Something big is happening in the small country of Uruguay (with a population of approximately 3.5 million, it comes in at number 134 in comparison with other countries – remember, China has 1.3 billion inhabitants!) But Uruguay has always ‘punched above its weight’ – think football, music etc, and in the world of English language teaching, it’s doing it again.
Many of you will know about OLPC (one laptop per child) in which the government (backed with large charitable dontations) has given every child in the country a free little laptop which is hooked up (for free) to broadband all over the country. The heartwarming intention behind this initiative is to remove, at a stroke, inequality of access to information; to ensure that no child – even those from less economically prosperous rural areas – is left behind in the modern world. I have blogged about this before.
Now, under the Plan Ceibal, English teaching has taken an extra leap with the provision of ‘distance teachers’ who teach English remotely, their faces appearing on big screens at the front of the classroom as they interact with children in rural schools. The distance teachers may be sitting in Montevideo, Bogota, Buenos Aires or the Philippines, but for the children there they are there, right in their classrooms.
There’s another crucial feature of this Plan Ceibal – Inglés; the distance teachers interact with the classroom teacher who is right there in the room – but really there! And the special thing about her (or him) is that she probably doesn’t speak much – or any – English. So the classroom teacher is learning English along with the children. A win-win situation (you can watch a video clip about it here)!
Or is it?
I had the privilege of attending a Plan Ceibal lesson when I was in Uruguay a week ago – that’s where the photos in this blogpost come from. I loved the charisma of the onscreen distance teacher and the engaged and engaging participation of the classroom teacher. The children were lovely and eager and everything seemed fine. I had a great time sitting in that room, and I admired both professionals doing their very best in a new and exciting environment. I should say that the children receive a distance (big screen) lesson once a week and then the classroom teacher follows it up with two more English lessons.
The English lessons in Plan Ceibal look (as far as I can see) pretty much like most Young Learner English lessons. They include monsters and songs, basic grammatical patterns, the sort of vocabulary you’ll find in most general English coursebooks, and scripts (with quite a lot of Spanish thrown in) to guide the distance teacher.
I want to be very clear here! I admire hugely the ambition, the sheer scale of what is being attempted – bringing English (and world-beating technology) to places which have, up until now, had neither. What a fantastic project.
But (and this, for me personally, is the best bit because what is left of my brain needs constant stimulation!), Plan Ceibal raises a whole lot of issues which go to the heart of what education is, from the content we offer children, to the manner in which we deliver it, and the purposes to which it is put. Here, for example, are some of the questions which I have been pondering since that visit:
1 What kind of content should children be offered in the kind of scenario I have outlined? Is the replication of a ‘normal’ face-to-face based grammar-based syllabus enough? Or does this amazing context (distance teacher + classroom teacher) actually call for something entirely different (precisely because it IS different!)? For example, would a CLIL-type syllabus – marrying both teachers’ distinct strengths – be more appropriate?
2 How do you manage a class remotely? Distance teachers in the Uruguayan programme do a training course which offers them management hints and tips, but/and everything depends on the relationship between the distance teacher and the classroom teacher. Is there/could there be a special set of management ‘protocols’ that are especially appropriate for this kind of situation? What is the best way to use this technology in terms of classroom behaviours?
3 What could (or should) be the role of this technology? Is it best used by having a teacher being beamed in like some kind of ‘Deus ex machina’ (quite literally in this case)? Or is there some other special way of using this amazing – and very expensive – technology? Sugata Mitra, for example, talks about SOLEs (self organized learning environments) in his technological evngelising. Is that a better model than (sometimes) wall-based transmission teaching? Or is that asking too much for the context I have described?
So many questions. I’m a ‘new boy’ to all this; many people have thought a lot longer and harder about it than I have. But still I can’t help asking the questions!
I’d love to know what you thought!