Thursday, 2 April 2015

ICT4RED Research adventures part 2: How to build the nation – teachers’ narratives in a changing context

Last weekend Phase Three of the ICT4RED project came to an end with a joyful celebration (see previous blog). Facilitators, Phase Three teachers, ICT4RED staff, and government representatives came together in Cofimvaba to celebrate the project as much as themselves. Alas, I had to leave the country just before the graduation; but the live tweets from the event spread the pride and joy of all participants even to a cold grey London morning. That’s right, from a town hall in a small settlement deep in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape detailed live tweets updated the rest of the world in real time. ICT4RED clearly revolutionized teachers’ use of social networks but reflecting back now four weeks after my research, I sense this might just be the tip of the iceberg.

The above pictures are from Zamuxolo Junior Secondary and show the educational conditions in which many teachers and learners in the Eastern Cape operate. Often the understandably outcry in civil society and media focuses on the impact of these conditions on learners; far less attention is paid to the effects such conditions have on teachers. For example, what happens if you are determined to change the lives of your learners for the better, but on a daily you are working in a professional setting lacking crucial resources necessary for you to do your job to a standard you deem appropriate. How does this affect your motivation and your self-perception as an individual? 

In our interviews, the teachers and me talked a lot about the value of being a teacher, and what the ideal teacher would be able to do. These were fascinating discussions and it emerged strongly that teachers associated their professional standard with the achievements of their learners. That is, teachers gained pride and confidence the better their learners were doing academically. A major theme in the interviews was the idea of ‘we are building the nation’ and that ‘all professions come from the teaching profession’ because engineers, politicians, businessmen all alike were educated by teachers at one point. The professional self-perception of teachers then will be strongly affected by any factor prohibiting or facilitating teachers’ ambition of nurturing the learners ‘to build the nation’.

Teachers welcomed the ICT4RED initiative so strongly because they regard the introduction of tablets as putting them on par with the better resourced schools in urban areas. They feel that their learners will be able to compete with urban learners now that they have access to the same advanced technological inputs. Sensing that using the tablets will provide their learners with better chances to achieve the same learning outcomes and be as prepared for joining tertiary education fostered teachers’ embrace of the technology.

In addition, the usage and mastery of tablets as an educational tool made teachers feel part of the modern education community of practice. There was an overwhelming sense that ‘the times are changing’ and that ‘in these new days’ teachers are required to adapt to the technological change in order to provide their learners with the highest quality education. As one interview expressed: ‘Using it [technology] is very important. The world we are living in is advancing; if you are left behind – it is up to you.’ Technology mastery was since seen as an integral part of the ideal vision of a teacher as this mastery was assumed to support the communication of knowledge to the learners. 

Teachers explaining the use of tablets to learners at Mvuzo JS (@fincaluvoz)
Though, it was clear that the teachers saw themselves in control of the integration of technologies into the classroom. While the world is advancing and technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the tablets were seen as a supplement to existing educational strategies. Teachers continued to apply their established teaching methods and adopted teaching with tablets as another teaching strategy of choice in their wider pedagogical repertoire. They felt it was crucial for teachers to be trained on tablet use before introducing the technology to learners in the classroom so that teachers remain in control of the educational process.

However, during the interviews teachers believed that in a world of instant access to information and ever connected social and digital realities, the role of the teacher is indeed changing. Teaching – they believed – becomes more about facilitating access to knowledge rather than the teacher acting as the source of knowledge. This went together with distaste for teacher-centered educational strategies in which the learners mainly paraphrase the teacher's monologues. In the times of Google, they felt asking learners to repeat teacher's words has little relevance given the knowledge source (i.e. the tablets) right in front of them. To cite one interviewee ‘learners have become the problems solvers; they can come with their own strategies to solve problems, you (teacher) just show them the way’.    

Learners learning independently using both technology and pen & paper
Teachers used the tablets for a variety of things: to record and motivate learners; to facilitate examination; to videorize community events; to connect to colleagues; to access departmental information. The list goes on. In common though was a sense of recognition as professionals, which they felt they received from being given the technology and trained on its usage. Teachers reported how learners now too aspire to become teachers seeing how teachers are valued by the government that provides tablets for them. Teachers compared themselves ironically to beneficiaries of BEE (a South African affirmation action policy) when using their tablets in public. To many in rural areas, the use of expensive gadgets such as tablets is associated with urban office workers and consultants; seeing teachers with such technology since incites great respect.

In sum then, ICT4RED has reshaped teachers’ professional standing. Mastery of a sophisticated technology not widely spread in their social context gives teachers recognition and respect required to support their daily activities. The ICT4RED teachers see tablets as a tool for their learners to have access to better educational opportunities. To themselves, tablets present a tool to be taken more seriously as professionals. The tweets from Saturday’s graduation thus appear as a statement of confidence. They represent a new voice and optimism that the ICT4RED educators have gained as teaching professionals. To be sure, it suits the South African teaching profession and sheds light on a different narrative of teaching in 21st century South Africa.  

Teacher leading the technological and educational change in South Africa


  1. Teaching is very interesting and very easy when I am using the strategies.

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