Monday, December 02, 2013

How well are the people of the world speaking English?

I recently attended the launch of the EF English Proficiency Index 2013 (full PDF report here) in Montevideo (left), where participants were told that Uruguay is still in the 'low proficiency' bracket and has dropped in points (from 53.42 to 51.49) since the EPI was last published in 2012. It was not included in the first EF EPI published in 2011.

The 2013 edition of the EFP ranks 60 countries and territories by adult English proficiency, was produced with data collected from 750,000 test-takers and is a report that attempts to rank average level of English skills amongst adults (Wikipedia).  Most of the data is collected by EF from the free placement test taken by people on their website.  As such, the report has been criticised for a lack of representative sampling in each country. As such, this makes the EPI an online survey rather than a statistically valid evaluation (Wikipedia). When we asked about the data at the launch in Montevideo, EF were open about this and details about data collection is also clearly mentioned in the report on page 42.

Despite the above, it has been very interesting to see just how much attention is being paid to the results. In Uruguay, the 'decline in English' in the country stated in the report made the major newspapers and the same seems to be true in many other places - it's been featured in the New York Times, the World Bulletin, the Bangkok Post, the Swedish Wire, and the Wall Street Journal, and I'm sure many other periodicals, newspapers and websites. It's all fabulous marketing for EF, who have found a way of delivering information that the world wants to know, and which no other organisation is trying to provide. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ceibal English blog posts

The Ceibal English (Ceibal en Inglés) is a project involving language teaching via video-conferencing in Primary schools throughout Uruguay. 

The British Council Uruguay is managing the Ceibal English (Ceibal en Inglés) project for Plan Ceibal and I was working as the project manager. (update: I am now Country Director for the British Council in Uruguay)

As it develops, expanding from 500 to 1,000 classes a week in 2013, and doubling again to 2,000 classes a week in March/April 2014, I am recording and relfecting on different aspects of the project. 

This page lists all of the blog posts I have written about the programme.

Start here:
More information: 
Last updated: 9th October 2016





Saturday, November 23, 2013

Frameworks for effective technology use: SECTIONS

When adopting or adapting technology for effective teaching and learning, it often helps to use a framework. One such framework, produced by Dr. Tony Bates, Research Associate for Contact North, is SECTIONS, devised by the University of British Columbia, and mentioned in Planning for Effective Teaching with Technologypart two of the great series of articles Understanding the Building Blocks of Online Learning.

SECTONS stands for:-

S - Student needs

E - Ease of Use

C - Cost considerations

T - Teaching and learning (your  approach to)

I - Interaction for students (desired level of)

O - Organisational support needed

N - Novelty factor

S - Speed with which the technology or materials can be adopted/adapted

Rather than just designed to be used at a teacher or classroom level, this framework has been devised "facilitate decisions with regard to choice of technology at both the strategic and the tactical level".

How to use the framework:

1. Define what you are trying to accomplish by answering a series of questions about what you want to achieve.

  • I want the students to learn...
  • I think this I could be more effective in facilitating this learning if...
  • The learning activity I've chosen is...
  • The technology I've chosen to support this learning is...

2. Assess by using a checklist to evaluate the technology you have chosen to investigate or use.

  • Ask questions on the checklist based on what your specific requirements are
  • Answers to the questions should be in the form of Yes, No, N/A
  • Include a column for Importance (i.e. how important this feature is for you)
  • Include also another column for considerations (i.e. aspects that need to be taken into account)

3. Implement the technology (if it passes the assessment stage above) for the first time and observe and gather impressions to help in the evaluation process. Questions to ask yourself include:-
  • When observing the students using the technology, I notice...
  • The technology I chose is enabling the learning because...
  • The technology I chose is a barrier to the learning because...
  • Feedback from the students is...

4. Refine your approach based on reflection
  • What worked?
  • What didn't work and why?
  • I need to change...
  • My plan to make this change is...



Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Use of L1 in Ceibal English Remote Teaching

One of the issues we have been discussing in the Ceibal English project is the use of L1 by the two teachers- the CT (classroom teacher) and the RT (remote teacher), and after observing a great number of classes, I can see this varies a lot.
Teachers attitudes to using L1 in the classroom varies a lot. I remember when I first started my teaching course, I was told that this was to be avoided at all cost, but when I started teaching young learners I realised that some use of L1 was necessary - mainly to save time and for classroom management reasons.

There are some very interesting posts about this. In particular, I encourage you to read what Scott Thornbury wrote on his blog about translation (and the comments!) and the response by Isabela Villa Boas.

In particular, I think the following points are most relevant to the Ceibal English situation:
  • Use of L1 interferes with the development of the L2 system
  • Dependence on L1, at the expense of the learner constructing an independent L2 system
  • Use of L1 is fine when it helps L2 acquisition, accelerates or prioritizes learning
I have heard from some of the RTs that they believe they need to use more Spanish than they would usually do in an English classroom because of the lack of English knowledge of most of the CTs. However, some of the teachers involved in the project, who are based in the Philippines, and who have limited ability to speak Spanish, are in general teaching their classes without speaking any Spanish (in most of the cases) and there have not been any complaints from CTs.

I decided to ask some RTs what they thought of this in the forum of the LMS we use to share ideas, thoughts, etc, This is what I posted:

I've now had the opportunity of observing a number of lessons, which has been fantastic. One of the things that I am interested in is how much Spanish the RT uses in lesson A and would like to ask you all your opinion about this as it varies a lot depending on the teacher.

For instance, I can see several different strategies at work when it comes to classroom instruction/classroom language:

1) RT uses English first then immediately afterwards speaks in Spanish
2) RT uses Spanish first then immediately afterwards speaks in English
3) RT only uses Spanish for classroom instruction / classroom language
4) RT only uses English (or 90% of the time)
5) RT uses English and the CT uses Spanish ("one teacher, one language")
6) RT started using mainly Spanish for the classes, but is moving towards more English as the CT and the children learn more.

Which of these do you think is best? Which do you use? Do you use different strategies depending on who you teach? Does the fact that this form of teaching is very different from normal classroom teaching affect your opinion on this?

Can't wait to hear what you have to say on the subject...

Here are a selection of the comments posted on the forum:

  • I personally have used strategy nº3 up until now, since I found it quite hard to explain activities or eliciting concepts purely in English. However, I have started using strategy nº1 with the more advanced groups, trying to gradually use more English in every class. That said, some groups -especially 4th graders- have a hard time with the contents of the class, so including too much English could be counter-productive. (Ramiro)
  • Actually, I think the use of Spanish mainly benefits the CTs. We know that children adapt very quickly and mine want to make me almost cry every week when I see how much they have advanced. I personally find it really hard to switch back and forth in the lesson so I end up using more Spanish (Spanglish?) than I ever would. (Christina)
  • I find strategy number 6 the most appropriate for me. Lately, I been trying to pay more attention to the amount of Spanish and English I use during each class and I'm doing my best to speak as much English as possible. (Viviana)
  • In order to lower affective filter, I wouldn't start using English right away, 100% in the class. You may scare them out and make students feel uneasy. I guess you'll move from Soanish to English as students feel comfortable and can follow the lessons. (Leo)
  • CTs tend to have a very low level of English, they're adult learners, and we all know adults have a harder time adapting to classes being delivered in English than children do. The way the CT feels towards the lesson greatly affects children's perception. Perhaps we could explain key concepts of second language acqusition to CTs in order to lower their affective filters as well. (Serrana)
We are now looking at producing guidelines and will be working with RTs to reduce the amount of Spanish used in class, but I'd be very interested in hearing what others think about this. 



Thursday, October 31, 2013

New British Council podcast - Ceibal English interview

Earlier this month I was thrilled when asked to be interviewed by Rob Lewis about the Ceibal English project for the new British Council English Agenda podcast for teachers. It was an honour to be part of the first episode and a lot of fun to do. The result can be listened to here: 
http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/content/englishagenda-podcast-15th-october-2013 

1. You’ve been in Uruguay for a few months now – can you tell us about the project you’re managing? 

Ceibal en Ingles (Ceibal English) is a project the British Council won after a tender was issued by Plan Ceibal for English language teaching via video-conferencing in Primary schools in Uruguay. You will have heard of Plan Ceibal as the organisation that has succeeded in the OLPC initiative. 

It started five years ago, and now each state school child in the country has received a laptop. With English, however, there aren’t enough qualified and experienced English teachers to be able to offer primary children classes, and although in the long-run the solution will be to increase the English level of the existing primary school teachers (something which we are also involved in as part of the project), the short to medium term solution is to offer the children English classes via telepresence solution using remote teachers from Montevideo, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines to teach the classes in tandem with the children’s regular classroom teachers. 

 2. A lot of people probably associate this tool (VC) with business meetings. When you talk about video-conferencing in the classroom, what do you actually mean? 

 Yes, nowadays, people either associate VC with low quality, low bandwidth tools such as Skype which work more or less well on most computers and with an internet connection…or with the higher quality video conference suite equipment, that as you mention, is most associated with international business. The latter, using fibre optic lines and high quality equipment is what is used in this project. The reasons for this are many. One factor is reliability. With a classroom teacher and 25+ kids waiting for a weekly lesson, we need to know that when a remote teacher connects it is going to work, and with this equipment you can 95% (or more) guarantee it is going to work. You wouldn’t be able to offer a similar guarantee with something like Skype. Another factor is quality of image. With this equipment the remote teacher (or RT as we call them) can see details of the children (and can also zoom into specific kids, etc) and so it becomes easier for them to learn their names and recognise them. The high quality also means that on the other end of the line, in the classroom the image is so sharp on the big screen that it is as close as possible to actually having the RT in the classroom, which makes a big difference for the kids. It is hard to appreciate how important this is without actually going and observing a class in progress. 

 3. I’m sure there have been ups and downs. What’s worked well so far? 

 Yes, of course. After a successful pilot that showed it was possible and which also proved the children were learning, we are now teaching almost 1000 classes a week (reaching around 25,000 children). This will double to 2,000 classes in 2014 and more than double again in 2015 to 4,500 groups (around 120,000 students). The best part of the project for me has been the response. Classroom teachers volunteer to join the programme and there has so far been no shortage of teachers volunteering. This is despite the extra effort and time these teachers need to have in order for the project to work well. The classroom teachers (or CTs as we call them) have to spend extra time coordinating with their RTs and are also learning English themselves, which enables them to understand the classes and also to do the follow-up practice lessons that have been built into the programme so that the kids have enough English to get them from a CEF level of A0 to one approaching A2 (we hope) after three years of classes.The reaction of the kids has also been heart-warming – English classes, once the privilege of a few who could afford to pay for private classes are now being given to primary children all over the country, many of whom live in difficult circumstances. It is a real game-changer as far as helping to level the playing field and provide equal educational opportunities to all. 

 4. And anything that’s not worked so well? 

 We are learning all of the time and changing things to help improve the teaching and learning. One thing we have discovered is the importance of coordination between the CT (local primary classroom teacher) and the RT (remote teacher). In order to avoid transmission teaching (i.e. the “teacher on the telly” syndrome) the CT & RT need to work closely together, to talk about out what is going to happen in the remote class and follow up classes. Originally we were hoping that all teachers would be able to do this synchronously (e.g. using Skype) but because of time differences, busy schedules, and other reasons, most of this coordination is by necessity being done using email. For this to work well, there needs to be a flow of 4-5 emails between the two teachers. The majority of the problems we have experienced have been due to a lack of rapport between the CT & RT and because both have not been able to do the necessary lesson coordination. 

 5. I can imagine it changes the dynamic somewhat having a CT and a RT present in classes… does it have a significant impact on the pedagogy too? 

 Yes, it does, and I have been spending a lot of time recently observing classes and taking note of good and not so good practice. Some of what is important is the same with regular YL classes. For instance, the teachers need to establish routines, pace the classes and use a variety of activities, including games and songs. The kids can’t also just be sitting down watching the teacher on TV in the same way that you wouldn’t want a class of children sitting down through a regular YL class. There are some interesting avenues that we still need to explore and which some teachers are already exploring. For instance, and this came up in a discussion during a recent visit by Jeremy Harmer, the fact there is a TV lends itself to adding an aspect of performance to the lessons. The kids can write, rehearse and act out dialogues and other theatrical routines in front of the TV, for example. We have also been discussing the role and amount of L1, which varies enormously depending on the teachers involved. We are recording all of this and developing guidelines which will end up becoming recommendations for any educators involved in this unique type of language teaching be they on this project or any other one that may appear in the future. 

 6. It must have an effect on the learning opportunities too? E.g. if a learner wants to experiment with language or has a question, how can the RT be there ‘on the spot’ to support? Or is it possible for the RT to give feedback? How have the RTs taken to it? 

 Feedback is something each RT struggles with. I have seen RTs give on-the-spot pronunciation feedback and error correction during classes, so it is possible. More difficult is giving feedback on student writing. We have set up a system of virtual classes using a Learning Management System (LMS) that requires the children to upload their written work using their OLPC laptops and which means the RT can then correct. Other RTs have used blogs or wikis as a way of sharing student work and dealing with correcting writing. We are still working on this as we are not entirely happy with the solutions we have come up with so far. 

 7. How have the CTs taken to it? Are they taking part in any training? And what about the students? 

 Yes, in general, as the CTs are volunteers, they have shown an incredible amount of passion and commitment to the project and most of them have also started to learn English themselves. There are some primary teachers that have said they are not interested, but I’m happy to say they seem to be in a minority at least at the moment. Our challenge will come as we expand and incorporate what we hope will be all of the primary schools into the programme. The students, as I mentioned earlier have very much taken to it. There has been pressure from students and parents on teachers and schools to sign up and join in the project, which has been nice to see. 

Training has been built into the project very much as an integral part. Each of the CTs need to attend a 2 day orientation course in Montevideo before they can join the programme. We are also developing a 12 hour supplementary course for CTs that will act as an online reference guide for them after the OC. RTs have a 15 hour self-access online course they need to do before teaching and we recommend that the RTs observe at least two classes before teaching one themselves. Apart from that, the RTs are connected via the LMS and can share their concerns and ideas there via a forum. We also have plans to get some of them together in December in Montevideo for a training day to share good practice. We will record this and make the discussions available to the RTs who cannot attend. 

8. What next? Long term programme? Research must be part of it? Lots of countries must be looking on with interest! 

 We are developing a model of teaching that has a lot to offer other countries and organisations outside of Uruguay. Research has been built into the project, with regular surveys of RTs and CTs and a lot of data collection being undertaken internally. We have also just finished testing the children and will be repeating this test at the end of the year in order to determine what the impact of the English classes is having. We are giving the test to classes of children not involved in the programme too, so we have a control groups. We have also been approached by different educational bodies in different countries who are looking at what we are doing with a lot of interest and wondering if it could be something they too could implement. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Short and Sweet - Kieran Donaghy


Short and Sweet - Kieran Donaghy 
The Image Conference, Brasilia 25th October 2013

This was Kieran's first conference presentation in Brasil. Here on a flying visit (the lack of sleep didn't show!), Kieran spoken about how best to use short films in the ELT classroom, presenting ideas that he has made popular through his ELTon award winning website, Film English.

Kieran thinks that today's Internet culture, has led to more short films these days, and especially the rise in use of mobile deviceshas seen a renaissance in watching short films. For these reasons, the time is ripe to take advantage of this in the classroom.

Why use short films? 

The main reason is that they are short! This means  you can show them several times and do different activities with each viewing. You can also show learners a complete narrative, which means it can be more fulfilling for students than showing excerpts of films. The form is also usually innovative and so it is often easy to grab the students attention.

Many short films these days are silent. One reason for this is because people are watching them on the move. Another reason is one of audience - they can be enjoyed by an International audience because there is no need to translate dialogue.

After his introduction, Kieran got our creative juices working by asking us to think of as many uses of a paper clip that we could think of. This is a test which is connected to creative, lateral thinking. Tests show that as we get older, the number of responses people come up with diminish, which Ken Robinson believes that schools kill creativity

After this, Kieran's First activity related to a video (the adventures of a card board box) showing different uses of a cardboard box as thought of by a young child.

Continuing the same theme, the second short film Kieran showed us was 29 Ways to be creative. A good question to ask students after watching this short film is how they are going to be creative in their language learning. Kieran asks students to write an answer to this for homework.

Sharing Jim Jarmusch's manifesto, Kieran then showed us a film called Manifesto, the Holstee Manifesto Lifecycle video, and told the story behind this. Kieran uses this as a promote to get students to write their own life manifesto, sharing examples written by some of his students.

Where would you go if you could visit 11 countries in 44 days? The film, Move shows a person who did this, followed by the vídeos Eat and Learn, produced by the same person. Kieran also uses these films as prompts for writing.

Secrets was the next activity, watching a film called Your Secret. He asks students to follow the instructions given in the film .Kieran follows this with a visit to the website Post Secret, asking the students to choose a Secret that resonates with them. He asks them to write about the chosen Secret from the pov of that person. With teenagers, he gives them a selection to choose from as their are inappropriate ones on the website.


Kieran finished by sharing sourced of short films, such as Future Shorts, Vimeo, Short of the week, and of course Kieran's own website, http://film-english.com.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Carla Arena - Transforming sins into virtues in Design for Learning


Carla' session at the Image conference, Brasilia, was all about showing some common sins when designing digital resources and thinking about noticing the power of good design to enhance learning and power up the visuals in the language classroom.

Carla Arena is a great believer in design when it comes to every stage of teaching or teacher training, taking care of details such as posters to attract teachers to training sessions. 

Back in 2005, Carla believed she was a good designer, but now, looking back and sharing with us a presentation that she created that she is now horrified with what she created.



Some years ago, during an online course, she decided to change, and she shared her sins and how she changed with us during this presentation:

Her first sin was...greed

Crowding everything onto one slide, using lots of different fonts and animations. She changed to a more simpler approach - one image that can convey meaning is always much better.

Using a colour palette is another recommendation. The same kind of reasoning needs to be used when we are creating our slides or creating something for our students. 

Another factor is the font. Decide on a font and stick to the same font family. Avoid at all costs Cómic Sans!

Carla has moved from being greedy to being minimalist.

The second sin was pride...

Carla thinks she was too proud and that she could be self-sufficient. She now believes in stealing and recommends creative stealing, as recommended in the book 'Steal like an Artist'. Nobody needs to start with a blanks slate -not here are hundreds of references out there that you can use. She recommends good theft rather than bad theft (see picture below). When you do this, incredible things will happen in your classroom.

Carla recommends embracing influences and to use a variety of styles. She also says that writing things down in a notebook is necessary too.

Her next sin is sloth. Doing the same things every day makes you bored. We do this often because changes are often uncomfortable, but changes are necessary, especially when you want to create experiences. 

Steve Jobs, for example was all about designing experiences. He was also known for his presentations, and there is a great book called 'The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs' There were 3 acts in his presentations...setting the scene, identifying the enemy and then revealing he experience.

Moving onto the Instructional Design part, Carla says that when creating materials for our students, we should think about te rule of three (a pre-activity, activity itself and a post-activity). She believes that if you break this rule, then you don't have flow.

Quoting Csikszentmihaly, she said we need to Design activities that promote flow.

A trick to learn is how best to transition from the physical to the digital and then back to the physical if you use technology in the classroom. An example she gave that she has used with her students is with a selection of vocabulary. Her First act was to review the words with them. Then they got into groups and they had to write a sentence based on a picture she showed them relations to a word on their list. It is important here to use images that cause emotion. 

Carla started showing us interesting images and gave us words pulled out of a box at random, asking us to write sentences about the images. She next shared the incubation model (E. Paul Torrence) with us (see left) as something to keep in mind when designing materials and finished by sharing with us her mantra for good learning design.

All-in-all, an excellent presentation full of useful advice for teachers, materials developers and presenters.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

the Image Conference, Brasilia

The Image Conference,
Cultura Inglesa, Brasilia 25th October 2013
You can't imagine how excited I was about attending this Braz-TESOL event in Brasilia, and so very pleased for Kieran Donaghy to see him here too.

The First Image Conference was held earlier this year, in June, in Barcelona. I was first contacted by Kieran, the teacher behind the ELTon award winning Film English site, who asked me to present a the conference in Barcelona back in April, but then a week earlier he called me to say the event would have to be cancelled because his University said they were not prepared to take the financial risk.

It was such a shame as Kieran had done 80% of the planning of the conference already: he'd lined up an impressive list of speakers, had arranged for sponsorship from major publishers, presented a preliminary budget, costed the refreshments and meals and talked to people about technical Support, etc.etc. Fortunately, I was able to suggest that the IATEFL LTSIG step in and take on the risk, and so the conference could go ahead.

I started to help Kieran with the final planning, but then had to drop out because of my new job in Uruguay. Fortunately, Nicky Hockly stepped in and took over the role and the First Image Conference was able to take place as planned. The event was a great success and many of the sessions were streamed live by the British Council's TeachingEnglish website.

After all the work that Kieran put in to make the event happen, and after establishing a format that worked so well and was also very original and innovative, it was only a matter of time before it was going to be held again.

The offer to hold the second conference was proposed by Carla Arena and Graeme Hodgson of Braz-TESOL, who suggested duplicating the format in Brasilia in October. They also managed to find the funds to invite Kieran. The event itself was a great success, with around 130-140 people in attendance, a range of interesting sessions to suit everybody's tastes, and plenty of time to meet and talk to people. Finishing with cocktails, pizza and a VJ in the Cultura Inglesa garden was a perfect way to end the day.

It's now clear that the Image Conference is a format that works - where is the next one going to be?





Friday, September 27, 2013

What's wrong with giving Josh +1 for teamwork?

Next Thursday,  Paul Driver is taking part in an online discussion at #AusELT chat about gamification that promises to be very interesting. In preparation for this, Paul has written an article, Well done Josh +1 for teamwork: Gamification and Crabs which outlines his stance on this new(-ish) trend that has started to enter the ELT classroom

Paul makes some very valid points about gamification, which is often defined as the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity. He doesn't sit on the fence when it comes to saying what he thinks of it, implying that gamification is "at best, an over-hyped and misguided fad, and, at worst, an evil and manipulative strategy for getting people to do things they normally wouldn’t want to.

It's not the first time that Paul has spoken against the trend. In 2012, he wrote on his blog, Digital Debris that "in the majority of its current implementations, it is not game-like enough" and "by overlooking the depth and breadth of the potential games have to empower and motivate learners and create meaningful experiences...gamification is doing a disservice to both learners and educators."

A lot of what is written in both articles rings true, and should be taken as warning shots for any educator who thinks they turning their classroom into a game is an easy undertaking that will work wonders. As Paul implies, there's a lot more to game-based learning than first meets the eye. 

As a practitioner who is interested in exploring this area with young learners and teenagers, I have encountered the difficulties first-hand at the (digital) chalk-face, first when using Chore Wars in 2011 to gamify a class preparing for the FCE exam, and then in 2012 gamifying speed-writing with a group of young teens. The former worked only partially (yes for the younger teens in the class: not at all for the older teens) and the second required a number of adjustments over the course of the term when I used it in order to keep it working. I'm currently finishing off a chapter for a forthcoming book that details this action research.

So, where do I stand? Somewhere in the middle ground, I think. I'm attracted to the idea and my own experience tells me there is definitely something in it that is worth exploring, but it requires caution as it could have the opposite effect to what is intended if badly implemented. 

this sort of 'gamification' has been going on for years in classrooms
In his latest article, Paul mentions Class Dojo as a high profile example of gamification being used in the classroom. Although he doesn't say so in the article, I suspect Paul does not think highly of this behaviour management system. If this is the case, I think he hasn't spent enough time teaching primary or secondary kids. I was introduced to it at a conference and know immediately that I was going to start using it in class at my first opportunity, and I blogged about it enthusiastically

Say what you like about it, but it works very well. When I introduced Class Dojo to the language academy where I worked, it swept through the place like wildfire and is still being used today. In some ways, it's just taken the place of the star chart on the wall, which is actually proof that prior to the introduction of gamification as a term, this sort of stuff was happening in classrooms all around the world.

In conclusion, I doubt whether there are many YL teachers out there who don't use some sort of star chart or other behaviour management system in the classroom. And whilst Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigle are certainly leading experts on game design, I suspect they know little about the practical realities of teaching a group of 20 eleven-year-olds. I also suspect there anti-gamification stance is more targeting the tidal wave of simplified pointsification that commercial enterprises have started to embrace than the digitalisation of something that has been going on long before videogames were ever invented.

What do you think? Although the time isn't ideal for me, I'm hoping I can make it to the #AusELT chat next week - hope to meet some of you there. Come along and join in the debate.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

There's video-conferencing...and then there's video-conferencing...

Before I started working at Plan Ceibal, when anyone mentioned video-conferencing, I'd think of Skype. There was that other way of doing it, but I assumed that was for corporate meetings in big businesses.

I did wonder before I started working here why they were installing expensive video conference systems and high speed fibre-optic cables in schools all over Uruguay and insisting on it being installed in Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and the Philippines (where the remote teachers are based). Why didn't they just use Skype or another similar system? I asked myself.

Now, after helping with installation and testing of equipment, observing classes and working here for over three months, it is clear that part of the success of this project is because high definition video-conference equipment is used and not the low quality, low-cost solutions that are fine for most people's domestic use (and sometimes business) use. Having to depend on Skype myself to contact friends and family and to talk to colleagues from Montevideo has also underlined this too.

First of all, for the project to work, it requires the use of equipment that is durable and reliable and an internet connection that is fast and reliable too. That's not to say there are no technical problems - there are, but these are far fewer than there would be if a lower quality less reliable system was used.

Then there's the quality of the image. When I first walked into a classroom with a remote teacher (RT) on the screen, it was almost like she was in the room too. The sharpness of the image means makes it more real for the kids. It also means the RT can see details and even identify the children, which would be impossible using Skype. The lesson plans also require desktop sharing of images, audio and video, which would be problematic, but which works like a dream with the VC system.

It's not just the fibre-optic lines either. For a period of time, while waiting for delivery of VC equipment in the Philippines, the organisation there used a temporary solution (MOVI) and although they were able to cope, there were more technical problems that needed to be dealt with. When the VC equipment was finally set up, the teachers and kids almost jumped for joy at the visible difference in quality.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reform Symposium 04 (#RSCON4) presentation on Ceibal English


I was happy to be invited to present at the Future of Education´s Reform Symposium 04 (#RSCON4) and have decided it was a good opportunity to talk about the kind of teaching that is happening via video conferencing on the Ceibal English project.



Here are the details of my presentation:

Remote teaching, distance learning, team teaching or blended learning?

In Uruguay, due to a lack of qualified and experienced teachers, English is being taught in almost 1000 primary classes across the country via video conferencing, using teachers from elsewhere (other parts of Uruguay, Argentina, the Philippines, Colombia and Mexico). Because there are two teachers, the classroom teacher (CT) and the remote teacher (RT), a new type of methodology is being developed that combines elements of distance learning, team teaching and blended learning, but which is also requires a unique approach. 


This online conference promises to be very special - there are lots of very interesting sessions already lined up to choose from. See you there?  





Friday, September 13, 2013

Distance learning? Remote learning?

In Jeremy Harmer's recent blog post reflecting on his observation of a class taking place in the Ceibal English (Ceibal en Inglés) project, he writes about the project using 'distance teachers who teach English remotely'

At Ceibal, we talked about this label and how the term remote teacher had been adopted instead and that we didn't think distance teacher was the appropriate term. From the time of piloting the term remote teacher has been used throughout the project internally. In the paper written by Dario Luis Banegas (2013), he briefly explains the teaching situation of Ceibal English in this way:
'Plan Ceibal seeks to demonstrate that lessons delivered by remote teachers (RTs) via videocon-ferencing with support from classroom teachers (CTs) with little command of English can facilitate successful learning outcomes in learners, including effectiveinteraction with the RT, CT and between learners.'

Why does the project prefer remote teacher (RT)? Well, Wikipedia describes distance learning as 'a mode of delivering education and instruction...to students who are not physically present in a traditional setting such as a classroom' and it 'provides access to learning when the source of information and the learners are separated by time and distance, or both.'

In the Ceibal English project, the students are physically present in a classroom. Additionally, although the RT is separated by distance from the students, they are with their regular teacher (the classroom teacher, or CT), whose role is crucial if successful learning to take place (this is not a transmission teaching model unlike the plasma teaching that took place in Ethiopia - but I'll save that for another blog post at another time). 

What is clear is that the Ceibal English system is all about team teaching, with the RT being the qualified and experienced English language teacher and the CT being the teacher who best knows the learners and who is responsible for classroom management and the language practice activities during the week. 

To be honest, the term remote teacher is not ideal either. If you search for remote teaching in Google, then you'll find examples of regular teaching being done in remote communities, such as this one from Western AustraliaHowever, the kind of teaching being done in the Ceibal English project is distinct from the teaching being done by what most educators assume to be distance education, so it is worth using a different term to distinguish it. 



Thursday, September 12, 2013

3 months of Ceibal English

I've now been working in Montevideo for Plan Ceibal for just over three months now and still can't get over the fact that it feels like I'm in a very special place at a very special time. Three months isn't a very long time, but it feels like I have learnt a lot since I've been here. As the British Council's project manager for Ceibal English (Ceibal en Inglés) in Uruguay, I took over from Dario Luis Banegas, whose article 'ELT through videoconferencing in primary schools in Uruguay: first steps' is an excellent introduction to the pilot and first stage of the project. The introductory project video (below) gives another good overview of what is involved.

Shortly after I arrived, the project expanded from 500 English classes a week to just under 1000, with classes being taught in multiple locations across the country by remote teachers from various institutes in Montevideo, the British Council in Colombia and Mexico, AACI and other institutes in Argentina, and SME in the Philippines. I'm happy to say this expansion phase was successful thanks to the efforts of many dedicated professionals and it definitely feels exciting to be part of what is a unique countrywide complex project involving the teaching of English and a combination of learning technologies.


Since the expansion phase in July, I've been able to observe teachers at work and my idea is to now blog about different aspects of the project here. It is a complex and dynamic project that is changing as it is being rolled out. There are parts of the project that tend to indicate a new teaching methodology is required, and Jeremy Harmer reflected on this in a recent blog post after visiting a school and observing a class. This post and the comments posted by a variety of people both involved and not involved in the project make very interesting reading. It's partly due to the comments posted there that I've decided to reflect on different aspects of the project here.

Find out more about the project here: