Two days after the first covid-19 virus case was recorded in Rwanda, the Ministry of Education immediately shut down all the schools in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. It goes without saying that this measure was essential to protect the health and safety of millions of children and thousands of teachers in Rwanda. However, faced with the daunting and uncertain situation of the total lockdown, the Building Learning Foundations (BLF) team conducted a rapid information and communications technology (ICT) assessment during the first few weeks of April to help inform the design of a learning platform to remotely support teachers in their continuous professional development activities during covid-19 pandemic.
The rapid ICT assessment revealed that 41% of the teachers have their own smartphones but less than that are willing to use their own internet data bundle when participating in BLF activities. It was then clear that remote mentoring cannot be done solely using online platforms. BLF needed to find an inclusive and equitable approach to continue its support to teachers’ development.
During the last week of April, BLF piloted its new structured approach to remote mentoring dubbed, “Virtual School Visits” (VSV). In this new approach, the same principles used in face-to-face mentoring are applied, but are executed via different channels of communication suited to low-resourced situations. Among these channels of communication are phone calls, SMS messaging, and instant messaging using WhatsApp. Every two weeks, a Sector Learning Facilitator (SLF), with support from the District Teaching Advisor, visits all the schools virtually in his/her assigned sectors using the three modes of communication.
On May 18, 2020, I joined SLF, Prosper Tuyishime, in his group meeting with the English teachers of CS Nyakinama 2 in Nkotsi Sector. Prior to the group conference phone call, Prosper had already sent an SMS message to the head teacher and lower primary English teachers informing them of the schedule and activities of the VSV. Prosper used a group conference call as a platform to conduct the group meeting because many of the teachers had poor network connection. Three teachers joined the meeting and talked about unit 6 of the BLF English Toolkit Book 2. SLF Prosper started the meeting with a short and simple warm up song, “Good Morning.” He asked the teachers to listen to a recording of the song and invited them to sing along. Then, he asked some questions to help the teachers recall what they have learned from unit 5, Supporting Learning, which he used as springboard in introducing unit 6, which is all about Pacing Learning. All three teachers who joined the group conference call had their BLF English Toolkit Book 2 with them, so SLF Prosper proceeded to do an activity from that book with the teachers. Together they answered the activity under ‘Discover and Find Out’.
The teachers were given 5 minutes to do the task and after 5 minutes, through SLF Prosper’s guided questioning, the teachers discussed the different factors that affect the pacing of a lesson. The teachers were also given the time during the group phone call to practice speaking the classroom English from the unit being revised. To ensure equity in participation, SLF Prosper nominates a teacher during the group call to respond to a question or share his/her answer in one of the activities. The group meeting lasted for 40 minutes and ended with SLF Prosper reminding the teachers which unit from the BLF English Toolkit book 2 to study for next time and encouraging the teachers to listen to the REB radio learning programs.
After the group meeting, SLF Prosper phoned the Head Teacher, Clementine Dushimemariya, and informed her of the activities that had transpired during the meeting. He also shared the agreed action points made by the teachers which will be followed up in the next virtual school visit. An electronic copy of the school visit report was also sent to the Head Teacher via WhatsApp.
Meanwhile, those teachers who were not able to join the group conference call for a variety of reasons, were sent SMS messages containing BLF related activities that they can do as part of their professional development.
Although the BLF field team uses different modes of communication in carrying out their virtual school visits, group conference phone calls seem to be the most effective and efficient way to reach out to the teachers. In Musanze district’s weekly record of school visit activities for the period of May 22 to 29, 270 English and Maths teachers participated in the group conference calls, while 133 teachers joined the WhatsApp group chat conversations. I have participated in both group conference calls and WhatsApp group chat conversations, and I noticed that teachers are more engaged during the group conference calls. They seem to feel more confident in expressing themselves orally than in exchanging written conversations via group chat. Also, group conference calls are more cost efficient on the side of the teachers because BLF shoulders the cost of the calls.
“In participating in the BLF virtual school visit activities, the teachers are getting new knowledge and skills not only in English and Mathematics but also in using digital communication tools. VSV enables teachers to feel occupied and productive even if they are in their homes. Those teachers who are shy are given the opportunity to express themselves in a platform which is less dominated by the outspoken teachers. VSV is likewise a means for the teachers to stay in touch with their colleagues and feel connected” SLF Prosper said.
Prosper BLF’s Sector Learning Facilitator supports teachers remotely
The virtual school visits will never replace the face-to-face mentoring approach of BLF but is a way to bridge the gap that the covid-19 virus has created in these unprecedented times.