Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many universities are currently discussing what to do for the next semester. The Santa Teresa Institute of Education, one of Ghana's five girls' colleges, is paving the way for online learning through instant messaging apps like Telegram and WhatsApp.
It was founded as a Women's Training College in 1961. In 1964 it became the Saint Teresa Institute of Education in Honoe, Volta region, and is one of 46 Ghana teacher training institutes.
In March, the school sent its students back home as a measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and most classes went online. While some students were asked to return to school to prepare for their final exam, many still study online from home.
The college does not have a comprehensive built-in online learning platform like Sakai, Canvas or Blackboard, and there are no recognized official platforms of this type in Ghana. In other universities, tutors often use the platform that they consider works best, and as a result, many students download various applications such as Google Classroom, Zoom, Telegram and WhatsApp, some of which consume a lot of data. In many cases, students are not formally enrolled on these platforms by their institutions to take classes.
However, in Santa Teresa, online learning is carried out mainly through WhatsApp and Telegram; After consulting with tutors and students, the applications were designated as official school learning platforms. Tutors switch to WhatsApp if they have problems teaching classes on Telegram and students note that these platforms are inexpensive and help them save on internet data.
In a phone conversation with Global Voices, Benedictus Mawusi Donkor, the school's tutor, explains why the school decided to enroll all students on WhatsApp and Telegram for e-learning:
When we were using the Google Classroom and YouTube, downloading videos becomes a problem when the network is not that strong. But when it comes to Telegram, I think with a little bit of network you easily get access to text mostly and audio. And some too, just a handful even with the Telegram they have a problem, so we try to engage them on WhatsApp. They have a WhatsApp platform as well as the Telegram.
When we used Google Classroom and YouTube, downloading videos became a problem if the network was not strong enough. I think that with Telegram, even if it has little signal, you can easily access most texts and audios. However, some also have problems with Telegram, so we tried to attract them with WhatsApp. So the students have both platforms.
By consolidating and centralizing platforms for online learning, tutors have found creative methods to engage students and engage them in classes delivered with these messaging apps. Some of these methods include closely monitoring student participation and attendance, personalizing the digital platforms available for learning, listening to and addressing the concerns of students and tutors, and providing monthly digital training to tutors who need it. .
Doreen Mensah, a freshman, said tutors and school officials found many ways to motivate students to participate in the online lessons.
The tutors have been motivating us. They know it's not easy, so they tell us to try. When they are online, and you are not available he will pick his phone to call and find out what is going on. And then they will give you words of encouragement to convince us to go online.
The tutors have motivated us. They know it is not easy: then they tell us to try. When they're online and you're unavailable, they pick up the cell phone and call you to find out what's going on. Then they say encouraging words to convince us to connect.
However, there are still structural problems that make learning difficult in Santa Teresa. According to freshman Jennifer Nyavor, the students are struggling financially since they haven't paid their assignments since March when they sent them home:
When we were in school, we depended on the allowance but now that we are home, they stopped paying allowances and some of us use it to pay school fees so it's making life difficult. Since we came back home in March when the president said no school till further notice, that was when they stopped paying the allowances. The allowance is 200 Ghana cedis ($ 34.54) per month. Unless my parents give me something small to buy data. So when I come online, I can't ask questions because then the class is over.
When we were in school, we depended on allocation. Now that we're home, they stopped paying assignments and some of us use them to pay school fees, so it's making our lives difficult. Since we returned home in March, when the president said there was no school until further notice, it was when they stopped paying us subsidies, which is 200 cedis (about $ 34.54) a month. Unless my parents don't give me something to pay for internet data. When I connect, I can't ask anything since the class is over.
High student participation
According to a report by Transforming Teacher Education and Learning (T-TEL), while many schools had a very low attendance rate (about 31%) in June, Santa Teresa recorded 97%. The tutors were very committed and in contact with the pedagogical needs of the students; They regularly communicated with those who were absent from classes to work with them so that they could maintain regular class attendance.
In a phone conversation with Global Voices, students and teachers observed that the school's principal, vice principal, and head of quality assurance were joining platforms to monitor classes and work to address emerging issues.
According to Jennifer Agyekum, a sophomore at the college, the tutors' efforts to keep the students involved have been effective:
Those who do well in assignments, tokens are being given to students in the form of (internet data) bundles. They are really motivating us to participate in the virtual learning and they are doing their best.
Those who do a task well are given tokens in the form of packets (from internet data). We are highly motivated to participate in online learning and do all the best.
However, both tutors and students continued to face other structural problems that particularly affected student participation for remote classes.
Director Sophia Adjoa Micah said:
As students are at home, some parents may not understand the whole business of learning online. Seeing their wards online they may not take kindly to it. And being females, some of the students have to do chores at home. It is a challenge to learn online and concentrate without any distractions.
Since the students are at home, some parents may not understand the whole thing of learning online. Seeing your pupils online, they may not take it well. And being women, some students have to do homework. It is challenging to learn online and focus without distraction.
Other tutors took the initiative to call the parents and talk to them about creating the right conditions for their daughters to study online with as few distractions as possible.
At the end of the month, tutors were asked to write a report detailing the progress of their online classes and identifying problems that slow down teaching and learning; Those reports are sent to the school management who reviews them and works with tutors and students to develop strategies to address these issues.
The school also adopted an open communication style where the conditions were dictated by the students so that they could tell their problems and challenges. The students who spoke to Global Voices said this was very helpful in supporting their learning.
An e-learning model for higher education
Although some teachers from other higher education institutions in Ghana have struggled to be able to teach online, Santa Teresa worked closely with tutors to ensure that they were properly trained to use digital instruments to teach their classes.
Some tutors said that the school's Information Technology department organizes monthly workshops and programs to help those who have difficulty navigating digital platforms in their classes.
In an email conversation with Global Voices, Principal Micah explained that some college support funds from T-TEL were used to enroll tutors in a certified online course organized by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.
The school is doing its best with limited resources, but Micah believes that establishing a state-of-the-art information and communication technology center will help them improve the quality of e-learning; It also called on Ghanaian telecommunications companies to provide support to students through free data packages to improve access to education, especially for marginalized students.
Editor's Note: Wunpini Mohammed is a consultant to T-TEL.