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University Teacher Training During the COVID-19 Emergency: The Role of Online Teaching-Learning Tools

Conference paper
Part of the Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing book series (AISC, volume 1331)

Abstract

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.

Keywords

COVID-19 Cooperative learning Collaborative learning 

1 Introduction

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 [5], 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 [6]. When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, changes were implemented at all levels [7]: 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).

The Universidad Politécnica Salesiana (UPS), within its annual 2019–2020 teacher training plan, had planned a teacher refresher course prior to the commencement of the new academic period2 (from mid-April 2020). However, the new semester was modified to comply with total social isolation, a measure adopted by the Ecuadorian government3, forcing educational activities at all levels to be carried out entirely online. In this context, a month before the start of the semester (and for almost seven consecutive weeks, interrupted by the Easter holidays), a team of teachers, concerned about the implications of the university’s immediate adoption of online teaching, voluntarily organized intensive teacher training sessions to give their peers tools to succeed in a virtual classroom. Specifically, two teachers from the School of Engineering led the training (see Fig. 1). The coordinating professors planned a three-phase training process through virtual workshops. The training was conducted from March to April 2020. The first two phases were implemented with crowdlearning dynamics (phase 1 - massive voluntary participation) and flipped classroom dynamics (phase 2 - massive voluntary participation). Though the third phase was more instructional in nature, it was still conducted with cooperative methodologies (phase 3 - mass participation).
Fig. 1.

Strategy adopted by tutor professor group prior to the start of the new academic period at the Universidad Politécnica Salesiana, Guayaquil

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 [16] 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 [17]. 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 [22], and strategies for accompanying teachers [23] were established, aimed at training and creating cooperative environments [24]. 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

A descriptive investigation was developed, based on a mixed questionnaire (open and closed questions) applied to the team of tutors and the support teacher to collect their perceptions and the results of the course. During the course the tutors met daily to analyze, provide feedback and improve course content. The questionnaire was applied two months after the training was completed and, therefore, two months after the start of the academic period. This means that when teachers responded to the questionnaire, they had already taught classes for two months using the tools they learned in the course. At the time the questionnaire was applied (beginning of July, 2020), the entire group of teachers remains connected to and active in the chat “Academic Cloister”, a real time instant messaging group (WhatsApp group), originally created to prepare the teacher training sessions. In this group teachers (tutors) have shared and continue to share training experiences; ask questions; share doubts, best practices, resources, tools etc. When they responded to the questionnaire, the tutors already had information about the process: types of tools used, main advantages and disadvantages found; student motivation, learning outcomes (formative assessment), etc. To achieve daily work goals, the team of tutors developed and shared a collaborative work schedule. At the same time a four step teaching-learning process was established and repeated each session: motivation-construction-repetition-challenge. Emphasis was put on teachers’ motivation to acquire new knowledge and skills and immediately apply them through different exercises [25]. It is necessary to consider both tangible and intangible factors that guarantee rapid learning contexts and the technological conditions of the participating teachers (devices, quality of experience); as well as the factors that may have hindered this process [26], such as internet connection and lack of technical knowledge and familiarity. In the fourth step of the process, participants are invited to participate in challenges (daily, at the end of the two-hour virtual class). The successful completion of the challenge is necessary to pass the course. A process was designed where the participant, through motivation and activities completed throughout the learning process, constructs and re-constructs his or her knowledge as an observed challenge, supported by the tutor and then practiced together with the other participants as a consolidation of what has been learned (see Fig. 2). By simultaneously participating in activities with colleagues learning was greatly stimulated [27].
Fig. 2.

Neuroeducation: teachers’ meaningful learning process

2.1 Collaborative and Cooperative Online Learning

How can cooperative teaching skills and practices in a higher education institution be developed and then replicated with students in a virtual classroom to guarantee effective online learning? This is now the challenge being faced at an institutional level, generated not only by educational factors but by the new reality we are living [28, 29]. In each of its three campuses (Cuenca, Quito y Guayaquil), the Universidad Politécnica Salesiana del Ecuador maintains a virtual learning platform in Moodle, hosted on Amazon Web Services. This platform has been very helpful during the COVID-19 emergency and has offered infrastructure and support to the entire institution. It should be noted that since 2010, the Academic Unit for Distance and Virtual Education (UNADEDVI) has managed the platform with cloud hosting for future expansion of academic services (face-to-face and virtual) [30]. Today, while we are practicing social distancing, this platform is the principle collaborative work space for teachers and students [31]. A second collaborative space is comprised of a set of tools available on the university campus, provided by the Information and Technology Department. The university has multiple software licenses, granting access to useful learning tools for teachers, students and the educational community at large. For example, they have access to a video presentation platform called Microsoft Stream, allowing teachers to upload videos which students can then access through their institutional accounts. For collaborative online work the proposal of the tutor group included easy-to-find user communication tools, such as Microsoft Teams and the sharing of digital resources through spaces such as SharePoint. Zoom is the tool selected by UPS for web conferences. As the UPS has a Zoom license (through the National Consortium for Advanced Internet Development, CEDIA) users have access to technical support and professional features. Zoom was used to impart the teacher training examined in this study (see Fig. 3). The goal of teacher training was to enhance teacher’s competences to face the online teaching modality using the tools provided by the University. The training has not only increased teachers’ capacity but has also encouraged students to find appropriate communication spaces.
Fig. 3.

Organization of groups of tutors and small virtual rooms, supervised by the assistant professor

Likewise, another challenge was the use of digital and collaborative tools that are easily applicable by teachers and that play a leading role within the learning-teaching process, building upon the diversity of teaching staffs’ previous knowledge of technologies and utilizing the technological services available. Another challenge was the collaborative planning and resource development work done by teachers of the same subject (see Fig. 4).
Fig. 4.

Work plan developed by the team of tutors during Zoom sessions: the support teacher accesses each virtual room to monitor class progress

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

Questionnaire results show that the most important technologies used by professors are: Google Drive, WhatsApp and Zoom (100%) where as Microsoft Teams reached 80%. It can be observed that when teachers have new tools, they prioritize the use of one over another (see Fig. 5).
Fig. 5.

Assessment percentage of technologies used by participants

According to the group of professor-tutors the most important technological tools are: Google Drive, WhatsApp and Zoom (100%), where as Microsoft Teams is valued at 90%. This difference can be explained by the fact that the tutor group uses said tools not only for individual class organization but also for the collaborative work advantages they offer to complete share administrative tasks (see Fig. 6).
Fig. 6.

Technology appraisal in percentage, according to tutors

Regarding the collaborative work between tutors, their satisfaction level was 100%. The same satisfaction level can be observed when the professors (students) were asked to evaluate their experience with cooperative work, as proposed by their tutor. This is a positive result, especially considering that the tutors had different backgrounds and studies (heterogeneous knowledge), but nonetheless were able to work in harmony to achieve common goals. When asking tutors to appraise their students’ interest in each of the four steps defined in the established learning process their students responded the following: 80% of students manifested motivation to learn new tools to teach online classes; 75% showed interest in constructing new knowledge based on previous newly acquired knowledge; 70% applied repetition techniques to consolidate their knowledge; 75% participated in challenges to generate knew knowledge (see Fig. 7).
Fig. 7.

Heterogeneous groups’ appraisal of the four phases of the learning process

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”.

4 Conclusions

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.

Footnotes

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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2021

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universidad Politécnica SalesianaGuayaquilEcuador

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