Opinion | Demand for humans as teachers/workers increasingly under threat

By Akanimo Sampson

The theme of this year’s International Literacy Day is: Literacy Teaching and Learning in the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond With Focus on the Role of Educators and Changing Pedagogies.

Organisers of the event in Abuja requested me to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities, and societies. Without gainsaying the fact, the extent an individual, community, and society will go will largely depend on the depth of education one has. The digital age is here with us, and racing at the speed of light. Mere book knowledge is not enough to cushion the shocks of digitalism. Business as usual has no place in a digital world, and the traditional classroom method of learning is no longer in vogue. The way things are unfolding, it’s either we shift or we brace to perish as individuals, communities, and societies.

Some times in the second half of 1967, a ‘mysterious’ giant black bird invaded the airspace of Aba, the commercial nerve-centre of the present day Abia State in Eastern Nigeria, and ruptured the relative peace of the Enyimba City. People were scampering for safety with mothers and children in a rat race to shield themselves from the lethal objects the giant black bird was unleashing on the busy commercial town. But, there was a little boy who was excited by the whole unfolding tragic drama. In spite of the monstrous noise from the black bird and its killer objects, the little boy was running after the black bird that was busy dropping its weapon of mass destruction on Aba. For the innocent little boy, he was fascinated by the Nigerian Air Force bomber plane ‘’shitting’’ as they say in local parlance.

More than 53 years after the first bombing of Aba during the Nigerian Civil War, that child still remembers the incident very vividly. But, he has not been able to remember any of the lessons that were taught in his primary school before the Aba bombing.

Keeping the Aba bombing story in view, let us connect with another interesting event in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State. Some times in 2011 or thereabout, a private television station hit the airwave with a Mexican soap opera, Salvador. It was a very popular soap opera that forced daddies and mommies to close businesses and social interactions early to enable them get home in time to watch the one hour show. Like when Nigeria has a major international soccer duel, the ever-busy streets of Port Harcourt are usually empty during the television series.

Spurred by the popular Mexican soap opera, a teacher in one of the higher institutions in Rivers developed a CD to teach some of the core subjects like English Language, Mathematics, and the sciences. His logic was that what people see, they hardly forget. Arguably, that is true of the Aba bombing witnessed by the then little boy, and an incident that happened at a lesson centre in the Karu axis of Abuja last week.

The lesson teacher had the previous day taught the pupils five vowel sounds. In less than 24 hours, the pupils were not able to remember what they were taught. The teacher asked the quiet pupils, ‘’did you watch television at home?’’ The pupils chorused, ‘’aunty, yes.’’ One of the pupils specifically said he watch cartoons, adding, ‘’aunty, P. J. Max can fly.’’

Import of COVID-19

Despite its unpleasant consequences, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped to expose the decay of our educational system, and the urgent national need for a shift. While the spread of the pandemic has resulted in schools closing, it has thrown up a global increase in technological solutions to enable children and young people to continue learning. This has highlighted the role of technology in education.

There is ongoing debate whether or not the traditional teaching system should be discarded. While this presentation does not seek to take sides, it should however, be pointed out that our current educational system is producing students who ‘’sort’’ and project-writing contractors in the higher institutions. In the lower cadres, parents make the success of their wards possible with cash inducement. Collectively, these practices have compounded the unemployment crisis in the country.

Without the doubt, traditional teaching will still exist along with the new-age learning tools and technology. But, the teaching materials should be provided as a supplement to classroom activities and moved online for students to reference outside of the classroom. Classroom time is better used for discussing the curriculum, engaging in activities with teams and completing class projects. Students often have the option to pace their learning and even study ahead with a digital learning tool if they wish to do so. By helping children think outside their typical learning modes, digital learning inspires creativity and lets children feel a sense of accomplishment that encourages further learning.

What is pedagogy?

The theme of this event harps on changing pedagogies by the educators. Often, pedagogy is confused with curriculum. While curriculum defines what is being taught, pedagogy actually refers to the method on how the educators teach—the theory and practice of educating. For those who know better, pedagogy is the relationship between learning techniques and culture, and is determined based on an educator’s beliefs about how learning should, and does, take place. Pedagogy requires meaningful classroom interactions and respect between educators and learners. The goal is to help students build on prior learning and develop skills and attitudes and for educators to devise and present curriculum in a way that is relevant to students, aligning with their needs and cultures.

Shaped by the teacher’s own experiences, pedagogy must take into consideration the context in which learning takes place, and with whom. It isn’t about the materials used, but the process, and the strategy adopted to lead to the achievement of meaningful cognitive learning. In a literal sense, the word pedagogy stems from the Greek word that effectively means “the art of teaching children.” Pedagogue refers to teacher.

Online learning

In a world where new media has taken a significant role in teaching and learning, any modern pedagogy must account for students finding, analysing and applying knowledge from a growing number of constantly changing sources. This requires higher-order skills like critical thinking and the ability to learn more independently, as well as in larger groups, both in person and online.

Students must be comfortable using technology to help them learn, and to access, share, and create useful information and gain better fluency in a subject. Educators can also use technology to enhance course materials and further support their pedagogies through blended learning that combines classrooms with online teaching, flipped classrooms that provide materials students can access after class, like videos, lecture notes, quizzes, and further readings, and overall wider access to sources and experts online.

They can integrate new forms of technology to teach, like videos, animations, and simulations through sources like YouTube channels, iTunes University, clickers, and more. Even modern textbooks can incorporate content like video and audio clips, animations, and rich graphics that students can access and annotate. All of this content enhances the experience for students, and particularly benefits students who are struggling. It can also reduce spending, since students have plenty of valuable, real-time updated information at their fingertips for free.

Social media tends to allow students develop communities to share experiences, discuss theories, and learn from one another. Educators can interact with students beyond the confines of the classroom, too.

For instance, Kay Livingston is a professor in Educational Research, Policy and Practice in the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She works closely with policy-makers, teachers and key educational stakeholders at international, national and local levels. From 2007 – 2012 she undertook a five year secondment as Director of International, Research and Innovation at Learning and Teaching Scotland and then Education Scotland – a Scottish Government agency with responsibility for supporting and improving education.

Professor Livingston chaired the National Partnership Group’s Sub-group which developed proposals on the Career-long Professional Learning of Teachers. She is editor of the European Journal of Teacher Education, a member of the UK National Commission for UNESCO Scotland Committee, Chair of the Association of Teacher Education in Europe’s Research and Development Centre ‘Professional Development of Teachers’ and Chair of the Games Legacy for Learning Group for the Glascow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

In a 2017 work, The complexity of learning and teaching: challenges for teacher education, European Journal of Teacher Education she points out that ‘’at the heart of redesigning our education system is a dramatic need for schools and teachers to prepare students for a future characterised by change and uncertainty on a scale not previously experienced.’’

It seems to me, this shift requires the authorities to redefine the core business of schools, and the role of teachers within them. However, CEO – Founder at UniCoorp, from 2017 to present, Adlen Berkani, says digital learning is the process of using digital tools and technology to create a better learning experience for students.

UniCoorp’s goal is to revolutionise education in emerging markets by providing the latest technologies and innovations to remote populations. It helps people get the right skills and help companies train their workforce to reach international standards. It is providing top quality education and training to companies both in Europe and Africa.

‘’We developed a Learning Management System adapted to our clients (light and friendly) for both desktop and mobile applications. We partnered with high quality institutions to create content on various subjects (management, soft skills, languages etc)’’, Berkani says, adding, ‘’we are also able to develop tailored content depending on the company’s needs to fit the learner’s culture. We provide individual and personalised feedback and training to all our learners.’’

Do we not think that the classical way of learning in a classroom, with a professor that teaches to students has been used for hundreds of years, and has led to many inventions and scientific discoveries? It seems this system has limits: Is the professor, tutor, primary school teacher not teaching only at the same pace for all the pupils/students?

Critics say the interaction between students and educators is limited, the infrastructure cost is high (classroom, libraries, course material), and the learning can only happen at the same place and time. Are digital learning tools and technology not filling the gaps where traditional classroom teaching falls behind?

Debatably, some of the efficiencies such tools bring are unmatchable by traditional learning techniques. From the environmental impact recognised by the need for less paper for handouts and books to saving time with quick access to information and the ease of research, perhaps, digital learning provides an effective way to cut costs, maximise resources and heighten both reach and impact for students and educators alike.

The traditional way of learning tends to give little scope for engagement as the dynamics of a conventional classroom constitutes of students, textbooks and one instructor for learning. On the contrary, digital mode of learning tends to give a wider range of choices to the students to learn from.

The unlimited availability of image and video content, gamification, interactive sessions, virtual reality etc makes the learning process more interesting and playful. Interestingly, digital learning not only benefits the students, it also gives educators an opportunity to enhance their teaching skills based on the wants and needs of the modern age. By learning to use technology alongside books and pencils in the classroom, they raise their abilities to create leaders of tomorrow.

Educators can also map their performance as a teacher and get feedback from students, which oftentimes is difficult in brick-and-mortar only classrooms. And, with Google Docs and other cloud based learning tools working on a group project while miles apart physically, has become easier than ever before.

It is being argued that this type of connected learning creates an ecosystem of coordination which if used efficiently, will lead to better learning outcomes as well as enhanced collaboration skills.

Response to COVID-19

Sarah Prestridge et al., 2019, in ‘’Responding to Challenges in Teacher Professional Development for ICT Integration in Education’’, raised these posers- what enabled students to continue to learn, what enabled teachers to change their design for learning and pedagogy, what restricted education, who was advantaged and who was disadvantaged? What was learnt about technology, pedagogy and education from a research, practice or policy perspective and the implications for the future of schooling?

Teacher as a “Co-Learner” Early in the age of teaching with computers, a lot of effort went into figuring out how teachers could make use of technology to become a more efficient, and how best to transmit information to students through technology. More recently, there has been an increased focus on teachers acting as a “co-learner” instead – facilitating students as they learn from many sources, rather than being the one source of all knowledge on a subject. Since school curricula now demand creativity and innovation from students, teachers must be willing to step into the uncertain, and allow their students to explore topics they, as teachers, may not be full masters of to start. For example, many science classrooms include a lab component, but most of the time, students make hypotheses and perform experiments about what the outcome is. These labs allow students to emulate some parts of a scientific process. In order to challenge students’ creativity and increase their design abilities, teachers can encourage students to tackle problems that are not directly addressed by a textbook, even going so far as allowing students to choose their own ideas to study, within the bounds of the topic at hand. This however, requires trust in students to choose appropriately challenging topics. This may seem daunting, and like losing control of a classroom, but in fact, it’s freeing – instead of having to maintain a fragile control of a class.

Change drivers

There are a number of key drivers of this change, including the ‘why’ of education. As a body, the Military Writers Society of Nigeria (MWSN, www.mwsng.com) will like to advocate for shift of the concept of educators ‘’delivering learning’’ to enabling learning to happen. It has been articulated that ensuring the school community provides learning experiences that foster positive emotion to enhance greater cognitive development; learning experiences designed to meet the diverse and variable needs of all learners to ensure learning is fully inclusive and promotes success for all regardless of ability; and increasing recognition of societal changes, including issues of equity and catering for students who come to school disadvantaged.

While scholars are increasingly pushing for a concept of knowledge that thinks more of knowledge as a set of cognitive strategies than as a ‘thing’ or as the goal of learning; an economy that succeeds through the deployment of knowledge, there is also a potent current pushing for the domain of academia to recognise the importance of peer-based knowledge, community knowledge and cultural knowledge.

The glaring lesson of the current crisis is the unpredictability of the future workforce, and rapid advancements of automation. The jobs of today were certainly not the jobs of a decade ago. Clearly, the jobs of 2030 will require new skills. It will require different skill sets and attributes to contribute to society with demands for innovation, creativity and sustainable practices that will have minimal impact on the ecosystem. 

With the zooming speed, and scale in technological advancement, the demand for humans as teachers/workers will be under increased threat because of the emergence of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

 While we hope that our educators will be increasing emphasis on learner-centred approaches, including self-directed, self-determined and self-managed learning; increasing emphasis on the importance and acknowledgment of student voice and open opportunities for expressive outcomes; and development of learning environments suited to collaborative practices, ladies and gentlemen, there is need for greater recognition of local languages, cultural practices and history within the national and local curriculum.

Thank you all for listening.

  • Text of a presentation by Akanimo Sampson, at the 2020 International Literacy Day organised on Tuesday, September 8, 2020 by the FCT Education Resource Centre at the Conference Hall of the City Library, Wuse Zone 4, AbujaSampson is a senior journalist/editor and President, Military Writers Society of Nigeria