“I only have a yam” is what Ghanaians say when they don’t have a smartphone. As you’ll see, this is one of the challenges we are dealing with in a technology project, but first..
It’s been a while since I talked about the project I am working on in Ghana. In part because of personal circumstance since Christmas – see the most recent blog post from Faye1. But it’s also because things moved relatively slowly in the first few months – it can certainly take a while to find your feet in any new job but even more so when working in a country that does things so differently to the UK. Well anyway, I am starting to make progress so now seems like a good time for an update.
My project seeks to improve teaching standards in marginalised rural schools – something people have been trying for years with varying success. One of the proven ways to rapidly enhance the abilities of a school’s existing teachers is to fill the school with highly experienced and motivated people to act as coaches, mentors and trainers. It’s a pretty labour intensive and therefore expensive way of doing things – there are also questions about its sustainability: what happens when those coaches leave? My project – TEST, which stands for Teacher Empowerment (through) Support and Technology – has been asking the question: What if technology could play a role in reaching those schools and its teachers instead?
The early part of the project focused on familiarising the teachers with the use of tablets, projectors and a new website which allowed them to download (hopefully) useful resources. The idea was to make their lessons a bit more exciting and interactive for kids, and also to get the teachers comfortable using the various bits of tech they’d been supplied with. Now we have started to tackle the hard part – the teachers’ skills gaps.
Last week we launched the latest phase: vocational training for Ghanaian teachers, heads and district education supervisors – all delivered through an online training platform. We’ve been heavily influenced by the style and format of the increasingly popular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) currently found on platforms such as EdX, Coursea and Udacity.
The MOOCs model is appealing but we have had adapt it to fit with the local context. It is an interesting challenge to think through all of the ways that this part of the project might fail in Ghana and then attempt to counter those. The list of potential stumbling blocks is very long, so I’ll just give a few examples:
There are systemic issues relating to pay, conditions, the value Ghanaian society places on teaching as a profession, the ‘politicisation’ of education, etc. that our project can never hope to overcome. We have to accept that a certain proportion of teachers will never be reached or influenced by our efforts. Therefore, we have to make sure we focus our time and energy on those who do care (despite all the challenges they face) and to support them as much as possible through our presence, guidance and encouragement. We have introduced a competitive element to the entire project (prizes for the best teacher for example) that is linked to participation in the online courses. For those with motivation, we hope to help them maintain it during their attempts at online learning.
We’ve designed the platform and the courses it hosts for the devices people use. The vast majority of teachers do not own a laptop or desktop computer and although smartphones are increasingly popular amongst teachers, I would guess that about 50% of teachers only have a basic phone – known locally as a yam (after the popular vegetable). Each school has been given 2 tablets to use though, and teachers have access to them, so our online courses are designed with tablets and smartphones in mind. The course materials (videos) etc. are low resolution and will work on even the most basic smartphone.
Internet is almost exclusively over cellular networks and signal strength is variable in rural areas. Teachers are also poorly paid and most are extremely careful with their money – every Cedi (worth about 18p) counts and data is always ‘pay as you go’. Therefore, we have to keep download sizes as small as possible, which means low resolution and compressed video. It also means enabling the entire course to be downloaded in one go (at a time when the learner is in a place with good connectivity). So, our introduction course is only 6MB in size, which will cost around 0.16 Cedi, or 3p.
So there we are! This is not the first attempt at online learning in Ghana – a university already offers degrees – but as far as I am aware, it is the first time it has been tried exclusively for teachers. We ran training events last week and I ran a session for teachers, heads and district officials on how to access the courses and get the most out of them. The first course is now live and over the next 4 months we have to author and launch a further 15 courses to a set timetable. It’s a lot of work – so I better get back to it.