Before the outbreak of COVID-19, an education officer in the district neighbouring Uganda’s capital Kampala decreed that teachers could not take computers, mobile phones, or tablets into classrooms.
Frederick Kiyingi said phones and information and communications technology (ICT) tools distract learners and would compromise their learning and focus.
But William Musaazi, a teacher who had realised the importance of using ICTs in teaching, tried to reason otherwise. “With this smartphone, I’m able to get the whole world around me just at the click of a button… And at the same time, it makes my lessons interesting, like a very interesting movie,” he told IPS recently.
In the end, Musaazi decided to keep the vital tools out of class for fear of contradicting the guidelines.
Then in March 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni announced a total lockdown, sending learning to a halt. Schools and universities remained closed for two years, leaving 15 million students with no education.
Uganda’s Ministry of Education and Sports (MoE) suggested delivering lessons through radio and television but that was not effective. The ministry turned to Enabel, the development agency of Belgium. It developed and implemented a distance learning strategy known as the TTE Sandbox to ensure that learning continued by training educators at the five national teachers colleges (NTCs).
Teaching using a sandbox
Teachers in training had to undertake a crash programme on how to use technology for teaching instead of the traditional methods. They were taught how to use digital tools such as screen-casting, podcasting, video conferencing and e-books or padlets.
Ironically, Enabel had suggested using technology in teaching at NTCs in 2019 but veteran lecturers were reluctant, remembers Virginie Hallet, a portfolio manager at the organisation.
“They said ‘we were born before computers, we don’t know anything about computers. Why do you want us to use ICTS in delivering lectures’?” she told IPS.
Andrew Tabura, a principal education officer in charge of post-secondary and secondary teacher education at the MoE, told IPS that while the colleges had already been supplied with ICT tools, the lecturers had technology phobia. After training, they can now use ICTs. “When the COVID-19 situation came, it forced them to think ‘OK we have these facilities but how can we use them to reach out to our learners,” he said.
According to Hallet, 62% of learners who were at home in different parts of Uganda were able to follow classes via the TTE Sandbox. “It meant that education was able to continue… So really to us, the sandbox was like a mind shift from resistance to total buy-in,” she said. “To us, this is a major success.”
At Kabale National Teacher’s College 400 km south of Kampala, IPS found lecturers still using the TTE Sandbox and other online tools to teach pre-service teachers close to a year after colleges were reopened.
Teaching teachers to use ICTs
It’s early morning. IPS has been granted access to one of the lectures at NTC Kabale. The punishing cold from the Rwenzori Mountains finds its way into the room but warm-hearted learners seem unbothered as Molly Nakimera delivers her lecture. The room has an overhead projector and a set of loudspeakers. A number of cables linked to a laptop computer are visible. Nakimera projects a role-play video about education management, then the class is invited to comment.
Afterwards, Nakimera tells IPS that previously it would take more than three weeks to complete such a course unit, but using ICTs like videos and podcasts means less time is consumed and outcomes are better.
“I teach a very big class. Yet I had failed to figure out a method that would help me to work with big numbers. I used to shout a lot as a teacher. Sometimes I could feel like I’m stretching myself. And sometimes I could not complete the syllabus the way I’m doing it with the sandbox,” she says.
Nakimera adds that while before she knew how to type Word documents, she didn’t know anything about podcasting and producing videos for teaching. To her, the smartphone was for placing calls and checking emails but she has realised that it is actually a small computer, and a key teaching and learning tool too. “These are new things that made me feel more interested, that made my work easy, made me feel that I should become more serious,” added the teacher.
Physics and mathematics lecturer Mujungu Herbert told IPS that before the pandemic every lecturer was using what he described as traditional methods of teaching, which included ‘chalk and talk’ lectures and, sometimes, laboratory equipment or materials from the environment. “With the TTE Sandbox, I have noticed that the learners are more active during the lessons. The teaching is more learner-centred than teacher-centred,” he explained.
Asked why he had not previously embraced ICTs, Herbert said he and other lecturers did not see the reasons for using them and that the pedagogy in place did not include how to teach using ICTs or how to apply for online learning or teaching.
The only option during lockdown
“I would only get to a computer at the time of preparing or setting an exam. I had not heard of Zoom before the pandemic. But while we were in lockdown, we realised that the learners were away from us. The only way to access them was to use ICT tools,” added Herbert.
With such tools, lecturers were able to enrol learners to attend virtually, run quizzes and assign tasks like assignments. Classes were interactive. Herbert did note that some students who lacked access to the Internet would miss classes, while those who had not invested in smartphones or tablets would find it hard to access online resources.
France Ruhuma, a student majoring in biology and chemistry at NTC Kabale, is one of the cohort of students who were introduced to the TTE Sandbox and have continued to use it after schools reopened.
“Now, most of my lifestyle has been shifted online. I don’t have to carry a lot of books. I just get to the sandbox, click on the links and get access to interactive videos,” Ruhuma told IPS. He added that videos packed with illustrations and diagrams are far better to learn from than the old chalkboard and teacher illustration methods.
When he spoke to IPS, Ruhuma had just returned from a teaching practice at a school near Kabale. He said that he realised that veteran teachers were yet to adopt ICT, while not all learners had access to mobile phones. “So as an upcoming teacher, I’m leaving the college when I’m equipped with ICT skills. But the challenge is that in most of these schools, teachers are computer illiterate and the school environment is not prepared for ICTs in teaching,” he said.
MoE Officer Tabura told IPS that the ministry is developing a policy and guidelines to integrate ICTs into education. “It will give guidance to schools on how ICT facilities can be used because there is a fear that teachers or learners will misuse the ICT gadgets,” he said.
According to Tabura, the TTE Sandbox was a small innovation that was developed to reach learners during the lockdown, but it has opened many doors for lecturers. “ I know it requires Internet for example. And that can be a challenge. But if you have Internet, this is something that can be replicated all over the world,” he said.