What does it take to implement an effective virtual learning solution in Africa?

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Let’s start by stating the obvious. It’s no news that this pandemic has brought to reality, important considerations we ought to focus on, especially in the education space. The need to pay attention to our learning structure, and most importantly the adoption of a virtual approach to teaching and learning has brought an unprecedented awakening to us all. Globally there has been a colossal shift from the traditional four-wall classroom setting that many have been accustomed to, to adopting virtual learning approaches in teaching and learning. This, of course, brings to bear many underlying questions, as educators, innovators, schools, think tanks, and the government is constantly looking for creative approaches through technology to engage teachers and students during the COVID-19 School break.

In the light of this, re:learn, the education practice of Co-creation Hub adopted a unique approach to engage STEM teachers and students at this period. For us, our thoughts were on adopting an effective remote learning solution, that will be focused on STEM subjects for students and schools in Africa, and this birthed the Virtual STEM Hub. Virtual STEM Hub is an intervention aimed at providing teachers with the necessary content and skills required to engage their students, during the COVID19 Schools break. Our focus for this is to ensure

  1. That teachers can effectively engage their students at this period.
  2. Learning is not hindered, and the outcomes can be measured effectively.
  3. Teachers can have content that aligns with their curriculum.
  4. Teachers have the opportunity to build new skills, through the use of technology and inquiry-based methodology.

In the past 4 weeks, we have had an exciting journey, we’ve had to repeatedly iterate through the solution, and this has been a period of constantly reworking and polishing off our ideas on how best.to run the Virtual STEM Hub.

This is why we have put together the VSH insight series, to share our learnings on this journey. This is understanding also that these insights would be valuable for the Edtech ecosystem in ensuring that students are learning, and schools can offer effective programs despite the COVID19 schools’ lockdown.

This insight will be shared in a series as categorized below:

  • Use of low-tech platforms for engagement
  • Designing learning content to suit the use of a low-tech platform
  • Teachers training and engagement
  • Feedback and assessment

In this edition of this series, we will be focusing on the use of low-tech platforms for continuous teaching and learning

Selecting a suitable platform for engagement

In considering a platform to use, the team created a checklist to guide the selection of a suitable platform to host the Virtual STEM Hub. The criteria in the checklist have been highlighted and explained below.

  • The simplicity of use and ease of access: Our consideration for a platform was how simple and easy it enables teachers and students to access learning. Teachers and students must be able to find the platform very accessible and easy to navigate on their own. The platform has to be designed in such a way that it helps to reduce the learning curve and digital literacy gap amongst the teachers and students.
  • The presence of human touch/connectivity: In structuring learning, it is important that learners have to be connected to what they are learning. The human interface of the platform was essential for effective teaching, learning, and engagement. We needed a platform, where teachers and students feel connected to the learning, as though they were in the classroom.
  • Interaction and collaboration: To what extent does the platform allow for real-time interaction while learning and how does the platform allow for collaboration amongst the teachers and students.

With the above checklist, we came to an initial selection of WhatsApp, Facebook and Google Classroom as the platforms that checked the boxes.

To further select a platform of focus, teachers were asked during registration, what platform amongst the three was most preferred to be used as a learning platform. 92% of the respondents chose WhatsApp as their preferred platform for learning. With the teachers’ selection, we were then faced with the task to effectively structure the activities on the WhatsApp groups to achieve the best learning outcomes. WhatsApp inherently being a social media platform had to be effectively structured before we could harness its potentials.

Structuring for effective learning and engagement

In most active WhatsApp groups, there are common occurrences that mar the chatting experience, some of which include multiple unread messages once one is out of the group for some time, irrelevant posts and not to forget the bogus broadcast messages promising salvation with every share. With these in mind, we set out to put together the following guides to achieve effective communication and learning in the WhatsApp group.

  • Teacher’s Guide

The teacher’s guide were rules of engagement, designed to establish a common understanding amongst teachers on what is expected of them in the groups. It explained the purpose of the groups, the types of messages to be posted, the schedule for the lessons, and how to relate with students.

  • Redesigning the response/comment structure

In a bid to effectively structure the WhatsApp group for training, our initial approach was to temporarily turn off comments while the facilitator presented the day’s session. This approach, however, proved to be counterproductive at first because this method did not follow through with the inquiry-based method of teaching which allows for active participation by the learners, critical thinking, and collaboration. Secondly, this approach would see a lot of questions sent in once the comment feature was re-enabled. These barrages of questions would make it easy for questions to be missed by the facilitator. Redesigning the response/comment structure was thus pertinent as the goal was to take the teachers through the lessons using inquiry learning and giving them the opportunity to ask questions at every stage and contribute to the flow of the session. Restructuring the session into three main activities thus ensured that the teachers could participate real-time and this took away the challenge of long bodies of text which could inevitably cause the teachers to be uninterested and leave the group

  • Learning timetable

To enable the teachers’ plan, we created a timetable. This would show the days the various subjects would be taught in the group. Also as part of their continuous personal development, the teachers would be taken on sessions in Digital Literacy and Pedagogy.

Table 1

This initial timetable as seen above showed that all 3 STEM subjects were taught in one day. When we asked for feedback, they complained of information overload on Mondays and were engaged almost all day. This meant that they did not have enough time to digest the information being received. Acting on this very important feedback, the timetable was redesigned as seen below and only a subject was taught per day.

From teachers feedback, we resorted to adopting a more suitable learning timetable

Table 1.1

With this current timetable, teachers learn the STEM subjects from Monday to Wednesday, give us feedback on their engagement with students on Thursday, and on Friday they have sessions on digital literacy and pedagogy.

  • Timing and Signifying attendance with Emojis

The timing was an essential part of our structuring for effective engagement. It was important to select a time in the day when their presence online was guaranteed. Whatever time we chose also needed to be just right to give the teachers time to hold their own sessions with their students. With this in mind, we chose to engage the teachers from 10 am to 2 pm (Kenya operates on East Central Time and is 2 hours ahead of Nigeria’s West African Time Zone.) In addition, we adopted a fun and unique way of allowing the teachers to indicate their presence before the start of each class session, we introduced the use of emojis. The facilitator would request the teachers to comment with their favorite emoji to signify presence and would only start the class when a good number of responses had been sent in. This also served as a daily icebreaker in the groups.

  • Subject groups for active learning

At the start of the program, we grouped teachers in Nigeria and teachers in Kenya separately, therefore, making it just two groups. This was against our initial plan to have 3 subject groups- Physics, Chemistry, and Biology- in both countries. We thought it would be more effective to engage all the teachers in one group per country than having multiple groups. However, with time, we noticed that teachers in Nigeria complained about information overload, as many of the teachers taught only one science subject and so for the other days when other subjects were taught, the messages were not useful for them and some teachers left the group out of frustration and information overload. This was not so for Kenya teachers, because the teachers taught more than one science subject. To combat the challenge for the Nigerian group, we created subject-specific groups and had the teachers join the subject group they belonged to. With this, teachers who left initially came back to the subject groups and we realized more engagement, clarity, and focus by the teachers.

  • Teacher-led Classes

This structure had teachers who have access to their students at home form student groups through WhatsApp. Teachers with formed groups further engage their students with content from the Virtual STEM Hub, to drive learning and actively engage their students while at home. With teachers’ participation and experience in the groups, they are knowledgeable on how to run their student groups effectively.

It will interest you to note that:

72% of teachers who responded to the baseline survey for the virtual STEM Hub have never taught students online and 66% of the teachers who registered have never taken classes through a social media platform before.

Out of the 72% of teachers who have never taught online before, 87% of them have access to students during this period and 66% of teachers are currently engaging the students with the contents from Virtual STEM Hub.

Of the teachers who are currently engaging with students, 58% of them share lessons with students once a week and 42% of the teachers share lessons with their students every day.

56% of teachers attest that the Virtual STEM Hub has been effective in learning physics, biology, and chemistry and mentioned that the sessions meet their learning expectations

Some comments by Teachers

  • Through Virtual STEM Hub, I have learned other ways of getting teaching aids and ways to carry learners along in class.
  • It is relevant, it has exposed us to new ways of teaching learners virtually without compromising the standards. It has come in handy when we were stranded on how to teach from home.
  • It’s a good forum, it carries a lot of hope for teachers moving forward.
  • You have helped many of us on virtual learning and how to capture learners’ interests even when we are not physically with them.
  • Good innovation. Great job, and kudos to the brain behind it.
  • The fact that the students can learn amidst physical laboratory and can still carry out different activities with fun while learning with the videos

Student Groups

Our initial approach for Virtual STEM Hub was to engage teachers and provide them with STEM resources to engage their students. While a majority of the teachers had access to their students and were actively engaging them, we had teachers who were excited to use the interactive resources provided and eager to engage students but had no access to students. This instigated our need to create student groups. These student groups would be created by re:learn and open to students to register. A maximum class size of 30 students per group would be adhered to for ease of management and 3 teachers for Biology, Physics and Chemistry respectively would be assigned to each of the student groups. This way, we would have successfully bridged the gap between teachers who have been trained with interactive 21st century STEM resources and students who are willing to learn despite the COVID19 school shutdown.

While we explore this approach, we believe some key learnings will be explored such as; how do we create a conducive learning environment when connecting students with teachers they haven’t met before, what implementation strategy do we need to put in place to ensure that engagement is high, what are some rules of engagement to used in the groups and many more questions to be explored. Stay connected as we bring to you more learnings from our work.


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