Exploring Teacher Agency - Design of ICT and Education programs

….. The second type of education system ties the teacher to the prescribed textbook. She is given no choice in the organization of curriculum, pacing, and the mode of final assessment. Textbooks are prescribed for each subject, and the teacher is expected to elucidate the text, lesson by lesson in the given order. She must ensure that children are able to write answers to questions based on any lesson in the textbook without seeing the text, for this is what they will have to do in the examination when they face one. The Indian education system is of the second type. (p. 452)- Krishna Kumar’s (1988) ‘Origins of India’s “textbook culture”.

1 Learning as meaning-making

The National Curricular Framework 2005 (NCF) emphasized the need to move from a predominant situation in Indian schools, where learning is largely seen as memorisation of facts. The teacher and student equate learning to being able to reproduce the contents of the textbook (through rote memorisation). The NCF suggests that learning is a far more complex effort which involves active construction of knowledge in the mind of the learner, through the developing of concepts and relating these to existing knowledge of the learner. This process of ‘meaning-making’ requires inter-linkages of concepts understood, to form a world view with which the learner can interact with the world. In the ‘content consumption’ approach, facts sit in silos in the learners mind, and lack of coherence affects the learners ability to make meaning of these and apply these to their daily lives.

The processes of enabling meaning-making will require the teacher to provide different curricular experiences to meet the needs of heterogeneous learners in the classroom. The text book alone is likely to be insufficient and the teacher will need to use a variety of curricular resources. An important aspect of teacher agency is being able to make curricular choices and interpret the curriculum for meaning-making. This requires capacity to go beyond the text book and actively explore a variety of learning resources, based on the judgement of the teacher about their relevance/ contextuality/ effectiveness for addressing heterogeneous learning contexts.

However, the ‘text book culture’ in India constrains teachers agency. As Kumar explains, the education bureaucracy is keen to ensure that the teacher sticks to text book and ‘covers’ it in the given time period of the academic year, this constrains the teacher from such exploration.

This article accepts teacher agency as an indicator, as well as a cause and effect of teacher professional development (TPD). It seeks to explore how the introduction of digital technologies (popularly known as Information and Communication Technologies or ICT) in school education can affect teacher agency in the aspect of curricular choices, and how the design of ICT program can impact teachers role in teaching, and on TPD.

2 ICT and education

Teacher participation in curriculum design (within an ICT program) can be seen as a spectrum, wherein at one end teachers are actively involved and determine the choice and design of curriculum in the school, and at the other end, where ICT is used to deliver content directly to students, totally or partially bypassing the teacher. In the former, the active role played by the teacher enables and even encourages her to imagine how ICT could be integrated to revise content and pedagogy. This envisioning by itself can act as a process of TPD. In the second design, there is little impact on the teacher, hence on TPD.

There is a lot of hype about the potential of ICT1 and it is often difficult to distinguish between meaningful use of ICT in education and that which may be trivial or even harmful. Clear identification of the educational aims of the ICT program, and designing an appropriate curriculum to achieve these aims is an important pre-requisite for meaningful integration2. The National ICT Curriculum, 2013 has been released by NCERT to provide such a curricular basis for ICT integration in school education. The document provides six broad ‘themes’ for such integration, of which two ‘connecting and learning’ and ‘creating and learning’ are discussed in this article, with a view to explore teacher agency.

These two themes formed the basis for the design of the ‘Subject Teacher Forum3’ program, an ICT integrated teacher education program designed and implemented for Karnataka government high schools teachers from 2011-20164.

3 Connecting and learning

The Subject Teacher Forum program of Karnataka and Telangana built capacities of teachers to use ICT for ‘connecting and learning’ by enrolling them into subject-wise, state-wide virtual forums (mailing-lists5). In this program, a select group of teachers participated in workshops at the state level, to become ‘master resource persons’ who learnt different methods for integrating ICT in their education practice. This included establishing and enrolling in subject-specific virtual forums.

Subsequently, these ‘master resource persons’ conducted similar capacity building progam for their peers teachers at a district level in DIET ICT Labs, and enrolled participants into the forums. These forums are state-wide, meaning all teachers of a subject across the entire state are enrolled in them. The state virtual forum of mathematics and science teachers has more than 7,500 teachers from government high schools across Karnataka.

In addition, teachers also created district-wide (and block-wide) mobile phone communities6 in which all teachers of a subject across the entire district (block) were enrolled. These smaller (district or block wide) groups supported closer interactions amongst teachers who have a greater chance of having met one another. While teachers may even otherwise be members of mobile phone communities or mailing-lists, the difference is that in these forums, the posts largely pertain to issues relevant to teacher practice. Irrelevant posts are discouraged; in some groups, administrators remove even first time offenders, while in some others they receive warnings7.

These forums have continued to be active even after the teacher education program in which they were created, has ended. For instance, the Mathematics and Science teachers state wide mailing list, sees an average of around 25 emails daily, even seven years after it was created, in 2011. The number of emails per day reduces during examination period and vacations but picks up during the rest of the year. This number may seem small, but it should be noted that most mails pertaining to teacher practice.

These forums are ‘autonomous’ meaning they are not subject to department’s authority and participation is not encouraged or discouraged through administrative fiat. Teachers freely share resources created by them, or accessed from the web and discuss issues of their schools and the larger education system. Teachers also often receive acknowledgements and gratitude of other teachers in response to such sharing of resources.

4 Creating and learning

The second theme of the NCERT ICT Curriculum, of ‘creating and learning’ is equally critical to teacher development. Teachers learnt to use digital tools in the Subject Teacher Forum program workshops to create resources or adapt (edit) to existing resources accessed from the web. These included subject-specific software applications like Geogebra (Mathematics), Phet (Science), Marble (Geography), and generic (non-subject-specific) tools like LibreOffice writer (text resources), Tux Paint, Screenshot (image resources), record-my-desktop (video resources), for digital resource creation. The process of learning these tools to create resources / lessons were also exercises in reflecting on the possibilitiess of teaching using these resources (including the relevance or the lack of it, for such use).

The aim of resource creation was primarily not to create good quality resources which are immediately usable by teachers for their teaching or TPD. In most cases, the resources created in the workshops were not of such quality. The initial attempts of the teachers focused more on building an understanding of the possibilities of the tool to support resource creation. Nevertheless the aim was to help teachers to get comfortable with the idea that they can create resources relevant to their need and that these resources can be useful even if not sophisticated.

During December 2017 IT for Change conducted a survey of creation and use of resources members of the Mathematics and Science teachers forum. Of the 103 respondents, more than half reported that they modified resources which they had accessed on-line or from the mailing-lists and combined these with the resources created by them8. 79% of respondents said they used these resources in classroom transaction, using a laptop and projector.

Two principles of the program enabled teacher agency to learn digital tools for developing and sharing curricular resources.

4.1 Learning processes rather than products

The basic approach of the Subject Teacher Forum program was to build teachers capacities to use a range of software applications, so that they become comfortable exploring the digital environment. The teachers were encouraged to think of software as ‘resource creation’ tool, which teachers could use to create digital content and adapt to their requirements. Thus the workshop had ‘creating text resources’ as a topic rather than ‘Learning LibreOffice Writer’ or ‘creating audio resources’ instead of ‘Learning Audacity’, bringing the focus to the academic activity of making materials, than on learning a specific software application or product.

In many areas, teachers were purposely exposed to more than one tool in a domain, to disabuse themselves of equating a domain to a single product. For instance while covering web browsing, more than one browser (Mozilla Firefox and Google Chromium) was taught and participants were encouraged to explore additional software applications similar to the ones taught, to purposely emphasize that each tool basically taught a set of processes and no single tool had any greatly unique or monopolistic features which needed teachers to be dependent only on them. Software vendors are quite eager to encourage such dependencies for their vested interests and breaking this link is necessary to encourage teachers to think of themselves as free agents exploring multiple applications in any given domain area, without being ‘locked-in’.

Similarly, the emphasis was not on teaching the ‘use’ of specific digital content, but to encourage teachers to access a wide variety of existing on-line content, as well as creating content using the FOSS applications9. The teaching and learning needs of teachers were placed as the starting point for them to explore the use of freely available applications and content, without previleging any one source.

The program also encouraged teachers to purchase personal laptops, rather than tablets. Laptops provide scope for creating and modifying digital resources, while tablets (in their current avatar) are primarily ‘consumption’ devices. More than a third of the teachers participating in the program purchased personal laptops.

4.2 Freedom to explore / digital independence

Many a time when teachers are taught the use of a software application, they may not be able to access a copy of the software for continuing their use and learning beyond the training program / workshop. For instance, in the ‘Academies of Learning’ that Microsoft established in many states in India, teachers were taught to use the Microsoft Office Suite and the Windows operating system. However, the teachers could not get a copy of the proprietary software for subequent use and learning, and many could not continue their learning beyond the training program. Since it is proprietary software, teachers do not have the freedom to download or share the software and have to individually acquire a license to use the software from the vendor, on payment of the license fees, which are not trivial.

In the Subject Teacher Forum program, teachers learnt to use the free and open source (FOSS) Ubuntu GNU/Linux operating system. They also were offered10 a DVD containing this operating system, into which the educational and generic software applications taught in the program were ‘bundled’. Such bundling is possible only with a FOSS operating system, proprietary applications are not allowed be so combined. Teachers were also taught in the program to install the FOSS operating system. Many teachers installed this system on their home and school computers. Some also made copies of the DVD and distributed to their colleagues in the district workshops.

5 Teacher as a consumer

However in many ICT programs in education, teachers have a narrow role. Usually teachers are taught a particular set of applications or a specific content and expected to use those specific tools or content in their teaching, in the manner taught. For instance, in the aforesaid case of the Microsoft Academies of Learning, the MOU between the education department and Microsoft clearly specified that Microsoft had the sole right to determine the syllabus, and without exception the syllabus focused on a few popular software applications of Microsoft. In such cases, where the environment is restricted by the vendor / implementing organization, to proprietary tools and content, a free exploration of digital resources (applications and content) is unlikely. A similar issue can be seen in the case of the Google education suite, in which the curriculum primarily consists of the applications developed by Google. Any program that is largely based on the products developed by one vendor can become restrictive of the teachers freedom to freely explore the digital environment.

6 ‘Delivering’ e-content to the classroom

Programs that seek to introduce ICT in the classroom / focusing on student learning are often designed to allow a limited role for the teacher to arbiter the curriculum. One model, becoming increasingly popular in Indian schools, is to provide students with tablets, containing pre-existing content (usually created outside the school by the implementing organization, or sourced by this organization from existing web resources) to access this content directly in the classroom, to supplement or complement the teachers efforts. This model assumes that the e-content has to be provided to the teacher and that the teacher cannot create or is unwilling to create content (or modify available content) for her use, or perhaps, that the time required to prepare the teacher to create and adapt content is not worth the investment.

Where there is little or no teacher preparation before the digital content is introduced to the classroom, the e-content is unlikely to be a formal part of the teachers’ lesson planning. It is assumed that the students will directly connect to the e-content in the tablet which is pertaining to the topic taught by the teacher, view the e-content and enrich their learning. This approach has two limitations:

6.1 Consuming content v/s learning

Conceptual understanding is not the same as merely acquiring or memorising content. The processes of constructing knowledge are complex and need to be actively faciltated by the teacher. Since the teacher herself is unlikely to be familiar with the content being seen by the students, the probability of her being able to help the student ‘learn’ from the content is quite low. (Students could refer to the tablets outside of the classroom for self-directed learning, however the program design often restricts access within the classroom).

In some cases, teachers or students cannot even download the content from the tablet to their computers or phones (proprietary content is used, which prohibits sharing and adapting), while some programs allow download of content, but prevent teachers from modifying it or contextualizing to their local needs. Here the teachers and students are treated as a consumer for the content created by the implementing organization or by others. The role of the teacher is reduced to a process facilitator managing the viewing of content by students on their individual / group tablets, rather than someone actively designing the curricular experience for each learner. It may appear that students are excited to connect to the devices, however interest in a device is likely to be due to novelty rather than due to a deeper engagement with learning.

A variant of this model disseminates content over a broadcast medium, further reducing the teachers role in the classroom transaction. In the Computer Aided Learning (CAL) program of IIM Bengaluru implemented in Karnataka, the teacher had no role during the broadcast than to make sure that the students were watching the screen. As per the program design, students ‘doubts’ were to be answered over phone by ‘experts’ situated elsewhere. In such models based on centrally beamed content, it is also assumed that there are no heterogeneous learner contexts which would make it difficult if not impossible for all students to ‘learn’ from the same content being simultaneously ‘consumed’ in an unmediated manner. In the process of broadcast, usually, the teacher would usually be viewing the content at the same time along with the students, hence there would be no space for the teacher to interpret or facilitate student learning.

6.2 Personalised learning

A second principle being assumed of ‘content delivery through tablet’ is of learning to be an individual experience. The buzzword is ‘personal analytics’ where the ICT device is expected to sense the learners ‘learning levels’ and provide ‘level appropriate content’ and design ‘individual learning paths’.

Since different students may be watching different content or be in different parts of the content at a point in time, there is ‘single’ or ‘unified’ content that the entire class is exploring at any point of time during this process. This is applicable even if 2-3 students share a device, each such group is on its own within the classroom. Provision of devices to students has the potential to disrupt any coherence in the learning processes and hence can be detrimental to student learning. The teacher can have little idea of what the students have learnt from the content being explored, despite ‘dashboards’ that may be made available to her (in her device) of the actions / responses of all the students in the class. This approach grossly underestimates the complexity of the teaching-learning processes.

From the perspective of teacher agency, the role of the teacher in interpreting the curriculum and facilitating the learning processes is greatly compromised where content is provided to the students from external sources, with no participation by the teacher in the selection and creation/curation of such content.

7 History repeats itself

“… there is a repetitive cycle of technology in education that goes through hype, investment, poor integration, and lack of educational outcomes. The cycle keeps spinning only because each new technology reinitiates the cycle”

- Kentaro Toyoma. There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education

One of the biggest failures in the SSA program was the Computer Aided Learning Program (CALP) component, in which SSA funds were used to supply few (5 - 15) desktop computers to higher primary schools in the belief that teachers and students would use them for subject learning. However, in an overwhelming number of cases, in the absence of teacher preparation, this simply did not happen. While ICT infrastructure, digital content and teacher preparation are three necessary components for any ICT program in schools, previleging the first or first two, neglecting the third is a sure recipe for failure. It may even be useful to see the third component as a pre-requisite before investing in the first two components. The cycle of spending huge amounts on ICT hardware, is being repeated now with tablets, under the belief that providing access to tables to students that contain content will help learning.

The latest buzzword is ‘energized text books’, which contain QR codes, scanning which through a digital device such as a tablet, will allow a student to connect to a web resource pertaining to that topic. Some state governments are competing to ‘energize’ their text books. It may seem that students are enjoying the process of scanning the QR codes and visiting websites with ‘relevant’ resources, it is likely that the novelty of the process is the cause for excitement, and actual learning of the concept will require far more work than accessing content, to acquire conceptual understanding. While providing QR codes by itself may not be an expensive or harmful step, believing that energized text books will cause learning is flawed, especially in the context of school childen, most of who are yet to become autonomous learners. There is always the danger that once the novelty factor wears off, the devices would become dead investments.

8 Conclusions

ICT integration in education can be designed such that teachers can learn to use different software applications, create e-content, connect to learning communities to support one another for supporting subject teaching and for TPD. These processes enhance teacher agency and enhance the scope of making curricular choices in their teaching.

However, ICT programs can restrict the role of the teacher is to only supervising access to existing content. As in the case of the ‘text book’, digital content can also serve to reinforce the power of the education bureaucracy in determining the classroom transaction. ICT can also be used, in such cases to ‘monitor’ more effectively and enforce compliance11.

The focus of ICT in education should begin with, and perhaps be initially restricted to enabling teachers explore and understand the possibilities of integrating ICT for their own learning and teaching. Teachers should be supported to integrate ICT in their teaching, without any pressure from the school management or the education system. Meaningful integration of ICT in teacher education should be seen a pre-requisite, directly introducing ICT to students bypassing the teacher is a recipe for disaster. Simply providing devices, or even providing content through these devices to students, without required teacher preparation would be futile.

“While computers appear to engage students (which is exactly their appeal), the engagement swings between uselessly fleeting at best and addictively distractive at worst. No technology today or in the foreseeable future can provide the tailored attention, encouragement, inspiration, or even the occasional scolding for students that dedicated adults can, and thus, attempts to use technology as a stand-in for capable instruction are bound to fail.”

- Kentaro Toyoma. There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education

Given huge shortage of resources in school education, where even basic infrastructure is not yet available, and there is a long way to go to build the required academic infrastructure in all schools, investing in ICT programs through models that limit teacher agency, would be an unconscionable waste.

"This article was carried in the 'Voices of Teachers and Teacher Educators'  journal of National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) (August 2018), Click here to access the same". 


9 References

  1. Kentaro Toyama. 2011. There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education

  2. National Curricular Framework 2005

  3. National ICT Curriculum, 2013

  4. Teachers' toolkit for creating and re-purposing OER using FOSS. IT for Change.

  5. Todd Oppenheimer. 2004. The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology


1Which is to be expected for any information and communication technology owing to its wide potential to impact social processes, including learning

2Whereas many ICT programs chose buzzwords such as ‘21st century learning skills’, ‘collaborative learning’ etc. this avoids defining clear educational aims, required as the basis for program design and implementation

3Disclaimer – IT for Change collaborated in the design and implementation of the program, with the department of school education, Karnataka

4A similar program is in progress in Telangana from 2015

6Using mobile-apps such as Telegram, Whatsapp, Hike

7These forums should be seen as ‘new spaces’ for teacher conversations, and many teachers do need time and practice to adapt to group norms.

8Survey of Karnataka Subject Teacher Forum members on OER adoption, December 2017. Report finalization in progress.

9Based on these experiences, a toolkit for teachers to develop ‘open’ educational resources using ‘open' source software has been developed, as a part of the program

10For a nominal payment of Rs 50 per DVD

11Such as through the on-line submission of information about classroom transaction to central repositories, or through district and state level ‘dashboards’ that purport to monitor the teacher in each classroom.

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Exploring Teacher Agency - ICT program design in school education