Ensuring Quality of Distance and Blended Learning and Responding to Needs of Teachers
Education levels in Bosnia and Herzegovina work to adopt technologies for the delivery of distance learning, while ensuring professional development of staff.
At the beginning of the pandemic, education institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and elsewhere faced the challenge of a sudden digitalization of the teaching process. To better adapt to the new circumstances and ensure the continuation of quality teaching, this process implied not only the adoption of technologies for the delivery of distance learning (DL), but also the professional development of teachers and lecturers.
Project “Reimagining Education for Marginalized Girls and Boys during and post COVID-19 in BiH” aims to support education authorities in implementing quality inclusive DL and blended learning approaches and enhance teachers’ capacities for delivering distance and blended learning. Prior to delivering such results, the implementing agencies UNICEF, UNESCO, ILO, and UNV recognized the importance to assess quality of DL and blended learning delivery and professional needs of teachers at all education levels in BiH. Supported by the local experts, UNICEF and UNESCO produced the following assessments:
- Assessment on the Quality of Distance Learning and Blended Learning in Elementary and Secondary Education (and TVET) in BiH during COVID-19
- Assessment on the Needs of Teachers in Distance Learning and Blended Learning in Elementary and Secondary (and TVET) Schools in BiH during COVID-19
- Assessment on the Quality of Distance Learning Delivery in Higher Education in BiH during COVID-19 Pandemic
- Assessment on the Professional Needs of Teachers in Higher Education in Carrying out the Distance Learning in BiH during COVID-19 Pandemic
Quality of Distance Learning and Blended Learning and Needs of Teachers in Primary and Secondary (and TVET) Education
Based on respondents’ inputs, assessments found that elementary and secondary schools in BiH have mostly provided adequate software platforms for DL and ensured adequate training for students and teachers in using the new software solutions. In addition, basic computer knowledge was perceived among teachers and students. Although the study found that teachers predominantly consider themselves as technically competent to use the new technologies, it is recommended to ensure continuous capacity building for students and employees at all education institutions in BiH in terms of distance and blended learning.
"... training on the use of digital platforms and software solutions should be repeated until we all gain enough knowledge for the delivery of quality online teaching", one teacher stated.
Teachers mainly reported innovative approach to education as a positive aspect of DL, and inactivity of students, lack of motivation and poor internet connection as negative aspects. As reported by teachers, students’ accomplishments during DL were much weaker in comparison to regular classes. Thus, teachers mostly denied the inclusion of online activities into a regular education process. Assessments found that the lack of ICT equipment, internet connections and software solutions posed the major obstacle in the delivery of DL. Therefore, equipping schools with ICT equipment, along with quality internet connections and software solutions is essential to providing quality distance and blended learning in BiH.
Furthermore, adequate support was missing in terms of inclusion of marginalized children during the DL process, particularly children with disabilities and children from minority groups. Although there is a perceived sensitivity of teachers for children from marginalized groups, it is still insufficient for these groups to be adequately included in the DL.
Many difficulties were identified in delivery of the DL for practical classes. As much as DL was a novelty for teachers and students, it was challenging for employers as well. It is important to modernize the approach to conducting practical teaching in BiH in line with global developments.
The quality of DL in primary and secondary education in BiH during the pandemic was, and still is, far from optimal conditions and quality. There are significant legal barriers in BiH education laws to implement DL. Besides the lack of legal frameworks, there is a lack of strategic frameworks and guidelines for action on DL, as there are no indications of plans and activities that would put this type of teaching in key public policies in BiH. Under such conditions, combined with inadequate budget allocations, schools were unable to respond to the needs of a higher degree of digitalization during the pandemic. Similar scenario will remain in the future if all levels of government in BiH delay prioritizing this issue as essential, not only for education, but also for the normal functioning of the society.
Quality of Distance Learning and Blended Learning and Needs of Teachers in Higher Education Institutions (HEI)
At the beginning of the pandemic, the curriculum at HEIs was shortened, especially in case of programs based on practical teaching. Most lecturers at HEI had no previous experience with DL prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. It was found that HEIs mostly preferred specific software solutions, but the degree to which teachers could choose specific tools varied among different HEIs. Almost half of the lecturers believe that a HEI has provided them with software that fully meets the needs of higher education. Nearly half students had neither instruction for software use, or any person they could approach for support. Therefore, it is necessary to improve platforms and software solutions, as well as to provide continuous capacity building programs for students and teachers, with specific focus on strengthening pedagogical competences of teachers in the online teaching modality.
Nearly half of the lecturers suggest that students’ accomplishments were lower compared to the regular teaching process. The technical conditions for access to DL tools and platforms for both students and lecturers in HEIs were not satisfactory. There is no doubt that technical problems for monitoring online teaching, such as unavailability of ICT equipment and network access, have negatively affected teachers and students in the DL process.
“I’ve noticed that some students could not participate in distance learning due to poor internet connections. Ensuring quality internet connection across the country is prerequisite for the DL delivery”, one student stated.
More than one third of students stated that they had motivational and emotional difficulties during the pandemic. Some claimed that they felt overburdened by most of their lecturers. Majority of students reported that lecturers did not show understanding for their psychological and emotional challenges. Special emphasis in trainings should be on the growth of motivation for DL among students, as well as emotional needs and challenges students faced during the DL.
Since DL is not clearly defined within the BIH legal system, HEIs operated in accordance with various regulations issued by the competent ministries at the beginning of the pandemic. There is not a single act/law on higher education in BIH stating a possibility of taking exams via platforms operating in virtual environment. Moreover, there is no strategy for digitalization of higher education in place. Respective education authorities in BiH should work on amending laws and precisely define DL, and HEIs should communicate the demand for establishing strategic frameworks, which should entail clear guidelines and financial support for this modality of education.
In short, HEIs will have to pay serious attention to the training and equipment of teachers and institutions for a smooth teaching process both during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the post-pandemic era. Governments in BiH, which represent the public sector in charge of creating mechanisms and establishing policies, will have to be more actively involved in these processes and commit higher education institutions to continuous professional development programs to strengthen the capacity of teachers and lecturers for this form of teaching.