Written by Andrew Foster – Senior Academic Manager, British Council, South India
It’s well known that teachers are busy people with many demands on their time, from administrative matters to participating in projects alongside their day-to-day work with students in the classroom, so it’s not surprising that finding time to attend face-to-face training workshops can be a challenge. Technology can offer an alternative to bringing teachers to learn and share their classroom experiences in the same physical space, although we need more information on teachers’ ability to access and use digital resources to understand what can work for them.
Core Skills* (also known as 21st century skills) are a focus of the Pudumai Palli Project: Developing Innovative Schools in Chennai (P3DISC) in which the British Council, teachers, students and head teachers of 70 of the city’s high schools have been working together over three years. One of the Core Skills we’ve focused on is digital literacy. Early in the project we discovered that it was rare to find computers that teachers or students could access in schools, with the internet usually only available to the school secretary or head. Quite a few teachers needed basic IT and email skills (which we added training for) while for some, access to the internet is via mobile only. WhatsApp became a key channel for communication between, to and from teachers, and one that we could use to learn about their digital habits and preferences.
We also identified the need to develop teachers’ ability to build their learners’ creativity and imagination skills. We wanted to trial how technology could be used to provide this training, via a simple digital learning resource which was in line with the teachers’ developing digital literacy skills.
To explore what kind of an app teachers would be able to use and would find interesting, we initially asked them about which websites, apps and games they used. Their responses provided clues about what might be both engaging and navigable for them. An animated story with alternative choices for the teachers was decided on, and the concept developers mapped out the optional story paths in a cobweb of arrows and textboxes.
This story design then went to animators at Flow Creative, based in Manchester, who depicted a class with their teacher trying to enliven a cross-curricular theme of encouraging tourism in the students’ locality. The user follows the story and is presented with three choices of action, one of which will best encourage students’ creativity and imagination. Upon choosing one, the user receives feedback (spoken and in text) after which the teacher can return to the other options or carry on with the storyline. Sharing pictures from the animation with the teachers’ WhatsApp group got their opinions on the look of the classroom, the students and the teacher and their feedback was used to revise how these appear.
The main test came when teachers used the pilot app – an opportunity for us to evaluate how easy and interesting or not they found it to use, and what they would learn. This evaluation was designed by The Research Base who were the third-party evaluators for the wider P3DISC project.
Many of the teachers were unfamiliar with aspects of the interface and needed assistance to find how to turn on optional subtitles that accompanied the spoken English narrative, and to select one of the boxed short texts which would give them feedback on their choice (see the photo below). It was clear that messages or illustrations could be added to guide the teachers, and subtitles made ‘always on’. The app was in English, and teachers’ comprehension abilities vary widely, so some appreciated the way that the app illustrated what was being described. One commented, ‘It was very helpful because even when we could not understand all the words the animation helped us.’
Once the teachers got used to the format they were interested to follow the story and make the choices that followed each of its stages. To find out what teachers had learned, we asked them to do a quick ‘pre’ and ‘post’ test on ways to encourage creativity to see if their responses changed after using the app.
The test results showed some positive changes in teachers’ thinking and knowledge. After using the app more teachers saw the advantage in letting students take the lead in stages of the lesson, more thought that defining ‘right and wrong answers’ can be unhelpful in the process of encouraging creativity, and more were convinced that creativity has a place in a wide range of school subjects. Most teachers found the app ‘useful’ (46 per cent) or ‘very useful’ (41 per cent) for their classroom teaching. Almost all the teachers involved said that they would recommend the content to others, citing how it helps to develop teaching techniques, using new, creative ideas that are key in teaching 21st century skills. Of 26 teachers interviewed between one and three weeks later, 25 reported they were finding the training useful for their classrooms.
Learning in motion
Using an animated, story-based app was a first for these 76 teachers, who were used to receiving input on what to do in the classroom via print media, face-to-face training or the occasional use of websites, and they enjoyed having something more engaging and dynamic than a text or a video with no built-in interaction. They found that the information came a bit too fast for them and suggested that the ability to watch and listen to sections again would help.
This experience has helped us to think about how we can better engage teachers to learn and reflect about the choices they can make in the classroom. It has also underlined the need for us to try out and evaluate digital routes to learning so that we are supporting teachers and learners effectively and not making assumptions about what is accessible or intuitive.
* The six Core Skills that the British Council works in partnership to develop in young people are creativity and imagination, citizenship, collaboration and cooperation, leadership, critical thinking and problem solving, and digital literacy.