“I am committed to the idea that the only way to redress the inequality with education systems is to make use of technology to assist teachers who have limited training and resources.” – Cheryl Douglas, South Africa

Like most Microsoft Expert Educators, Cheryl Douglas not only inspires the students in her own classroom, she also inspires fellow educators to raise the level of their classroom practice by embracing technology and 21st century skills. Douglas teaches biology at Cape Town’s Bishops Diocesan College and has served as the driving force behind the non-profit Teaching Biology Project (TBP).

Part of the Africa Genome Education Institute, TBP is funded by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund to empower teachers to be more effective by using technology in the life sciences classroom and in their lesson preparation. TBP workshops also increase teachers’ knowledge in new aspects of the curriculum, like evolutionary biology, and help them to develop scientific methodology and practical skills.

Douglas puts the concepts taught in the TBP workshops to use in her own classroom, and through collaboration with fellow teachers, in classrooms throughout the Cape Town area. For her most recent Expert Educator project, Douglas had 12 schools working together, in conjunction with the city of Cape Town, to research human impact on the environment. Students from the school came from diverse backgrounds, but partnered, went on field trips and created and shared videos detailing their findings.

“Students were able to practice all the 21st century skills and the teachers were able to see how excited students can be to learn,” Douglas says. “We used Facebook, WhatsApp, cell phones, emails, laptops and tablets, PowerPoint and Movie Maker, OneDrive and whatever we needed to communicate and complete this project.” The project garnered attention for its innovative approach, and was even featured on a South African morning TV show.

For Douglas, teacher training — like the workshops provided by TBP — will be critical to the success of any technology in the classroom. “This is where our NGO tries to help,” she tells us, “Not by teaching how to use technology but by showing how, through using technology, they can know more, make their lessons more interesting and help their students to learn more and pass exams.” For life sciences in particular, a more effective learning approach is crucial. According to Douglas, currently less than 50 percent of biology students pass their grade 12 exit exams and most of those with very low marks.

What’s next for this Expert Educator? Her human impact on the environment project will continue, with a strengthened research component, including an essay which will be evaluated by university lecturers. And as the director of a non-profit, Douglas is also seeking additional funding for TBP so that she can continue to advance the teaching with technology skills of South Africa’s teachers. We’re proud to support great teachers like Cheryl Douglas, and hope you’ll enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with her. 

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

I loved biology at school where I had an inspirational teacher, and it allows me to act in front of a captive audience and not have to look for a job each month. I firmly believe that the only way to bring about change and the reduction in poverty is through education and with that comes all the skills needed to function independently. I am also committed to the idea that the only way to redress the inequality with education systems is to make use of technology to assist teachers who have limited training and resources.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

My high school biology teacher, some of my present colleagues and especially my Teaching Biology Project small group leaders.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

Because of my involvement in biology teaching, especially the application of technology (I have been teaching using laptops in the classroom for the last 15 years), I was offered the position of program manager at the Teaching Biology Project – my brief was to run three conferences per year for 50 biology teachers to teach them about evolutionary biology.

I was so excited to think that someone had funds and was prepared to pay me that I said yes before I had given it a moment’s thought. So with absolutely no experience I started the project which ran for four years under its initial funding from the Dutch government and found funding again from our lottery – I’m now once again on the search for funding. We run four-day conferences three times a year and develop teachers’ skills in content and technology from a range of schools in South Africa. We run a comprehensive website, where we link resources directly aligned to the South African National curriculum (mainly in the form of Word docs and PowerPoints), and we run workshops and critical friends groups. It has become my major passion – using technology to inspire biology teachers to better teach content and increase their confidence and skills.

We have made – and are in the process of making – more videos of basic practicals to put onto our teaching biology YouTube channel to show teachers how to do simple practicals, as many teachers in South Africa who teach biology do not have science backgrounds and many have never conducted any experiments (labs). We are expanding into the Teaching Science Project and Teaching Natural Science project.

I also develop our extensive Biology Intranet at school (Bishops) and I run a Global Issues Network group where I encourage students to investigate and find solutions to global problems and work collaboratively with other students.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

All curriculum work is available on our Intranet. Grades 10-12 are on the Teaching Biology Project website – aimed at teachers and not students. We use Facebook to share information with teachers and have laptops in the classroom. Every aspect of my professional work is infused with technology.

In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed education? And your work?

I still enjoy teaching using a laptop and regard my cell phone and tablet as my ‘’off-time toys” although I communicate through WhatsApp, Facebook and emails with teachers and students. We use whatever device is at hand, and because my students have laptops, that is what we usually use. I show teachers how to use cell phones in class to access information, to take photos, including of microscope slides (cellscoping). Our website is designed to be viewed on any device.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

In South Africa that would be access for all to Internet connectivity (which needs to be fast enough and cheap enough to become ubiquitous). Teenagers love videos and videos can explain processes so much better than a static teacher – as can interactive animations. When work is new or not clearly understood by a teacher, access to excellent resources on the Internet can really assist under-resourced and poorly trained teachers.

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

This is a difficult one, as I think they are all essential and I try to build them into my daily teaching and in the courses I run for the teachers (including doing presentations on 21st century skills at the last conference). In class I emphasize critical thinking, problem solving and communicating clearly in both written and oral format so that those skills are dealt with on a daily basis. I build collaboration into all courses I develop, but it is probably the one I find most difficult to implement well, although within professional development and with my colleagues it is the one that I use the most. In my Global Issues Network group and a Nexus group, I am working with the students who have the most wide-ranging minds and interests and who do not always need to attend class. With them, I include all but put an emphasis on collaboration and innovative, creative problem solving. I think they are all interrelated and should be the first focus when deciding HOW to teach the content.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

In the perfect world it would be a Surface Pro with unlimited Internet access and an inspirational teacher. In a less perfect world it would be a smart phone in a class where a teacher has unlimited Internet access, a data projector and a laptop.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

I teach in South Africa in a well-resourced, independent boys’ school. The teachers I serve come from the entire spectrum of schools including deep rural school that lack textbooks, running water and electricity. The money is available but access to the basic resources is related to politics and service delivery. Within the province where I teach there is the commitment to having broadband available to all schools in the next couple of years.

How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

Answering this question would require a full thesis and life-long study. To summarize, less politics, less corruption, more service delivery, improved teacher training and skill development, access to technology for teachers, rewards for teachers who use technology, improved status and salaries for teachers – I could go on forever!

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

In my school this is not an issue – we give a top-quality education – but we are an independent fee paying school. HOWEVER, use of technology in the classroom despite a superb infrastructure and support is not easy and the majority of teachers do not put 21st century skills to the front of their teaching, focusing more on content and passing content-based exams.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Just start – anywhere – use a cell phone camera in class, let students take down homework on their phone, let them look up information on their phones. Just try – don’t be put off by negativity and what can go wrong, have fun in class and one way to do that is to use technology and see where it leads. Be ready for change. 

Be inspired by individuals and schools who are making the same journey. This is the reason I have so enjoyed participating in Microsoft in Education forums – starting in 2008 and attending as many as I am invited to. The Microsoft Summit in Seattle remains a highlight and I am in contact with so many of the teachers I met there. 

How have you incorporated mobile devices/apps into your classroom and have you seen any improvements?

Because we use laptops in class we have not emphasized the use of apps — ESPECIALLY as in a South African context of slow Internet connectivity, large classes all working online are hell. And because we have an extensive Intranet where we put work, we have not really made use of apps. My students use their phones in class for quick communication, e.g. WhatsApp, take photos and short videos and noting their homework. 

Describe how you use your favorite Microsoft technology in the classroom and how that impacts 21st century skills development?

I love OneNote, but found that more recent versions are not as user-friendly which has made them less compatible with a variety of different versions of Windows and therefore more difficult to use as effectively. I use them to link useful videos, web links and tasks and get boys to work on the doc and create their own notes with useful links – everything in one place. We used to use it as a shared doc for meetings but it gained a life of its own on our network and finding the correct version and not having it replicate itself and pop up in a variety of places became hell! 

Describe to us your role as a leader for technology in your school, community or among other educators?

I think that in my school I am probably regarded as a bit nuts and outspoken, because of my emphasis on the use of up-to-date technology and on 21st century skills. Within the biology teacher community in South Africa, I am well known through my role in my NGO where I am always keen to promote new ideas and inspire teachers and give them confidence to try new things — that includes use of technology in the classroom. We put PowerPoints and Word doc resources onto [flash drives] and give them to teachers at the end of a conference to encourage them to use technology in the classroom and really encourage them to buy a data projector or use the school’s data projector. 

How is the experience being a Microsoft Expert Educator?

I love the resources I have been exposed to and the new friends and contacts I have made and feel very proud to have been recognized by Microsoft. The trip to Barcelona was a wonderful highlight. However, I am uncomfortable about self-promotion, so try not to talk about it too much.

About Cheryl Douglas, Biology Teacher and Program Director of the Teaching Biology Project, Microsoft Expert Educator

Cape Town, South Africa

@teachingbio

  • Birthplace: South Africa
  • Current residence: Cape Town, South Africa
  • Website I check every day: My TeachingBio facebook page
  • Person who inspires me most: Not one, but the biology teachers who are small group leaders at my biology teacher professional development conferences for their commitment, enthusiasm and willingness to always learn.
  • Favorite childhood memory: Eating.
  • Favorite book: Anything I am currently reading; murder mystery genre – but ONLY English or European authors.
  • Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology: OneNote
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  Hmmmm? Lots, all helpful – but probably “talk less,” which I don’t really do (but should).

 

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