Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

TPD in Crisis Series, Week 9: Open Educational Resources in sub-Saharan Africa

A new approach and open resources for school-based teacher professional development in sub-Saharan Africa

Sara Hennessy and Bjoern Hassler co-lead the OER4Schools project based at the Centre for Commonwealth Education, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. They describe their development of a professional learning programme for teachers in sub-Saharan Africa, and the implications for educators across the region.

This article examines a respectful approach to professional learning: it is not one of correcting poor practice but one of offering new strategies and together with key stakeholders adapting them for – and assessing their value within – the particular context: low-resourced educational environments in sub-Saharan Africa that are typified by crowded classrooms and overworked, low-paid and often under-qualified teachers. Thakrar, Zinn and Wolfenden (2009) argue that teachers in this context urgently need access to opportunities for effective professional development.

The OER4Schools programme is based on a collaboratively developed CPD resource (, which supports the process of interactive teaching and active, collaborative learning – generally, and through using ICT. It is based on an established teacher professional development (TPD) process for teacher-led discussion, trialing new ideas, and joint reflection, all stimulated and guided by the TPD materials, see Hassler et al. (2011) and Hennessy et al. (2012). This is centred around a set of video clips of Zambian and South African lessons we have filmed. The programme draws on digital Open Educational Resources (OER) and Open Source software too, increasing access to high quality teaching and learning resources in an otherwise resource-constrained context. It has been developed and trialed in conjunction with local stakeholders, including primary school teachers and teacher college lecturers. By making the resource an OER, (present and future) stakeholders are empowered to take ownership of it, and adapt it to their particular circumstances for themselves.

Teachers in Zambian schools where we work follow a “Reflect-Plan-Teach-Reflect” cycle: They learn about educational principles through practical workshops, and plan classroom activities. One of the key success factors in the programme is an emphasis on immediate classroom trialing, which helps put new approaches into practice straight away. There is ample evidence that immediate feedback to teachers following teaching is valuable professional support. Research in six African countries by Akyeampong et al. (2011) confirms that the emphasis on subject teaching per se, rather than their students’ understandings and thinking, also reflects the emphasis of teacher college courses, which leave teachers ill-equipped to face the reality in the classroom.

In the workshops we seek to structure and promote “quality conversations” focused on the specifics of teaching (Wallace, 2003, p.11-12) and to create opportunities for dialogue and critical reflection; research shows that collegiality does not, per se, ensure quality; a critical stance is also needed (Manouchehri, 2000).

Another key success factor is that these activities are embedded in a well-supported overall programme, that is sustained over time, rather than offering e.g. a one-off workshop (without any teaching practice). Seeking to impact on the school culture all teachers at the school are involved, rather than one teacher being “sent” for “training” which generally does not lead to changes in practice. In our view, it is imperative to see teachers as capable of acting as professionals, rather than requiring scripted and prescribed practice, c.f. Leu & Price-Rom (2006, p.7).

Challenges and Lessons learned

  • It takes significant time and engagement for teachers to make deep rather than superficial changes in their practice. TPD programmes need to be well supported and resource intensive. It is imperative to find ways of supporting teachers sufficiently, while bearing in mind the available resources.
  • One-off top-down interventions do not work. Cost-effective approaches need to be embedded in local school cultures.
  • Working remotely with teachers (through phone calls / internet telephony / shared documents) is challenging. We recommend providing access to resources through local infrastructure (such as a local low-power robust server). Internet, when it and mains power are available, for media transfer can be useful.
  • Be aware of communication challenges due to cultural factors, including a reluctance to relay negative feedback or difficulties encountered. Face-to-face communication works far better but it is time and labour intensive, and recruitment of local TPD leaders can be very challenging.
  • Strong educational leadership from headteachers is key to addressing challenges with poor working conditions and teacher absenteeism.
  • It is also important that unhelpful barriers and hierarchies are broken down, so that teachers are free to experiment and discuss. To this end, there are advantages in fostering peer interaction and “critical friendship”, rather than interaction with a “senior trainer”, such as a university or ministry official.
  • Payment of stipends or “per diems” often simply for attendance of workshop sessions is another issue. Such payments are expected but deeply ingrained in an unhelpful “aid culture”, and make projects instantly unsustainable. We must thus do our utmost to reverse this. We suggest being as clear as possible about what teachers can be paid for, and to make the available budgets transparent.


In this post, we have raised a number of issues, such as the difference between “teacher education or development” and “teacher training”, the time and support needed to foster deep learning, technical and cultural communication challenges, working conditions, teacher absenteeism, payments expected, the value of community, and headteacher support.

What issues have you encountered, and how have you overcome them? Your thoughts, feedback and experiences are welcome! We will closely follow the discussion, and will be available to respond.


  • Akyeampong, K., Pryor, J., Westbrook, J., & Lussier, K. (2011). Teacher preparation and continuing professional development in Africa: Learning to teach early reading and mathematics - Executive summary of Project (pp.1-12). Brighton, UK: Centre for International Education, University of Sussex.
  • Haßler, B., Hennessy, S., & Lubasi, B. (2011), Changing Classroom Practice using a School-Based Professional Development Approach to Introducing Digital Resources in Zambia, Itupale Online Journal of African Studies, Volume 111. (available here)
  • Hennessy, S., Haßler, B., & Mwewa, G. (2012). Using digital technology and school-based professional development to leverage interactive classroom teaching in Zambia. In J. MacBeath & M. Younger (Eds.), Millennium Goals Revisited: A Common Wealth of Learning. London: Routledge.
  • Leu, E. and Price-Rom, A. (2006). Quality of Education and Teacher Learning: A Review of the Literature. USAID/EQUIP1.
  • Manouchehri, A. 2001. Collegial interaction and reflective practice. Action In Teacher Education 22: 86-97.
  • Thakrar, J., Zinn, D., & Wolfenden, F. (2009). Harnessing open educational resources to the challenges of teacher education in sub-Saharan Africa. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(4), 1-15.
  • Wallace, J. (2003). Introduction: learning about teacher learning: reflections of a science educator. In J. Wallace & J. Loughran (Eds.), Leadership and Professional Development in Science Education.  New Possibilities for Enhancing Teacher Learning (pp. 1-16). London: Routledge Falmer.


Sara Hennessy is a Senior Lecturer in Teacher Development and Pedagogical Innovation in the Faculty of Education at University of Cambridge, and a member of the Centre for Commonwealth Education at Cambridge. Her work investigates the role of digital technology in improving the quality of learning and teaching in sub-Saharan African schools and teacher education. A small-scale project currently underway is introducing Open Educational Resources (OER) into Zambian primary schools through school-based professional development. The project innovates by combining interactive pedagogy, technology and OER in the most optimal way to support integration of ICT use into mathematics teaching. Parallel work for the DfID-funded ANTSIT project focused on learning with mobile technologies in mathematics and science. Another recent project, ORBIT, led by Bjoern Hassler, produced an open resource bank for interactive teaching of maths and science in schools and teacher education. Other recent interests include the potential of the interactive whiteboard to support classroom learning through dialogue.

Bjoern Hassler is working on in the area of Open Educational Resources, ICT and pedagogy. He is leading the “ORBIT” project, that seeks to produce an Open Resource Bank on Interactive Teaching for teacher education and development, focussing on ICT use in mathematics and science education. Björn is also working with Sara Hennessy on the OER4schools project introducing interactive teaching and ICTs in Zambian primary schools. More widely, Bjoern interests include applications of technology to teaching and learning, as well as public engagement and lifelong learning. He is particularly interested in the appropriate application of technology to international development, and the so-called digital divide. Recent projects have included moderating the Access to Open Educational Resources discussion on the UNESCO OER Community mailing list, as well as various ICT and development projects in Zambia, including projects on rural women’s education. Bjoern has also made substantial contributions to institutional podcasting development both within the University of Cambridge, as well as the international audio-visual community, and provided consultancy for businesses, professional societies and non-governmental organisations. Bjoern has a first degree in physics and astronomy and a PhD in maths from the Faculty of Mathematics.


Click to read more about the Teacher Professional Development in Crisis series.