Support for teachers – Faisal Bari

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TEACHERS, irrespective of the level they are teaching at, have had to make major changes in the way they teach over the last few months. And they have had to adapt quite quickly as well. Schools and universities were closed in mid-March. But within a few weeks, many universities and schools started to take their instruction online. By June, almost all universities had gone online. Most medium- to high-fee private schools went online as well, while teachers in even low-fee and NGO-supported schools worked out hybrid systems to restart at least some teaching activity again.

This change, still continuing, has been hard. Teachers were used to teaching face to face. Suddenly they were told they had to teach through the internet. They had to learn how to use new programmes. They had to quickly adapt their teaching material, as much as possible, to the new medium. The assessments had to change as well.

The pandemic has not gone away. It is being said that if the pandemic remains under control, schools and universities across the country might be allowed to open up in mid-September. This will be under strict standard operating procedures. The risk of outbreaks will increase if schools and universities do open. So, we might have partial shutdowns even during the academic year, and it might happen more than once.

Given all of the above, there will continue to be heavy demands on teachers. They might have to do teaching in hybrid mode: face to face at times and online at others. Or even both at the same time. They will need to have contingency plans in case schools/universities are closed suddenly and for weeks on end.

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The need to adapt to the pandemic will continue to place heavy demands on educators.

Teachers will continue to learn about new programmes and new ways of delivering classes. In the last six months alone, we have moved away from simple synchronous classes on Zoom/Teams to many other platforms and with a mix of asynchronous and synchronous. In synchronous classes, even breakout rooms have become more common. New ways of engaging students and making content interactive and interesting are being devised all the time. Teachers will need to have access to new resources as they become available and they will need to continue to experiment with modes to find things that work better for them and their students.

On the pedagogical side, too, experimentation and innovation will continue. Given unstable internet connections — which is the case for residents in larger cities too — there is a tendency to explore asynchronous modes of teaching. But student interest is better captured through synchronous teaching. How do teachers balance the two imperatives? How can asynchronous teaching be made more interesting, and how can synchronous teaching be made less heavy on bandwidth?

This has implications for assessments as well. Face-to-face teaching in Pakistan, across the system, relied heavily on summative assessments. But summative assessments are very difficult to conduct online, and they are less effective as well. Timed examinations, when internet is unstable, are difficult to manage. Issues of cheating also become quite hard to manage. For fairer assessments, teachers have to think more in terms of formative assessments. Assessments that they can do continuously as students engage with the course material, especially in asynchronous environments, need to be thought through and these assessments need to be aligned with teaching goals and objectives. This in and of itself requires a fair bit of effort.

Teachers have to adapt and adapt material to online teaching too. The easiest thing to do is to use the same readings and just record the lecture that one would do face to face and send that video to students. They would have access to the readings and lectures. But that is not what optimal online teaching is about. The reading material needs to be adapted to online teaching. It might mean supplementing readings with presentations, short audio/video lectures on key concepts, written and/or audio/video responses from students, and interactive synchronous sessions in which to hold discussions.

Students are no longer sitting in front of teachers. It is hard enough getting and keeping their attention when they are captive in a classroom environment. To have to do that when children are home, and when home environments vary a lot and there might be many things competing for their attention, the material has to be a lot more engaging and interactive.

The coming academic year is not going to be a normal one. When students come back, many might not have had access to any educational material for months, other might have had regular classes. Teachers will need to assess the level of learning for their students and then they will have to meet the students where the students are. The curriculum for the year will have to take into account potential learning losses and meet this challenge head on.

The next academic year might also be a truncated one. We will be starting a bit late, and there might be disruptions during the year as well. We should be prepared for such eventualities. More importantly, we should have contingency plans where we know which are the important concepts and learning objectives we have to prioritise and which ones we can leave out if need be. Teachers need to either figure this out or the school system has to do it for them with their feedback.

All of the above is a tall order. But it has to be done if we are going to have effective teaching and learning for most children. The role of the teacher is central here. But they will definitely need a lot of support as well. Are systems in place, in the private sector as well as public, to provide support in terms of trainings, equipment, motivation and acknowledgement?

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.