Monday, 2 June 2014

Our New Environment

I have spent the last ten years working in the TEFL field. In that period I feel that I have witnessed some pretty momentous changes and have very much enjoyed watching my job and the resources that accompany it develop exponentially. The evolution of the internet and the rise of mobile technology has changed the landscape in the way we communicate in our everyday lives and also in the way we learn. The idea of the traditional teacher standing at the front of the classroom imparting information to the passive students is now a little outmoded. No longer is the teacher a font of knowledge. No longer is he or she an oracle of knowledge the students could never possibly hope to attain from other sources. The world has changed. Information is far more readily available.  

There is so much information available online and so many modern resources available to students that teachers suddenly find their role open to question. There are countless websites and apps that offer students access to English grammar and vocabulary. Anyone with access to a computer or a smartphone can find breakdowns of every tense, the conjugation of every verb and untold vocabulary groups all at the click of a mouse. They do not need a teacher to write it on the board anymore. The function of the teacher as a conduit of information looks increasingly redundant. 

I am sure we are all aware of the differences technology has made to both teachers and students. I remember in the early part of my career teaching at a state school in China. This was about ten years ago. The classrooms there were still very basic. I used chalk on an old-fashioned blackboard. The students in that class checked words in paper dictionaries that they carried in the school bags - it all sounds rather Dickensian doesn't it? Fast forward to today and even those students in a small town in northeastern China will be looking stuff up on the web and will have electronic dictionaries or translation on their phones. I remember the students listening to me intently. This was not because  I was such a riveting speaker but because I was the only source of English they had. Not anymore. They can go on YouTube or utilise any number of apps to find electronic help. Their need for my explanations of the Present Perfect written in blue and pink chalk is far smaller than it was. 

I also spent a year during the early stages of my career in the hogwans of Korea. I had a little more technology at my disposal there, but the same trend of technological development will also have its impact in that environment. In fact, Korea is leading the way in employing technology where it once used real-life teachers. Because walking-talking teachers are an expensive and often complicated investment, many of the state schools there have taken to using robot teachers to host classes for lower level students. That's right, robots teaching classesI guess it goes without saying that they are not doing high-level conversation classes or teaching complex business English lessons, but they are capable of doing simple phonics and vocabulary classes. This may sound like an academic version of 1984, but in starkly practical teems it is actually a pretty logical step. Why spend money on a human to do something technology can do much cheaper? 

Of course, the robot is not the same as an actual human teacher. That much is obvious. But the situation is representative of teaching in the 21st century. Teachers need to differentiate themselves from electronic sources of information. If real-life teachers do not provide more than the average robot, they are not really worth the investment. If all a teacher does is give information, the robot is a cheaper option that never gets tired, never shows up late and never asks for a pay-rise. This means that if teachers are not careful we could face a Terminator style battle against the machines to keep our jobs.  

Whilst that last point may be a slight exaggeration, the idea of technology marginalizing actual teachers in the classroom should not be discounted and is something every teacher should be considering. I recently read the book 'Think' by Edward de Bono. In the main, I found it a tad dull and outrageously self-aggrandizing. However, he did make one fantastic point. He argued that since almost the entirety of human knowledge is now available online, the teacher is something of a wasted resource if all he/she does is pass information to students. He believes the role of the teacher needs to change. The teacher has got to do something more. This is going to be the crux of my blog. It is going to examine the ways that teachers can offer more. How do we separate ourselves from technology? How do we banish the robots? What makes us different and what can we bring to our students?

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