Our fairy tale of teacher professional development is a paradigm of the ongoing challenges that are faced by all who work to improve educational quality through professional development activities.The trainings and seminars are quality initiatives, well-meaning and good, but the work started there, the “educational magic” created, often does not continue, and the magic runs out.
In the cyber-savvy environment of developed countries, many schools and educational support structures are turning to the internet to support, or even replace, the exchanges that had, in the past, taken place only in the Land of Professional Development.Through interactive modules, teacher-led forums, virtual lesson-planning, and a plethora of other activities, teachers are given both the structured space and the ongoing opportunities to collaborate to improve their teaching and learning environments.The omnipresence of the internet means that the ‘net catches almost all teachers.
But here’s the tricky part: what about underdeveloped countries, where the internet is not available to everyone, where the ability to connect to the worldwide web is only practical in large cities, not in the small towns or villages where the majority live and learn?In Senegal, where CyberSmart Africa is undergoing our pilot project, “21st Century Learning,” less than 15% of people 12 years of age and older use the Internet (ARTP, 2010).This number goes down to 5.5% in rural areas!The internet will continue to become more accessible, in all corners of the world, as time goes on, but what do we do in the meantime?How do we support these teachers, the ones who have just as many daily challenges as their urban counterparts, if not more?How do we make sure that the magic once made only in the Land of Teacher Professional Development is within their reach as well?
CyberSmart Africa has turned to the cell phone, the ubiquitous technological friend of Africa that has allowed Africans to connect with the world – from friends who live just a few villages over to their recently emigrated relatives in Europe.Every teacher has a cell phone, and he does his best to keep the battery charged and the number active, because it is his link to the world, wherever he may be teaching.
Our new program “Weekly Challenges” is based on SMS text exchanges between the CyberSmart team and our partner teachers.In an attempt to continue the collaboration and focused discussions that started during face-to-face professional development activities, we send out an SMS to teachers every Monday that describes a challenge to complete during the week.These challenges can be limited and immediate, such as a response to a question sent: “What software do you use the most in your classroom?”They can be more task-oriented: “Co-facilitate a technology-integrated lesson with a colleague this week.”Or, they can be larger challenges, that ask teachers to reflect, collaborate, prepare, and execute during that week: “Create a film with students and teachers that describes the school’s history.”The challenges are designed to support teachers in putting into practice what they have been learning, and to provide more direction and practice in difficult areas.
By the following Monday, the teachers communicate their level of participation in the challenge by text – challenge not tempted, challenge tempted but not completed, challenge completed – and are awarded points for their participation and for the quality of any resulting products, such as lesson plans, films, or write-ups.The friendly competition is truly motivating, and the sharing of products through group e-mails encourages those who have access to an internet connection to use it as a professional development tool.
In addition, teachers are given the liberty to work individually or in groups, but they quickly tend toward group work to minimize the time and maximize the output.They are all of a sudden constantly interacting with their colleagues to accomplish defined professional development tasks – just as in the Land of TPD!
So far, the Weekly Challenges have created pocketfuls of educational magic, which the teachers have been sprinkling around their active, 21st century classrooms!