University Teacher Training During the COVID-19 Emergency: The Role of Online Teaching-Learning Tools
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This research summarizes the collaborative training experience of university professors acting as tutors of their peers. A three-phase training process was planned and taught: the goal was to train teachers to design, practice and use online teaching-learning ICT tools. The workshop also aimed to motivate and improve teachers’ emotional state, given the adverse conditions generated from isolation due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Communication and planning in collaborative spaces, and activities conducted with and independent of the tutor group (a team with interdisciplinary, pedagogical and technical capacities) generated clear, progressive achievements in professor participants. A training space was created through the collaborative work of heterogeneous groups of professors via tools such as Zoom, WhatsApp, an institution platform based on Moodle and e-mail. Through these spaces knowledge was constructed collectively; professors were encouraged to continually practice new tools and were challenged through continuous training sessions. The process progressively strengthened teachers’ ability to use ICT tools while simultaneously opening new spaces for genuine communication that helped teachers begin the new online academic period in a positive way.
KeywordsCOVID-19 Cooperative learning Collaborative learning
After demonstrating the lack of rapid action and scientific knowledge to counteract COVID-19 and its consequences [1, 2, 3, 4], the World Health Organization (WHO) issued health guidelines for the community1 , accompanied by continuous updates of statistics on the progress of the disease; dissemination of strategic and planning measures; as well as daily world reports on the disease’s status in different countries . When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, changes were implemented at all levels : work, study, entertainment etc. All dimensions of human life were continually transformed, day after day [8, 9, 10]. Both in Guayaquil, a city located in the coastal region of Ecuador, and at the national level, the pandemic acutely affected economic, labor, health, and education sectors [11, 12, 13, 14, 15] (11-03-2020).
This research gathers the experience and results of the third phase of teacher training. Training was organized in the following way: the third phase of training was given by five professors. In case of emergency the training group could count on a sixth back up teacher to help with on-line follow-up, accompaniment  of professor groups, monitoring and technical assistance. The trainees, 270 professors from UPS’s Guayaquil campus, were divided into two groups, corresponding to their traditional classroom teaching session (day or night). Each group was assigned a tutor. Full time teachers were organized in five distinct groups and received training in the morning. Part time teachers and teachers with administrative roles were organized in five more groups and received training in the afternoon. The lemma “we will all get through this together” was shared with and promoted among the groups. These words were powerful in a city like Guayaquil, where there was a total lack of leadership in concrete actions and measures adopted by the local and national authorities, reflecting the absence of coordination and a health system that showed serious deficiencies, leading to the highest levels of mortality due to COVID 19 not only in the region but in the world . The intensive use of technologies, mandated by the world wide pandemic, has allowed us to see the university from a different perspective [18, 19]. We have experienced firsthand how learning can be augmented from the moment in which the online interactions are personalized and oriented towards the cooperative construction of knowledge [20, 21]. To create a cooperative learning environment with the group of 270 teachers, an initiative called “Virtual Cloister” was developed, which focused on the development of virtual workshops to exchange knowledge, techniques, and pedagogical experiences (first phase, see Fig. 1). In this same environment, virtual classrooms were opened to further deepen methodological strategies and didactic suggestions (second phase, see Fig. 1) for university professors who, for the most part, only had experience in face-to-face classroom education. At the end of the voluntary training workshops4, short courses were given on specific topics related to the use of technologies in the virtual classroom. These micro trainings were called “Educational Vitamins”, and they were welcomed with enthusiasm and with a high level of commitment, helping professors (students and tutors) through the difficult situation they were living (deaths from COVID-19 were reaching their highest point in Guayaquil at this time). From this experience, best practices were collected from teacher - tutors to synthesized them for collaborative work , and strategies for accompanying teachers  were established, aimed at training and creating cooperative environments . The main strategies identified were: collaborative meetings to perfect the content of virtual conferences; real-time and asynchronous communication to answer queries about the concrete and pedagogical application of a web tool; always having a support teacher available to assume the role of host in a virtual classroom or Zoom meeting, in case of technical difficulties while opening or during the session; in addition, all the tutors were associated with the role of hosts in the virtual rooms of each group of participating teachers, so that the entire training team had the same controls to access each other’s classroom: if one of the tutors lost connectivity during the virtual meeting, participating teachers could continue the training. Finally, after concluding phase 1 and 2, teacher training (phase 3, see Fig. 1) was carried out with an instructional approach like that used at the beginning of every semester at UPS, Guayaquil, but this time in a virtual rather than physical space.
2 Materials and Methods
2.1 Collaborative and Cooperative Online Learning
Each tutor was assigned 27–30 professors. Group distribution was designated by the academic authorities of UPS Guayaquil in alphabetical order. This organization ensured diverse groups complied of professors in a wide range of ages, knowledge and ICT experience. Class methodology was constructivist and connectivist. The tutor adopted a dynamic and motivating role in group work, promoting collaboration between members. For many teachers, training involved acquiring knowledge and tools in a very short timeframe, especially considering that training sessions only lasted two hours a day. This challenge was the seed needed to generate a learning ecosystem within each group; peers mutually instructed, advised, clarified, etc. One product of the courses is a set of video tutorials that now belong to the UPS and can be used to train new teachers who are beginning virtual instruction. It is also a valuable resource for current teachers who want to review tools available to them.
3 Results and Discussion
The tutors were highly satisfied with the process of transforming traditional classroom teaching techniques to online classroom teaching techniques using hardware and software tools: they perceive that all of the course’s goals were achieved.
We also find positive responses to the open questions posed in the questionnaire. In the first question trained participating teachers were asked if they had a positive start to the new academic period in which they are giving classes in a virtual classroom. Among the responses of the tutors, the most representative (quantitative criteria) are “totally”, “mostly”, “totally and with great certainty”. When asked about the role of online learning tools applied after teacher training, representative answers are “fundamental”, “essential” and “necessary”. A third question asked the tutors to indicate unfavorable factors for the success of the training. The following unfavorable responses were obtained: “(little) time”, “too heterogeneous groups”, “connectivity problems”, “digital divide persists”.
This study collects and summarizes a training experience of collaborative work between teachers who acted as tutors of their fellow teachers. The training goal was to enhance the teachers’ skills, using technological tools and services to build upon almost exclusive experience in face-to-face classes in order to prepare professors to become successful teachers in virtual classrooms. The experienced allowed the entire group of professors of the Universidad Politécnica Salesiana, Guayaquil to overcome technical difficulties, in addition to those that were experienced during the time of the pandemic (related to health, socio-emotional state and economic situation). A group of six professors-tutors (a team with inter-disciplinary, pedagogical and technical capacities) voluntarily assumed the challenge and responsibility of designing, preparing, teaching and evaluating the courses, which were given 100% online. The group focused on new strategies to teach and learn with the help of technology. The group was also motivated to help their colleagues overcome the growing anxiety they were living, due to the social isolation mandated by the government lockdown in response to COVID-19.
Through this study it can be observed that the tutor group’s communication and planning strategies in both real time and differed collaborative spaces allowed progressive and evident achievements. A cooperative workspace was born and nurtured by groups of teachers from different areas (using Zoom). In addition, shared knowledge construction activities were carried out; continuous repetition of the use of available tools was encouraged; daily achievable challenges were designed and carried out in training sessions. Age, disciplinary and technical specificity barriers were broken as teachers from different subjects participated and exchanged knowledge in the same group, optimizing preparation times before the start of the semester. The process progressively strengthened professors’ teaching skills by integrating ICT tools into their previous knowledge. At the same time, the training process opened a permanent communication space to positively face the start of the new academic period with exclusively online classes, promoting the exchange of experiences, discovery and common solving of specific difficulties. Technological gaps remain, and they are complicated to close as they depend on factors such as access and capacity of connectivity, equipment, or are related to the health emergency (for instance new technological accessories cannot be easily bought, a technician could not come to fix a device during a lock down, help lines have longer waits etc.).
The course was characterized by some factors which could have been considered disadvantages (short class time, heterogeneous groups, professor availability as some teachers were also required to complete administrative tasks at the time of the course). Nonetheless the professors who participated in the course acquired cooperation strategies, learned to use online tools to promote the teaching-learning process, and demonstrated great self-confidence to tackle the challenge of online learning while living an extremely complicated reality and with little time to prepare for this big transition. The online learning tools they learned to use have proven indispensable as they start this new phase of remote work.
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