felt like they were being examined and dedicated extra time to crafting written inputs. At the same time, some teachers highlighted how discussions on effective teaching practices were derailed by posts with information on social events or funny photos. In the absence of strict monitoring, inappropriate messages can disrupt the learning process.

What advice do you want to share with decision-makers based on your research? 

Our research highlights the need for stronger policies to regulate the use — and misuse — of technology in education. While individual institutions need to take responsibility for ensuring the security and success of teachers and learners, national measures are required to limit fragmentation and non-compliance. This lesson is especially important as the government looks to digitise education service delivery more and more.

Where do you see the greatest need for additional research on EdTech in Sierra Leone?

While we have seen a lot of ideas on potential uses of EdTech from other countries, we need to better understand how these ideas relate to Sierra Leone. We need a systematic study on our education ecosystem that covers and consolidates knowledge on everything from digital literacy and infrastructure to the competency of staff. In doing so, we can identify how to use technology to support the day-to-day work of teachers and learners.

If you want to learn more about Dr Moriba and Prince’s work, you can find reports on this programme on the Commonwealth of Learning website and in the Journal of Learning for Development.

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