A persistent challenge for education authorities is providing equity of professional development opportunities amongst diverse teaching populations. There are significant logistical and cost implications in taking teachers away from classrooms to attend workshops, such as providing cover when they are absent. A solution to this is to develop blended programmes of professional development where in-person training is augmented by online, and mobile accessible, content and discussion.
A mobile chat app can easily be used to disseminate programme announcements and logistics, as a tool for encouragement and motivation, and as a tool for stimulating discussion and reflection. Before joining Cambridge Assessment I was involved for a number of years in implementing such programmes across the Middle East and Asia.
Here are my six key strategies for using chat apps as part of a blended programme:
Consider your app
It sounds obvious, but do research which apps are already the most popular amongst the participants! There’s no point trying to use an app only a few are familiar with. With groups of teachers in China, for example, it is highly likely that the ‘We Chat’ platform will be used by around 95-100% of a given group of teachers. In other countries, Line, WhatsApp, Viber or Facebook Messenger will be far more viable alternatives.
Create groups and mobile communities of practice
It helps to organise teachers into cohorts of no more than 50 teachers led by a group coordinator who has been trained and guided centrally by Master Trainers, perhaps as part of a Train the Trainer programme. Ideally, the group coordinator will personally know many of the teachers, be in the same geographical location, and hold a supervisory role at the client institution. It is important to ensure that the groups follow a pre-agreed naming convention (e.g. Location_CourseName_Group1). The groups created should be private and closed, and not accessible from people outside the programme.
Role of the coordinator
The coordinator should be responsible for sending out invitations to join a mobile group. As part of the teacher’s initial orientation, it should be explained to them what the purpose of the group is, who will be inviting them to take part and that they have the option to opt out if they wish. The coordinator can lead on posting announcements, stimulating discussion, and employing encouragement and motivation strategies. For large projects, a separate group for the coordinators themselves can be created.
Once the group has been set up there is likely to be an initial flurry of messages as teachers get to grips with the group dynamic. The group coordinator can take the lead in making introductions. Boilerplate language can be supplied to them so that they can re-state the purpose of the group and issue guidelines as necessary. One way to generate discussion is by posting short questions connected to the content in the form of small flashcards. These can be created on a powerpoint slide, or free design tool like Canva saved as an image and posted out to the group of coordinators for cascading. Questions should be worded to encourage peer-to-peer discussion.
“You should by now have completed Section 1 of the online programme. Discuss with your peers which of the classroom management strategies you have tried in your classroom. How did they work for you?”
Encouragement and Motivation
A teacher’s group progress could be posted throughout the group as a whole as a means of highlighting good practice and engagement. Metrics that can be posted may be group average progress through an online programme or average time on task. Competition between groups may be encouraged through the coordinator’s group. Teachers should also be encouraged as much as possible to think positively towards their training and professional development. I have found that teachers respond very well to simple messages of encouragement, motivational memes or pictures, or sometimes just a simple thumbs up!
Guidelines should be put in place on what is acceptable in the group. Off-topic discussions, inappropriate language, back-and-forth arguments, and comments of a personal nature are to be discouraged and monitored by group coordinators. However, in my experience, these are very rare. In some groups I have seen, teachers have posted video of themselves in the classroom and they have stimulated some very positive and constructive discussion, but these may not be appropriate in some contexts or may not be in compliance with regulations around student privacy.
I have found that teachers really engage with this aspect of blended professional development, and it is through these app communities that the liveliest discussions often occur.