A Teacher’s Vision of Technology-Infused Learning After The Covid-Crisis

I have been an educationalist since 1999. My ’raison d’etre’ when it comes to teaching is reinforced by the following quote from the character Tiffany Aching from I shall Wear Midnight by the late Sir Terry Pratchett:

“I want a proper school, sir, to teach reading and writing and most of all thinking, sir, so people can find what they are good at, because someone doing what they like is always an asset to any country, and too often people never find out until it’s too late.”

“Learning is about finding out who you are, what you are, where you are and what you are standing on and what you are good at and what’s over the horizon, and well, everything. It’s about finding the place where you fit.”

I became a teacher out of necessity. I remained a teacher because I am making a difference. My classes have changed a lot over the decades – from rural-based private schooling to middle-income private schooling and now in a top-tier private school. Having taught (and still teaching) in Limpopo Province, my students and I had to be creative when it came to the unique challenges posed by our milieu.

A shift in the weather – incorporating technology into the classroom

Integrating technology on a formal basis happened to me while teaching Grade 7 English Home Language and Natural Sciences. By introducing BYOD (bring your own device) programmes in my classes, we were then able to integrate these two subjects into one; which we decided to refer to as Scinglish jokingly. From then onwards, my students and I lived in a bubble where technology was used as a learning tool and made their thinking and learning visible. Our methods, however, were not always received with open arms; this was evident when we launched our first digital Science Fair (iKnowScience). We were allocated a space in our local mall in which to exhibit our various displays. One of the “new technologies” that we utilised was the use of QR codes on the learners’ posters. Parents and mall-goers could access inquiry-based learning videos of the students’ science projects – which at this time was unheard of as we were a bit ahead of the times!

Google Classroom was my next discovery which I implemented in a desperate attempt to ensure that my Grade 8 and 9 classes were ready for their year-end exams. As I had joined these classes only halfway through the year, Google Classroom enabled me to measure the learners’ progress and understanding and give bespoke feedback to support and grow my students’ skills and understanding.

Following these changes and the willingness to change, I was tasked by my school to run the Integrated Studies Programme, where subjects joined together in inquiry-based tasks and projects. I was delighted at the challenge – but this also became one of the most trying times of my career. I had never experienced such a wave of change-resistance in my life.

It is from these experiences that I wish to share my findings and vision of the New Normal in SA Education (albeit from a private school point of view).

A 3-Tiered Approach to Change in Education SA

We are facing two distinct paradigms in education at the moment:

  1. Remote Teaching during Emergency Situations
  2. Continued Technology-Infused Teaching & Learning Programmes

I believe that we have a unique opportunity here to lay the foundations for a more permanent change in how we teach and how our students learn. Technology integration in teaching and learning is often grossly misunderstood. The first thing most schools do, when onboarding the use of technology in their schools, is buy tablets with pre-loaded content. The content is mostly based on either online learning platforms (where no educator is required, and learning is self-driven) or synchronous learning programmes (online teaching with a tutor/mentor online at a specific time). Frequently, these schools also buy access to online textbooks which is not implemented and used optimally.

Personally, I found that when using technology in learning, it should be a natural part of the LEARNING process, and never an add-on – it is vital that it is not just included because of its ‘cool-factor’.

The following approach in times of high stress and no (or limited) access was considered:

The First Tier: Emotional & Social Support before Academic Support

The fact is South Africa is that there are students who live in vulnerable communities. Their needs will not be academic (immediately) as it is more critical to ensure emotional and social support here first. No one can be expected to learn anything when in a high-stress, fight-or-flight mode as it is physically impossible for the brain to access higher-order thinking needed for learning when survival is a priority. It is essential to take Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into account before thinking about introducing Bloom’s Taxonomy. So our first-tier focus is on providing connections on a human-level by ensuring that our students in these vulnerable communities have access to food, water and medical care. The next layer is ensuring that the learners have access to mentoring or counselling to deal with stress, anxiety and grief. Sometimes I have found that my students are a part of child-headed households, which requires a whole different set of priorities than providing online lessons.

Only after the above-mentioned has come into being can online learning be implemented, assuming that there is both school and community support regarding access. Schools can provide afternoon or evening classes online or choose to discard traditional homework and replace it with student-driven online learning after hours. Examples of this can include something such as integrated studies, where two subjects join together to ensure skills and concepts are consolidated – in doing so, saving time – which is a scarce commodity already. Another idea can be to make use of flipped integrated lessons and inquiry-based tasks every week. Students can work in tutor groups or independently – completing consolidation tasks online in their own time while receiving support and feedback from teachers who will be measuring for mastery in understanding and application.

The Second Tier: Remote Academic Support

This Second Tier can take the form, in my view, of teachers taking the core of the curriculum and content already mastered to create two types of learning spaces. When in a short-term situation (1-2 weeks) of forced-remote teaching, it is advised that learning programmes are not overly structured, and instead guided by the student.

This can mean the inclusion of Choice Boards in either topic for learning, or format of creating final products for mastery measurement. Teachers can use known aspects (in our case – Term 1 content and skillsets) included in activities that can be easily performed at home on platforms already known to students.

No new platforms must be introduced here. Students have enough to deal with as it is and it is crucial to put into consideration that your new ideas can intrude on how various households are run. Using choice boards for how learning is done, giving multiple opportunities for contact with teachers and relaxed due dates etc. can be a better way of getting everyone settled in and used to this new way of learning. 

Another item to keep in mind is the value of reflection. Incorporating a session for reflection at the end of a task/learning experience can shape the planning for the next session. Including reflective practices fosters buy-in from those involved, and I have found that my students then take ownership of their learning. Reflection is an effective way of finding workarounds for challenges experienced in the past week’s learning that teachers may not have been aware of. Parents may also feel reassured that their circumstances are recognised and are more likely to become more supportive as a result.

Third Tier: Continued Technology-Infused Teaching & Learning Programmes

The Third Tier is the most exciting one of all…

What the future could hold – the new normal, established.

Once teachers and students have upskilled and explored a variety of technological infusions, they can start working on implementing these on a more permanent basis in their everyday teaching. Implementing these changes has the potential to herald the most significant shift in thinking in education.

When we shift education planning and strategies away from measuring memory through standardised testing and exams, we open up a spectrum of mastery measurement that is usually lost or hidden under the banner of ‘continuous assessment tasks’.

When we shift from assessment mindsets to a mastery-measurement mindset, we accomplish the following:

  • Opportunity to scaffold learning for support and extension on an individual basis with minimal effort or added workload on either side of the learning setting.
  • Bespoke pre-completion feedback that drives growth and learning simultaneously
  • Post completion feedback that means much more than a percentage, speaking into the next task and improving skill sets and understanding exponentially.
  • A bigger picture of the whole learning process of each student becomes not only visible but measurable. Would you rather know that a student did not master 40% of the work (60% for a test) or that they have mastered specific concepts through understanding and application while other skills need more refinement? Feedback must be specific and include measures that need to be taken to ensure a 100% mastery.

I would hope that we can move away from industrial revolution-type thinking when strategising the next step in education. We have an opportunity here. Let’s seize the moment and lead our students into a new experience where their voice and choice helps them learn in a way that makes sense to them. Giving them the tools to excel where they live and think and where their strengths lie.

Imagine a school system that helps students identify their reason for being and help to design their learning around that!

I end off with a last Terry Pratchett quote that guides my teaching-learning-journey every day:

“I found where I fit, and I would like everybody else to find theirs.” 

Tiffany Aching: I Shall Wear Midnight

This article originally appeared in issue 3.2 of the Teacha! Magazine.
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