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Technology as a learning space: Teachers need support for digital learning now by Sarah H. Fuller

This NORRAG Highlights is contributed by Sarah Fuller, an education consultant with the UNICEF Regional Office for Europe & Central Asia. In this post, she looks at the impact and the disruption technology has had on education, in lights of COVID-19. The pandemic has accelerated the redefinition of ICT not only as a practical tool to support learning, but also as a learning space. With this shift, Fuller argues, it is necessary to better support and equip teachers with the right skills and professional development while the discussion of the role of ICT in education is ongoing.

The use of technology in education has rapidly expanded over the past few decades, but perhaps no single event has accelerated this at a faster rate or more globally than COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, information and communication technology (ICT) was primarily applied to facilitate daily tasks or integrated with classroom-based learning to support and enrich it. Teacher professional development (TPD) was framed according to these two uses. Now, as emergency remote teaching during a pandemic has shown, such a dichotomy makes little sense. Governments with the support of partners, including development organisations, have rolled out digital solutions as a substitute for the classroom itself, assigning ICT the role of both practical tool and a learning space. This redefinition of ICT as the latter is not entirely unprecedented. Massive open online courses (MOOCs), video conferencing, and immersion technology provide proof to the contrary. What is new, however, is the scale and suddenness of disruption to the archetype of “schooling,” represented by the traditional classroom and the student-teacher interactions within it.

The rapid and large-scale rollout of digital learning globally for emergency remote teaching has advanced the integration of digital technologies in education beyond the pandemic, centering them in the discourse on “building back better,” as seen in the Reimagine Education initiative, led by UNICEF. Yet these global efforts would make little sense unless significant investment in ICT translates into more resilient systems and improved learning outcomes for all children. It is clear that ICT alone does not drive educational change, which is why such initiatives extend support beyond infrastructure and devices to also address the importance of equity, quality learning content, and the role of teachers.

In fact, while the list of barriers to effective technology integration is long and span all levels of the education system, those related to teachers’ needs may have a more significant impact on technology integration and be key in system readiness. These include teachers’ lack of ICT skills, their knowledge and awareness of using ICT for learning, insufficient time and a lack of resources to support them to do so. Digital learning initiatives across the globe are investing significant resources in addressing teachers’ needs such as these.

Research on TPD acknowledges the importance of sustained, school-based learning, a progressive scaffolding of teachers’ skills, collaboration and follow-up support as opposed to episodic delivery. It also highlights the benefits of peer collaboration and communities of practice for continuous learning, for the co-construction of knowledge and the situation of that knowledge within the classroom context, as well as for teachers’ mental health and psychosocial well-being.

Still, research on and awareness of the needs of teachers during both emergency remote teaching and digital learning remain limited, and the dramatic changes imposed on and operationalized by the teaching profession over the past year have not been thoroughly considered. For example, sufficient thought has not been given to how the context in which learning takes place is progressively mediated by technology along a continuum from fully in-class to fully digital, distance learning. In the classroom, resources play a key role in determining which technology is available to support student-teacher interactions. In distance learning, the availability and choice of ICT play a key role in determining the extent of these interactions and which format they will take.

Such changes make teaching more complex and less predictable. Teachers can thus be seen as learners themselves within an ill-structured knowledge domain, one characterized by “various forms of conceptual complexity and case-to-case irregularity.” In other words, teachers must be able to apply their knowledge flexibly and in ways that may not be anticipated, which may challenge traditional understandings of teaching. This highlights a need for TPD that supports teachers to construct knowledge from different perspectives, in a variety of ways, and for a variety of applications. Yet even prior to the pandemic, professional development on ICT was, in many cases, ad hoc in nature and framed according to the capabilities of the technology rather than teachers’ needs.

Furthermore, in a digital learning space, teachers’ roles and expectations are radically reoriented. Their assumptions and beliefs about teaching and even their identities are challenged. Teachers are not simply translating content and classroom practices to new environments but also being asked to critically reflect on and flexibly adapt to changing professional identities within those environments. They are expected to create, share and mediate a digital learning environment that likely does not fit within the frame of reference for practices, behaviors, attitudes, interactions, decision-making and systems of thought provided by the physical classroom. It’s easy to understand why such changes would require psychosocial and peer support. This support is even more urgent given the coincidence of these transformations with the psychological stress of the pandemic and the “technostress” associated with the rapid introduction of new technologies.

The need for this reconceptualization of technology as a learning space and greater attention to the changing role of teachers within it is seen in the limited support provided to teachers during COVID-19. A recent joint Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures was conducted by UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank and was designed for Ministry of Education officials at central or decentralized levels in charge of school education. The second round of this survey (from July to October 2020) showed that 70% of countries provided instruction on distance learning, such as directions on how to deliver learning via digital platforms, and 61% provided content for teachers to use in distance instruction, among the 120 countries who had an online learning platform and shared information on what support they provided to teachers. These more common but static forms of support are unlikely to ready teachers for the need to reassemble their knowledge in often unpredictable ways for digital learning spaces.

Yet just over half of countries (54%) provided special training, such as on ICT competencies and delivery channels, and fewer than half (46%) provided professional, psychosocial and emotional support (which included through teacher networks, chat groups and online forums), among the 120 countries who had an online learning platform and shared information on what support they provided to teachers. Eight per cent of countries shared that no specific support was provided.

There are actors working alongside governments to fill these gaps. In at least 10 countries of Europe and Central Asia, for example, UNICEF is providing psychosocial and mental health support for teachers during distance learning and integrating this support with that on implementing distance learning. Still, despite increasing attention to the importance of mental health and well-being—which is now a key priority for supporting children in UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank’s joint Mission: Recovering Education in 2021—what teachers may need in terms of professional, psychosocial and emotional support has received less attention. As the world keeps its eye on the prize of building stronger and more resilient education systems supported by technology, it cannot afford to keep teachers on the periphery. A firm commitment is needed by both governments and partners to provide TPD and professional, psychosocial and emotional support. This must not only address the increasingly complex competencies required of teachers but also support their well-being in the face of the multiple challenges and various forms of stress that teachers are under related to technology, their changing roles, and the pandemic.

It’s time to move the conversation forward about what this professional development and additional support looks like. And doing that requires stakeholders to reconsider how they conceptualize the role of ICT in education. There is an urgent need to recognize that in digital distance learning, ICT is much more than a tool. At the farthest end of the spectrum, ICT provides a digital environment where teachers, students and learning interact. This contributes to the increasingly ill-structured nature and complex professional and psychological demands of teaching. Including these considerations in both immediate crisis response and long-term planning has the potential to improve pedagogy, teachers’ well-being, and the quality of student-teacher interactions in digital learning environments. Recognizing the changing role of teachers within these spaces, and providing support accordingly, can move us away from viewing teachers as recipients of training and materials to be translated into quality teaching. Instead, it can move us toward recognizing that they are co-creators of education systems’ responses to the pandemic and future crises. Resilient education systems cannot be built without adequately supported teachers.

About the Author: Sarah Fuller is an education consultant with the UNICEF Regional Office for Europe & Central Asia where she supports teacher professional development and well-being and leads the evidence generation component of the regional LearnIn initiative on digital learning. Contact:  sfuller@unicef.org

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