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On being resourceful...

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This is the first of two articles by Gavin Dudeney for TeachingEnglish, during his month on the site as Guest Writer.

On being resourceful... - speaking article - guest writers

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.

Being resourceful
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:

  • policymakers
  • trainers
  • teachers
  • learners

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!