The digital divide
One of the issues I constantly come up against in my work is that of the 'digital divide':
'The term digital divide refers to the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all. It includes the imbalances in physical access to technology as well as the imbalances in resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen. In other words, it is the unequal access by some members of society to information and communication technology, and the unequal acquisition of related skills.'
The term itself has evolved over the years, moving from the original notion of the 'haves' and the 'have nots' in purely infrastructure and equipment terms to embrace other notions such as access to training in the uses of technology and even into education, where writers such as Marc Prensky put more emphasis on those who 'do' and those who 'don't' use them in their teaching and engage with an increasingly-wired constituency - but whichever way you look at it, there is a divide and although it may be decreasing in size globally, there's little sight of the divide narrowing when it comes to teacher attitudes.
In terms of pure access, of course, there have been some major advances in various parts of the world. The ambitious Plan Ceibal in Uruguay has brought cheap laptops to most of its schools and similar initiatives are being implemented in Peru, Rwanda and elsewhere. Such projects are being closely monitored for their effectiveness and have, in part, drawn much criticism from those who think the money could be better spent in countries where poverty levels can be extreme. However, there is a certain school of thought that recognises that these projects have the potential to raise countries out of extreme poverty and give their citizens a chance to excel in a world that is increasingly dominated by knowledge economies:
'In the rural areas, where poverty is still the country’s greatest challenge, the aim is simultaneously to teach computer literacy and improve living standards. It’s a leap that many people working for charities and NGOs characterise as taking Rwanda 'from the 18th to the 21st century in one bound'.'
These are small steps along what now seems like an inexorable path. A recent ruling in Finland guarantees fast internet access to all its citizens as a legal right, and more countries are expected to follow suit. Not every country, of course, will be able to go that far, but projects such as QuestionBox are taking Net access to rural India, and more ambitious projects aim to take this even further with reliable access across the country, impacting not only on poverty levels, but also on education. To see the potential, look no further than Sugata Mitra's 'Hole in the Wall' project.
The digital divide is getting smaller, and will continue to do so. But what of our profession? How do we use technologies? How do we feel about them? Do we engage with them (where possible) or do we continue to do the same teaching we were trained to do, and which we are so accustomed to doing? How do we engage younger learners who DO enjoy technologies, without compromising our commitment to our teaching? Should we even bother? These are questions I've been struggling with again this year as I realise teacher attitudes to technologies have not really changed in the past 15 years I've been training in this field.
Most of the teachers (and there are hundreds of great examples all around the world, most notably in the Webheads group and in the Twitter community) I know who actively use technologies in their teaching are mainly of the 'maverick' ilk: they've trained themselves, bought their own equipment, joined communities and experimented without institutional support or encouragement.
This resourcefulness reminds me of a story I heard whilst training in Riyadh earlier this year. One of the participants explained how his school had no computers, yet he himself was an avid user and felt that his learners could benefit from access to the wider world via the Net. His solution, whilst not an option for everyone, was a real eye opener to me: this particular teacher got a loan for a new car (his bank wouldn't loan him money to buy a few computers). He then sold the car and used the cash to buy the computers he wanted to use in class.
Now I'm not suggesting that all teachers should be working on such selfless plans, but it is indicative of many such stories I've heard in my travels over the past fourteen years on occasions where I've met committed teachers with a belief in something (not always technology) and the willpower and focus to achieve it. Like the teacher who walked four hours each way in rural India to deliver teacher training workshops to less experienced teachers, or the Russian teachers who, having not been paid for a couple of months, drove their car down a frozen river to attend training sessions in a city in Siberia, thus saving valuable petrol, even when the ice was beginning to thin beyond reasonable safety levels.
Why do teachers do this kind of thing? The answer, I think, is all connected to a level of enthusiasm, belief and commitment that is very common in our profession. This past weekend I was lucky enough to meet up with a former trainee from Russia, now working as a language assistant in London for a year. Her friends in Moscow, she said, are always asking her why she remains a teacher when the money is so bad and she could do something better. Her answer was a simple, but revealing one: 'because I feel like a teacher'. Perhaps that's all it takes to make a difference to some people's lives.
What has this got to do with my work, and - indeed - with technologies in teaching and training? Well, over the course of this year I've been working as a consultant on a British Council project in Asia, a project which takes in nine countries and goes by the name of 'Access English'. The project is designed to help meet the huge demand for English and support the development of teaching and learning of English, and has four strands:
I've been working on the third strand, for teachers, and it's here that the notions of resourcefulness and commitment have played a major part. Strand 3 aims to develop a series of 'virtual teacher support networks' in the countries (Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan) and to provide:
- teaching resources anchored in local curricula
- lesson ideas appropriate to context
- contextualised methodology articles
- distance support systems
Part of my job - hard though it was :-) - was to visit most of these countries and advise on how best to achieve these aims within each of the given contexts. I spent much of my time meeting with representatives from education ministries, British Council staff and working directly with local teachers and trainers on evaluating materials (and mapping them to national curricula) and designing the online community parts of the project.
The basic idea is really rather simple: take teaching resources from the British Council LearnEnglish site and map them to local curricula in each country. Supplement these teaching materials with contextualised methodology articles from this TeachingEnglish site and then provide a continuous development wrapper in the form of a community site.
The reality, of course, is somewhat different. If you've travelled in Asia you'll know there is a world of difference between, say, the speed and availability of Internet connections in South Korea to the same in Indonesia. We've had to consider some fairly broad potentially problematic areas: how to deal with varying infrastructure, facilities and bandwidth; how to fit the project to local and national regulations concerning teaching materials, curriculum and exams; how to deal with varying degrees of digital literacy and pedagogical experience with technologies; how to address issues of teacher fluency and methodological approach.
The project has, therefore, had to be very resourceful in its implementation in each country, and draw on the commitment and experience of teachers within each place to formulate the best strategy for each context. Much of the input for this has come from local teachers - their enthusiasm for the project, their desire to engage with colourful, exciting teaching materials and their thirst for wider methodological knowledge has resulted in a whole which is composed of many localised and targeted parts.
No tech, low tech, high tech
One of the innovations of the project, and one which directly addresses the varying levels of infrastructure and access in the countries, is the development of three parallel strands of materials, what we have rather uncreatively called 'no tech', 'low tech' and 'hi tech'. The 'no tech' option is aimed at teachers who only have access to technology in their regional training centres, in the school director's office or at home, and materials are designed to be printed off and used in class in a more traditional way. 'Low tech' envisages a classroom where there's one computer and a data projector and 'hi tech' is for those lucky enough to be working in fully-equipped centres.
Issues of regulations with materials, curriculum and exams have been addressed directly with materials writers and ministries to ensure that everyone has a stake in the project and to reassure everyone affected that this project will enhance the existing practices rather than compete with them. In many countries key teachers have had training in the use of technologies in teaching, and this training is currently being cascaded around the countries so that all teachers will understand how the technologies and materials fit into their working lives.
And, finally, methodology articles have been translated and 'localised' for each country, to allow for easier reading and comprehension, particularly in contexts where the level of English is sometimes lower than anticipated (often at primary level).
Some of the implementations exist as online websites, some as CDROMs and some as CDROMs with much accompanying paper, and these will be distributed using already established channels such as the ERICs in the case of Thailand. All this means (we hope) that when the projects go live, which most of them will have done by the end of the year, all English teachers in all of the countries will have access to the teaching materials, access to continuous professional development and - most importantly - access to a national support network designed not only to help them implement the content of the project, but also develop professionally across the board.
In short, it's a project that aims to bridge the digital divide using established infrastructure and human resources and help people get the most out of technologies in a supportive and principled way. It's a resourceful take on technologies, we hope, and one which I think could work well in many other parts of the world.
This past year has seen a variety of discussions online in various fora which have pitched the technophiles and the technophobes (or, more often, techno-sceptics) against each other in often rather heated debate. Meantime, projects such as Access English work quietly away in the background addressing many of the issues that we 'connected' people have twittered away our valuable time on.
Whilst those of us who are often on the 'right' side of the digital divide produce reams of theoretical hot air on the worth of technologies, there are thousands of people worldwide who are benefitting from them, hungry for them and ready to take extraordinary steps and invest unbelievable amounts of time and energy in implementing them in their teaching and training.
The use of technologies in the case of the Access English project provides teachers in a variety of countries with stimulating teaching materials, methodological development and support in their careers. It should also, in time, and with this support, lead to more creative teaching and a better understanding of the methodologies and pedagogies that underpin the work teachers are doing in the affected countries. This may... just may... benefit their learners.
I'd say that's a good thing!
Dear Mr Gavin Dudeney,
I have just read your blog on being resourceful.you really deserve to be the guest writer.The British Council should be complimented on introducing a high tech scholar like you to me who is undoubtedly a low tech person. Your blog is really awesome. It will do a lot of good to me as a teacher, trainer, resource person and text book writer.The scert, Hyderabad wants to revamp the teaching learning process in andhra pradesh by changing the text books at the secondary level. The same text books have been in use for the last 20 years. It is following the guide lines of ncert, Delhi.They say that there should be a paradigm shift from behaviourist approach to constructivist approach. What is you opinion about Krashen and other constructivists?I request you to read all my blogs and pass your comments so that I can enrich my ability as a text book writer.the scert wants us to interact with the language experts like you. You are really given to me by God. I think the digital divide will slowly be on the wane. But ,surprisingly, I have found that some people are good at technology but their knowledge of English is not up to the mark. On the contrary, some people like me who are reasonably good at English but they are low tech people.of course, I am slowly becoming computer savy I hope you will cut down the digital divide and act like a language socialist who dreams of and works for the equal distribution of riches and properties , englishlanguage and technology, among the people. I hope the haves and have nots will have the same access to the digital riches and english language.Please excuse me. I have borrowed certain of your innovative vocabulary.
with kind regards,
JVL NARASIMHA RAO
Thanks again for staying with the conversation for the month. Your questions about methodologies and coursebooks are perfectly valid, but they're really very difficult for me to answer from my house in Spain. You'll remember that in an earlier blog posting I talked of my experiences in Bangalore? Well let me tell you a bit more...
When we got the feedback for the course, it was overwhelmingly positive, with everybody feeling they'd learnt a lot about technology and how they might use it in the places where they had access to it. But one comment stuck in my mind, and that was a comment about my poor knowledge of the education system in southern India. And it was a very fair comment too - I had little time to prepare and my knowledge of teachers' lives in the are was pretty limited, relying as I was on my local co-trainer. When I got back I wrote an article about my experiences, examining how useful it was for someone like me to be in souther India training people. It's a soul-searching article and I'm still not sure I know what the correct answer is!
So you see, I have a few ideas... I think constructivism and connectivism seem to work, and communicative methodologies also seem to have a positive effect, but it's not really for me to say what will work where you live - I think that should be left to the local experts who know the situation on the ground, and know what's possible: both in terms of infrastructure, class size, etc., and in terms of the level of methodological training of the teachers.
As for the different levels of experience teachers have with English, technology, etc., I suspect there will always be a spectrum in any school, or community or country and that one of the best things we could be doing would be exploring ways to give teachers access to training and professional development opportunities on a regular basis. The more trained and experienced the teachers are, the more positive impact that *should* have on what happens in the classroom.
Dear Mr Gavin,
Thank very much for your comments. It was really kind of you to spend your precious time answering my questions. It is true that you can't answer my questions from Spain. The method suitable in a place may not work in another. I can understand your experiences in Bangalore. I had a similar experience in rajamundry, AP, as a key resource person.We were supposed to watch a live telecast by Riesi, Bangalore for 3 days. The system failed due to certain technical defects.Instead of watching the telecast we had to do some thing else.What is practicable in England, one of the most advanced countries in the world may not be feasible in India, a developing country.
Teaching English as a second language or foreign language is entirely different from teaching it as mother tongue.As you rightly pointed out every thing is different in a country like India which is a classic blend of many languages, cultures,religions ,regions and so on. Any how the ncert. Delhi will have to take care of all these issues while framing the curriculum. You are a high tech man and i am a low tech man.I feel that technology is a must in present global language teaching scenario. But it will never replace man.It will supplement him.I hope you have an access to my blogs. I hope you will make the English teaching team to have a look at them and grade them a bit faster. I hope to be a guest teacher soon with your blessings
Hats off to your bifurcation of localised curriculum and materials according to the different levels of techies needs.
As a low techie Indian teacher let me share with you my own moderating experiences in Cardiff.under nic guidance I started pre-moderating procedures in English for specific purposes(esp) well before fifteen days of the conference.as the days were coming near, and crowd began to set in i became panicking because with my 1x datacard I could not access any video or audio of participants for more than 2 min. then how can I respond. things were awful and I was unable to correlate with the forums leaving few questions unanswered.
As Mr.Rao pointed out we are eager to learn a lot but with limited resources it takes our breath out. but we won't give it up.
Thanks for the opportunity for sharing my opinion with you
On reading the article I can't help admitting that access to technology in Ukrainian schools varies from no tech to low tech. Fortunately, the latter prevails. In our school we have 6-7 classrooms equipped with a computer and a smart board + projector (all belong to middle and high school), 2 classrooms fully-equipped and used for Computer Science (high school again). We envisage another problem: the absence of the English classroom at primary school. We have to teach anywhere at school. A class is split into 3 groups: one of them stays in their study, and two others go to occupy another studies where children left for choreography or PE. Last year we had to teach English in a change-room adjoining to the assembly hall. We decorated it with posters from coursebooks, brought in old desks and chairs and kept it tidy after performances held in the assembling hall. I think warmly about the teacher who got a loan for a car, but managed to sell it and buy computers for his class as well as of Siberian teacher who risked his life to perform his duties. Their deeds are worth admiring. Generally, I consider them to be real teachers, because people are their greatest concern and it should be like this. As for me, I'm hungry for using technologies in teaching, however in terms of our school I often have to bring my laptop at least to make an air for them.... and immediately I see my kids' eyes shining with happiness.
So if Ukraine is in the Access English Project (isn't it?) I hope for the best in the nearest future. :)
Thanks very much for your comment and your thoughts. You school seems pretty well-equipped in terms of technology, though I note that the English teachers end up teaching in a changing room next to the assembly hall some of the time! I'm willing to bet that the science, maths, etc., teachers get to use the nicely-equipped rooms. Am I right?
You're not alone in having to bring your own equipment to school - I know a lot of teachers aroudn the world who go to classes with their own cassette players, CD players, laptops, etc, because the school doesn't (or can't) provide them and the teachers feel they are useful. Things are changing, just perhaps not as quickly as some of us would like.
The Access English project covers a large part of south-east Asia at the moment, so I'm afraid the Ukraine is not involved, but with teachers like you around I'm sure you can make a difference in small ways which will add up to a much larger whole.
Thanks for your reply.its not for us alone we are writing about the practical difficulties of limited resources,it is for the majority of teachers’ community.
To be technologically sound is not a vary hard task but we are arguing that it takes more time to learn and use it efficiently, in countries with limited economical and technical resources.