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Using technology to support teacher continuous professional development in Sierra Leone

© Chris McBurnie/Sandbox hybrid meeting in Freetown Sierra Leone
Learnings from our Sandbox

Quality education requires a strong teaching workforce. And one of the most effective interventions in impacting learner achievement in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are teacher education programmes Evans & Popova (2015). To this end, the Teaching Service Commission (TSC) in Sierra Leone is planning to roll out a tech-supported teacher continuous professional development (TCPD) programme to improve foundational literacy and numeracy teaching. 

However, TCPD is challenging to implement at scale. It is often at the intersection of a number of education system policies and priorities. These include pre-service training, certification and career progression, school oversight and leadership, and curriculum and content development. In dealing with the complexity associated with designing, testing, and scaling their TCPD programme, the TSC has partnered with EdTech Hub. To support them in this process, we deployed our sandbox approach designed to facilitate education implementers through uncertainty. 

Lessons from Sprint 2 of the Sierra Leone TCPD sandbox

Through sandboxes, education implementers are introduced to innovative methods including collaborating with the EdTech Hub team on real-world rapid testing of implementation models, and designing models with their users in mind. All this is done while building on the EdTech Hub’s research into the effective use of EdTech and our existing country engagement and technical assistance. 

In Sierra Leone, EdTech Hub has been working closely with the TSC and the World Bank over the last 18 months to design a TCPD model that will provide primary school teachers with tools to improve their literacy and numeracy instruction. Over the course of our partnership, we have reviewed evidence together, distilled what makes for effective TCPD, and defined our ideal model through a theory of change. 

The idea is to create school-based teacher learning groups in each school (also known as teacher learning circles (TLCs)). This brings professional development close to home in an approach that has been shown to be more effective at supporting teachers than a traditional lecture-based cascade training model (⇡Allier-Gagneur et al., 2020)

In Sierra Leone, TLCs will allow teachers to reflect on their classroom experiences and explore teaching resources to help them improve their practice. Peer facilitators will be recruited from the school staff itself and trained. Their role will be to facilitate their colleagues in these weekly or bi-weekly sessions. Peer facilitators will partake in their own TLC sessions to prepare them for TLC facilitation in their schools. Technology will be used to catalyse the learning that happens in TLCs: an android tablet with digitised resources (containing guides on implementing specific pedagogical approaches, videos with example lessons or lesson plan templates, classroom observation and coaching tools, etc.) will be made available for peer facilitators to use in TLCs. Teachers can also use tablets to record themselves teaching, reflect on their own teaching practices, and gather feedback from colleagues. 

This idea looked good on paper, but we knew that implementation would raise many challenges.

Questions we needed to answer included:

  • Would teachers attend TLCs? Would they engage with TCPD?
  • How would tablets be distributed? Who would be responsible for keeping them functional and the software up to date? What challenges would those responsible face?
  • What content should be included in tablets, and how might teachers navigate them? Would they know how? Would we require printed content as well? What topics should be covered?
  • Who would be ideal peer facilitators? An experienced expert teacher? Headteachers? How might we prepare them for this role? Would they be accepted?

Answering these (and other) questions, and designing our model around the insights, became the focus of our sandbox, allowing us to iterate our model ahead of the TSC and World Bank’s scale up. 

Sprint 2: Component testing

Sandbox activities are usually divided into phases of experimentation, known as ‘sprints’. For our TCPD sandbox, each sprint focused on a particular aspect of the TSC’s TCPD model. Sprint 1 addressed ‘formative research’ with our end users: teachers! This meant asking teachers about their experience with TCPD, gathering their input about what kind of content is most helpful, and getting feedback on our TLC concept. 

In Sprint 2 we examined ‘component testing’: isolating core components of the TCPD model and testing them to pre-empt any potential challenges that might arise when they are combined with each other. In this case, we tested three different ‘components’ through three different experiments: simulated tablet dissemination, TCPD content and learning management system (LMS) testing and researching roles for supporting communities of learning. Through these experiments, we wanted to answer the following research questions: 

  1. Are tablets useful to head teachers, and if so, how? To what extent do tablet liability policies and maintenance challenges affect usage?
  2. How should different types of content be utilised, distributed, and presented to teachers? What design and training considerations should be made?
  3. What are the ideal roles for different local education officials (district officers, head teachers, peer facilitators) and others in facilitating effective TCPD?

Each experiment was executed by our sandbox implementing partner Education Development Trust (EDT) with support from the TSC and World Bank. They were conducted in Bombali, Kambia, Karene, and Tonkolili districts, situated in the north and north-western parts of the country. 

Experiment parameters
Simulated tablet disseminationTablets given to head teachers of nine schools with TLC model pilots underway for one month. No explicit instructions given on how to use tablets in school. Three different liability policies issued to test whether tablet use might be influenced by liability. Interviews conducted to understand tablet usage
TCPD content and LMS testingTeachers from three schools engaged with four different types of TCPD content: video, audio, print and digital text to better understand their preferences. Teachers were separately asked to identify specific resources on a learning management system (LMS e.g. UNICEF’s Learning Passport)
Researching roles for supporting communities of learningInterviews conducted with 6 head teachers, 11 peer facilitators (of current TLC pilots), and TCPD district officers. Explored: training and support needs for TCPD support roles (TLC facilitation, coaching and mentoring, etc.) to be carried out successfully. Additionally, we asked about head teacher and peer facilitator capacity to conduct lesson observations and provide feedback

What we learnt…

Simulated tablet dissemination
  1. Without being instructed to, head teachers loaned tablets to teachers, who reported a positive experience. 

Headteachers allowed staff to ‘sign out’ the tablet to take photos of student work or record videos of themselves and other teachers. These teachers were able to take the tablet home to review the content they captured and reflect on their own teaching practices. Some headteachers noticed an increase in accountability and motivation. One teacher made this remark on the usefulness of the tablet.

“We don’t want this tablet to go from us.” They said “For numeracy, literacy, during the process of teaching, one of us will stand aside videoing one teacher. After that teacher, the next day, we jump to another class, and we do the same thing. From there, we sit down in the staff room. We also discuss this video, this teacher, and we know what next to do, what we should not do in the next lesson.”

  1. Teachers independently chose to use tablets to assist with TLC activities. 

Teachers were not specifically ‘tasked’ with using the device in their TLCs. However, all respondents noted that the tablet helped with the TLCs in promoting discussion, particularly through the ability to record and watch videos of lessons. This allowed teachers to demonstrate how to teach certain skills or topics and learn from their peers. 

  1. Headteachers received support from district officers, while teachers relied on peers for advice. 

In our sample, 86% of head teachers reported that district officers provided support on using the tablet. Although not all head teachers needed support, it is important to note how integral it is for district officers to provide support for those who need it. This alignment and support will help provide a positive experience for those involved. Some teachers felt very comfortable using the tablet from previous experience with Android devices, while others,  who needed support in operating the devices, received help from experienced colleagues. 

TCPD content and LMS testing
  1. The teachers surveyed responded positively to all content types, particularly video, and noted the value of receiving a mix of content formats. 

Teachers agreed that the different types of content were all valuable, relevant, and could be applied in the classroom but had a stronger preference for audio (90% strongly agree) and video (89% strongly agree). For the video content, teachers were able to see examples of good and bad practices, reflect on their own practice and learn from their peers. Teachers showed an appetite for recording themselves (audio/video) and reflecting (individually and with peers). One teacher from Kambia commented

“The video is like a mirror, even if you record your colleague, you learn from each other and learn from their mistakes.”

Overall, teachers expressed the highest preference for audio/video, but said they could absorb printed text more easily than video in short periods. Print content is ideal because there is no need for internet or electricity. However, if the text is too small, it can be difficult to read, and due to continuous photocopying, images are not always clear. During the focus group discussions, many teachers highlighted issues of relying on digital formats, highlighting that print-based content is critical. Participants found that audio content was good for self-reflection when recording lessons and reviewing the content. They also noted that at times it can be useful for improving pronunciation and developing vocabulary.

  1. Sharing and using TCPD content with peers featured prominently in teachers’ responses about how resources might be used.

There was strong agreement that the different types of content could be shared with other teachers. Video (88% strongly agree) and printed text (75% strongly agree) ranked significantly higher than audio (40% strongly agree) and digital text (36% strongly agree) for use in group settings with peers. During focus group discussions, participants noted that the advantages of sharing digital texts include building a ‘library’ of content on their devices. Participants also noted that if teachers are not present for a session, they can still get materials through SMS or WhatsApp. 

  1. Most teachers reported that they would use the LMS daily or weekly for TCPD and would like more training on using the LMS app. 

It was established that 65.2% of teachers would use the LMS daily, while 21.7% would use it weekly for professional development purposes if available. Teachers also reported that they would prefer to use it at school on tablets rather than on personal devices. Additionally, 96% of teachers did not have any experience with an LMS and felt they needed more training. 

Researching roles for supporting communities of learning
  1. Headteachers, peer facilitators, and lead trainers were identified as best-suited to conduct lesson observations and provide feedback. 

Overall, participants had the confidence to take on observation roles. Headteachers, peer facilitators, and lead trainers were identified as best suited. Many head teachers reported that observing lessons and providing feedback was already part of their role, indicating that they felt comfortable with this task. Although peer facilitators were identified as being good for this role, only 4 of the 11 peer facilitators interviewed indicated that they should be an observer/coach. It was noted mainly by head teachers and peer facilitators that observations and feedback sessions are currently an informal process.

Moving forward, it will be necessary to define the roles of each agent with regard to TLCs and classroom observations. Guidance will need to be given to those leading TLCs in advance, with content for discussion and a structured agenda. 

  1. Headteachers, lead trainers, and peer facilitators indicated a need for access to additional training, materials, incentives, and other resources for their own success and for the success of the TLCs. 

Training will need to be provided for all roles and additional support on facilitating TLCs and improving teacher motivation and attendance. A number of participants requested that additional support needed to be provided aside from training. This support could be in the form of monetary and non-monetary incentives. For example, a transportation allowance (where applicable), teaching and learning materials, including print materials that are received with enough time to review and plan ahead, and the provision of refreshments during the TLCs. Some headteachers also requested formal certification for TLC facilitators. One teacher noted that: 

“Some of these barriers are insufficient learning materials, and sometimes some teachers cannot communicate or they do not want to ask their companions. For them, teaching themselves when they meet, to share ideas, some of them don’t do it, and it leads to them not delivering well.”

What’s next?

Building on our findings from Sprint 2, we now intend to use Sprint 3 for ‘holistic testing’ combining the three components we tested above (including some specific content tools — contextualised versions of the World Bank’s Teach and Coach) — and testing them together in a handful of schools to understand better how teachers might experience the TCPD model when it is scaled up.

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