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About the Author

Nora Smith is a second year student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

 

Her coauthors, Paul Moch Islas and María Juliana Rojas, are alumni of the class of 2019 of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. All are part of the Camino21 team.

 

Camino21’s mission is to ensure a future where everyone and anyone who finishes a higher education degree has the necessary skills and competencies for their personal and professional success to transform and improve their communities and society. We believe that by innovating our teaching practices we can achieve those goals. To learn more about us, please visit: camino21.org

Lessons from Those Who Make Learning Possible

Teaching Teachers in Latin American Higher Education

by | Jul 29, 2021

Entering the classroom for the first time is always challenging, regardless of whether you are a student or an educator. For most instructors in Higher Education in Latin America, that initial foray into teaching is not dissimilar to “baptism by fire,” in the sense that many institutions provide little (if any) guidance as to what to do once you are in front of a room full of eyes eager with expectation. However, with experience and familiarity, teachers become more comfortable with the beginning of each new semester, perhaps even becoming complacent in their practice.

Thus when news of the first Covid-19 cases arrived in early 2020, shockwaves were felt throughout the education sector. Gone were the days of comfort and familiarity as institutions were forced to pivot to online learning and few, if any, were prepared to handle the implications of such a swift change. However, the global health crisis provided some opportunities: first, it accelerated the notion of remote learning. In order to respond to this new paradigm, most professors believed they needed only to familiarize themselves with the pertinent software and then simply replicate what they had done over the course of their careers, during in-person classes. This response to the crisis provided the team at Camino 21 with a poignant opportunity to engage in robust and urgent conversations with instructors and institutions surrounding the need to rethink teaching practices. In fact, we were on the last stages of a detailed design thinking process, which we intended to implement in a variety of institutions as part of a concerted effort to modernize professional development initiatives, when the pandemic struck. The situation prompted us to shift from an initial focus on ongoing and inservice teacher professional development in higher education, to helping higher ed institutions adapt to the immediate and concrete needs represented by online learning.

 

“I have been teaching this course the same way for more than 20 years” is not an uncommon phrase we hear at the beginning of our professional development (PD) sessions in more than 14 universities across Latin America, “I only need to learn what button to push to give my lecture.” However, thinking of remote learning as “the same, but online”is a mistake. While some dynamics of in-person learning are certainly lost (casual conversation in the classroom), remote learning offers opportunities that cannot be achieved in person (more democratic spaces in which the teacher is also another box on the screen). Educators needed to learn how to maximize the potential of the new platform as a tool for creating learning communities, instead of understanding the relevant technology as a modern-day interpretation of ¨talk and chalk¨.

The crisis also facilitated an opportunity for teachers to reflect broadly on their instructional processes—a symptom of the need to rethink remote teaching. While lecturing can certainly be useful for certain subjects at certain times, students benefit greatly from diverse forms of pedagogy that allow them to develop skills that demand far more from them than a simple memorization of academic content (such examples include team work, debate, creativity or critical thinking). The broad and urgent need to innovate provided us with the opportunity to interact and learn from thousands of higher education instructors in Mexico and Peru. As a result, over the course of the last year, we designed and customized professional development programs for institutions that focused on helping thousands of educators pioneer their practice, and in doing so, made online teaching and learning more meaningful and engaging.

Teacher professional development in HigherEd has traditionally been limited to a masterclass, a lecture or, at best, a seminar at the beginning of the semester. The organizational philosophy of Camino21 aims to embody a student-centered learning experience that intends to transform our participants into reflective practitioners. In doing so, we recognize that learning, and by consequence, change, does not happen in one session. Indeed after a few sessions, we witness an important mindshift that occurs when instructors understand that their role serves not only to transmit content but rather to create an environment that fosters student agency in the learning process. For some participants, it takes a while to move past the urge to manipulate technology. However, once given the chance to interact with colleagues and reflect on their practice, instructors begin to ask deep pedagogical and political questions, sharing insightful anecdotes about academic routines that go beyond perceived immediate challenges like complaining about the unwelcomed behavior of their students, instead turning towards a scholastic environment that promotes active learning.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

Each new PD program facilitated by Camino21 begins similarly, but is nuanced by the context of the institution being served. Indeed, despite possessing distinct financial and geographical characteristics, schools across the region share many common challenges, most involving the core concepts of learning, rather than matters stemming from technology; the product of an accelerated pace of change in the sector prior to and accentuated by the Covid-19 crisis. We use a baseline survey as the initial tool for assessing the needs of an institution, asking the teachers to share their curiosity surrounding the digital resources that they believe will encourage their students to be more engaged in the learning process. The team then prepares the kick-off session eagerly by discussing the best type of initial interaction given the institution’s context. Knowing that these first interactions can be make-or-break moments, a significant amount of time is devoted to the identification of the pedagogical tools and interactions that will allow instructors to engage in experiential learning.

At the beginning of the session, most cameras are turned off, and professors seemdisengaged, expecting to listen from yet another set of “experts” about the timely advantages of online learning. We are quick to let them know that we expect them to participate, emphasizing that the sessions will be driven by them. While the introductory activity is often met with skepticism, teachers quickly become more receptive to our methodology once faced with the challenge of joining a break-out room in Zoom or having to leave a note on a jamboard or “note catcher,” activities that remove any possibility of hiding among louder or more participatory peers. Sometimes, at the end of this first session, we experience pushback from educators who declare “what we are trying to do only works in contexts where students are used to alternative pedagogies, not in Latin America.” The more sympathetic participants stick around at the end of the session to congratulate us for our efforts. They tell us not to worry, that there are some teachers that just “don’t feel like they need to learn anything new,” and we should not waste too much energy trying to engage them in conversation. When encouraged to lower our expectations, we respond with one clear message: trust the process.

 Camino21, a private initiative of alumni from Harvard’s GSE and GSD, is dedicated to providing the skills necessary for professional and personal success through dynamic classroom instruction at the university level. When Camino21 began in 2020, we were working alongside instructors to provide new pedagogical strategies and tools that would allow for more innovative course design and, in doing so, help students develop 21st century skills while pursuing their degrees. We came to this realization after reviewing existing literature and conducting interviews with experts, instructors, program directors, deans and presidents from public and private universities in the region. We had identified that students graduating from these institutions did not have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in their professional paths, nor to become fully realized individuals.

 

However, the jarring implications of the pandemic brought a new sense of urgency to the objectives of higher education. Camino21 rose to meet this challenge by developing engaging content and compassionate instruction that allowed teachers to voice their worries about the unchartered waters of online learning. We understood then, more than ever, that instructors needed to be equipped with a variety of tools that would allow them to engage with their students in a powerful and meaningful way; one that would prepare them for a new professional reality marked by the effects of a global health crisis. We realized that teachers could no longer rely on the casual and spontaneous exchanges of in-person instruction that often result in magical moments of teaching and learning in the classroom. Teachers would need to be even more intentional about their course objectives in order to prepare students for the world outside of the classroom, struggling to contain the pandemic.

Therefore, we spent March and April of 2020 identifying the pain points and needs in Latin America’s Higher Education sector in order to create a relevant PD curriculum, aimed at identifying and resolving the challenges posed by the pandemic. There are differences in terms of resources and contexts, but, in general, the lockdowns that resulted from the pandemic and the subsequent dynamic of remote learning affected higher education in a similar way across Latin America. The urgency-driven transition placed instructors in a context for which no one was prepared. For many in Higher Education in Latin America, the crisis also represented a crisis of imagination. Instructors did not have the technological and pedagogical tools nor the institutional support to reimagine their courses for the online world. However, every new interaction with a professor or online session demonstrated the resilience and creativity of instructors when they are given the chance to try things differently.

A corollary to teachers´ initial resistance to change, is the realization that instructors are simply not given enough opportunities for thoughtful professional development. When these opportunities exist, they are either generally profoundly disconnected from what teachers´experiences in the classroom, or the mode of delivery doesn’t provide teachers with the opportunity to experience, compare, contrast, and select the practices that might suit the learning goals that they have set for the students. Many of them have shared the sentiment that “it feels like training on how to use a tool and not how to transform a learning experience.”

Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the unprecedented circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, most higher education instructors wouldn’t have felt the need to think of themselves as “professionals in education” with a need for better teaching practices. Many teachers do not consider it necessary to attend PD workshops or courses. Some of them might feel that they have enough years of experience in the classroom that PD is not necessary. For others, PD is seen as a bureaucratic task that takes precious and scarce time away from daily tasks. Even those teachers who are slightly more open to the idea of PD only imagine it as a tutorial that provides step-by-step guides to the slick new gadgets acquired by the institution.

 

Instructors have good reasons for avoiding these forms of PD. Research has shown that PD activities in which teachers remain passive recipients of knowledge and ideas rarely result in long-term changes in teacher practice (Cordingley et al., 2015). Teachers should instead have the opportunity to actively engage with others, new ideas, and content, just as we would expect their learners to do, reflecting on how these apply to their own context. PD should be embedded and integrated into a teacher’s role, rather than considered as an extra activity. (Angus-Cole, 2021).

The pandemic has taught us that it is not possible to think about teachers as “finished products” and that they are able to always think about adjustments and changes to their practices as a response to the diverse situations that they continuously face in the classroom. In that sense, the pandemic has also promoted a new understanding of the sentiment that everyone is a life-long learner. We all had to adapt to the online world and re-learn to interact with each other, work collaboratively, and be humble enough to admit that we did not have the answers to face the uncertainty of the moment. The pandemic has also taught us that professional development is not only the individual responsibility of instructors. Culture, institutional compromise, design, and collaboration dynamics across departments and disciplines are also key for ensuring that instructores will be able to take risks and implement new practices.

We at Camino21 are betting that this experience of the pandemic and continuous adjustment will translate into a cultural shift, and we envision ourselves as key players in that new arena. Educators in colleges, universities and vocational schools will continue to be confronted by the rapid changes demanded of them as a result of the dizzying shift to online learning without the necessary tools nor accompaniment. We believe we can work with the institutions to devise the tools, processes and practices to support educators in a personalized and efficient way.

The future of higher education is here today and that future will be shaped as institutions, learners, and instructors define the meaning of blended or hybrid learning. Technology has been introduced in the classroom and will only keep increasing its role in the learning and teaching experiences. We are aiming for Camino21 to consolidate the reflections around the educators’ own teaching practice and help foster conversations among peers by ensuring a common set of metrics, and in doing so, also transform the way that Latin American higher education institutions think about teacher professional development.

Camino21 was born during this crisis and it was allowed to compete and participate in the Higher Education sector, a space that normally is tightly closed and reserved for actors with a long trajectory. We presented an option of teacher professional development and support to adapt to the online world that solved a need that had always been there, but that surfaced with more urgency because of the health contingency. The pandemic will force all of us to completely reassess the goals of education and transition to a new world of possibilities of how we teach and learn, moving to a system where the learners have an increased responsibility and agency over their learning. Technology in education is no longer a luxury, but has become a tool intertwined with it. But, as so often happens, it will prove useless unless it is accompanied with the know-how to elevate its potential. Good pedagogy and instructional design cannot be substituted by technology, but will be enhanced by it. If they have deficiencies, they will be unmasked in this new light; if they have strengths, then they must be leveraged to live up to the expectations and ensure quality, engaging and liberating education.

Although many of us are eager to return to in-person classes, in the particular case of professional development in higher education, this cannot mean a return to pre-pandemic normality. We have mapped the teacher competencies that can be developed through an online asynchronous component in which students work independently of the class during non-concurrent sessions, however there are other competencies that require the delicate mechanisms of synchronous and personalized experiences. Thinking about in service, situated professional development with an online component can be a way of guaranteeing more participation and engagement from the instructors in these processes. We believe that a potential for a new normal, where high quality instruction in Latin America’s higher education system, can and should be promoted, democratizing and massifying access to better learning experiences that promote not only professionals better equipped to face our region’s many present and future challenges, but also better citizens that can lead our region to its full potential.

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