COVID-19 and challenges to teacher education in rural Ghana
Ghana recorded its first case of the coronavirus on March 12. By March 16, President Nana Akufo-Addo’s government had put in place a series of measures to slow the spread of the virus in the country. One of these measures was shutting down primary, junior and senior high schools, leaving teachers and parents to deliver alternatives to in-person teaching.
This shutdown presented challenges to Ghana’s vaunted teacher education system. Ghana’s first institution of higher learning was The Presbyterian College of Education, established in 1848. Today, there are 46 public colleges of education across the country working to train Ghana’s next generation of teachers, and that network is widely seen as the backbone of Ghana’s education system.
It is a system that has been working with considerable success toward a series of reforms in recent years. The Ghanaian educational system has historically focused learning on students’ abilities to memorize and reproduce what they learned from memory. But in the last six years, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the National Council for Tertiary Education (NCTE), via its Transforming Teacher Education and Learning (T-TEL) initiative to train teachers to foster critical thinking, problem solving and creativity in their classrooms. But the disruptions of coronavirus are presenting an additional challenge to the work of bringing a more vital, student-centered pedagogy to Ghanaian schoolchildren.
Like many tertiary institutions in Ghana, colleges of education began emergency online education on April 27, and are working fervently to ensure the success of their e-learning programs. But this is complicated by a number of factors. For example, at the Gambaga College of Education in the North East Region where students usually would walk two kilometers to attend classes due to a lack of housing facilities at the college, online learning has been limited by problems with internet access, poor internet connectivity, and intermittent power outages that disrupt synchronous lessons and sometimes leave damaged electronic gadgets in their wake.
Expenses related to hardware and cellular data are also problems, particularly in rural Ghana where cellular data may be the only way for students to access the internet, and data rates are higher than in countries like Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya. Students also describe lack of vital equipment such as smartphones. These accessibility issues often make it impossible for students to participate in online lessons or even download course material to learn on their own time. Moreover, economically marginalized students, especially in rural communities, may belong to the digital generation, but that doesn’t always guarantee meaningful exposure to and familiarity with digital technology.
Still, students, educators and other stakeholders are making real efforts to forge ahead despite these difficult circumstances. For example, tutors at the Gambaga College of Education are employing various pedagogical strategies to optimize learning. Madam Raabi Darkon reports that voice recording has been especially helpful. “When you submit your voice recording,” she notes, “the one responding to you will also use voice recording. With voice recording you get to feel the presence more than text messages. If I use voice recording, it’s just like the same as you and I are speaking. I can hear you; you can also hear me.” This works better for many students, and “since I’m there to serve them, their choice is what I will follow.” Another instructor, Meshanu Hamesu Kasimu, reports that training in online teaching from the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences has given him a sense of the relationship between content and platform. “Before the training, we would take our course material and just cut it and paste. But through the training I got to know that you have to package in a manner that will make it easy for students to read and understand.”
All of these efforts, along with initiatives like T-TEL’s efforts to work with colleges of education in getting smartphones to students that need them, are doing much to respond to this immediate crisis. At the same time, they highlight the infrastructure challenges and inequalities that complicate the work of bringing new pedagogies to Ghanaian learners at all levels. And of course, teacher education only goes so far. For the longest time, trained teachers (graduates of colleges of education) have lamented low salaries and poor remuneration for the services they provide in training Ghana’s future leaders. In teacher circles, there is the running joke that “the reward of the teacher is in heaven” since there have not been many efforts to properly address inadequate teacher pay. The innovation and creativity being brought to bear in the Ghanaian teacher education system is laudable. But it will only get us so far until the system provides the resources that students require, and properly compensates educators for their work.