To Make the Transition to Digital Learning, Start with Teachers

The rapid transition to online learning has left many students and teachers struggling. Photo: ADB
The rapid transition to online learning has left many students and teachers struggling. Photo: ADB

By Brajesh Panth, Jeffrey Jian Xu

Teachers need to be provided the tools and training to successfully lead students into making the jump to effective digital learning.

The unprecedented closure of education facilities around the world due to COVID-19 forced schools to shift to distance learning overnight. But nobody was ready for this dramatic change. It was a wakeup call for education systems, particularly in developing countries which were already struggling. 

Despite the adverse impact on learning and equity, the pandemic has also provided transformational insights on how to turn the crisis into an opportunity.

To find these insights, we conducted a study of four countries – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Cambodia, and Bangladesh—that surveyed the digital readiness of teachers in three main categories: digital access, basic digital skills, and advanced digital skills.

We surveyed 23,658 teachers predominantly from primary and secondary schools, with about 58% from rural regions covering both public and private institutions. The survey participants were spread across gender, school type, school location and school level to proportionally represent national demographics in each country.

Our research explored how education technology and digital skills can significantly augment traditional teaching practices and transform learning at the scale needed to address the learning crisis underway in many countries.

Here is what we discovered:

In the area of digital access, which covers teachers’ access to the internet, devices, and digital tools, both at school and at home, we found that 60%-80% of the teachers accessed the internet via their own mobile data packages. This suggests not only high smartphone usage (more than 70% of teachers reported smartphone ownership) but also a level of sophistication and interest to subscribe and use such packages on their personal devices. In all four countries the smartphone was the predominant device used by teachers to access the internet, over tablets, computers, and digital TVs. 

At the opposite end, we found that community access points – free wifi hotspots, including places like public libraries and community centers – were either not available or teachers were not aware of them. This indicates the need to establish more community access points and to advocate their use.

We made a surprising discovery when we looked at basic digital skills, which cover a teacher’s ability to use tools to communicate, interact, and share information with students, including preparation of digital content and conducting research. A significant portion of teachers never (60%) or rarely used email to communicate with others, nor did they use any of the popular file sharing tools, such as Dropbox or Google Drive, to create and share information in a structured way. 

The key to successfully making the digital transformation in education is to enhance the digital skills of teachers.

A deeper analysis revealed that while teachers do not often use email or file sharing tools, they are quite proficient in using social media (i.e., Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook). Over 80% of teachers regularly use social media to communicate with others. This comes with drawbacks as social media does not offer structured information sharing and storage.

We also examined advanced digital skills, which cover teachers’ ability to engage with students for creative activities, online assessment, digital-safety and community engagement that prepares students for higher order skills. Here, the goal is to use digital tools to create new work, evaluate and draw conclusions, and analyze to draw connections.

Our findings show that only around 20%-30% of the teachers have created interactive content, which can be as simple as question-answer or as complex as a 3D simulation. Yet, interactions require higher order thinking skills and the complex ability to use digital tools effectively.  Assessments are also a key means for achieving higher order learning. Around 35%-50% of the teachers who responded indicated that they rarely had the opportunity to create online assessments or quizzes for students. This could be due to a lack of tools or skills to develop such assessments.

Our research indicates that the key to successfully making this digital transformation in education is to enhance the digital skills of teachers. This includes using technology and blended learning to improve professional development and teacher training, as well as building communities of practice to share innovations and best practices. Teachers also need help in the preparation, delivery and assessment of digital lessons, as well as effective communication and feedback loops with students and parents.

Distance blended learning is not about merely replacing traditional classroom-based learning. It requires a digital transformation that starts with teachers.