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The proof is in the (remote) pudding


A UK company is plugging a teaching skills gap by using videoconferencing technology to deliver English lessons to state school children in South America, Irena Barker reports

When the pupils at the Nucleo de Convivencia Menino Jesus supplementary school attend English classes, they never quite know what to expect.

One day, these underprivileged 12- to 16- year-olds from Sao Paulo could be looking at that day’s print edition of the London Metro newspaper. Another, they could be ‘sharing’ a traditional English trifle with their teacher and learning about the difference between a meringue and an Eton mess.

It’s all a far cry from the regular English lessons they attend at their main school, where grammar and reading exercises are the order of the day. And what’s even more unusual is that their main English teacher, Amy Bentley, isn’t even physically present – instead, she gives lessons from a pleasant office in north-east.

London via the latest videoconferencing technology.

A special ‘visualiser’ camera allows Amy to share resources, such as maps, books or typically British items like apple pie or a scotch egg, with her pupils, who see it on a big TV screen.

Amy can adjust her own view on her monitor to check what the pupils are seeing at the same time as gauging their reactions. She is able to control a camera in the Sao Paulo classroom to zoom in on individual students too. Lessons are recorded and can be replayed for training.

Amy is supported by Mariana Bonotto (see below) a state-school English teacher who volunteers at the NGO and is physically present ‘on the ground’. Mariana is on hand to translate into Portuguese when necessary and to facilitate pair and group work.

Mariana also sees the lessons – which began a year ago – as an opportunity to develop her own practice.

She told the Gazette, ‘This is also in-service training for me. I’m here learning British English, I’m learning new vocabulary, learning new teaching techniques, helping the teacher. I’m also seeing a good model of a class, so I have ideas to use afterwards.’

She describes her working relationship with the teachers in the UK as ‘a partnership’ which brings ‘a really big reward’.

But teachers, of course, are not the only ones to benefit. Although some remote learning technologies have a poor reputation (we have all experienced the joy of a rickety Skype connection) Mariana says the pupils have warmed to their lessons immensely, partly because the quality of audio and video is so good.

She adds, ‘It’s really interesting that in the first class they are a bit frightened of the technology, then they start getting attached to the teacher and they start to ask a lot of questions. They are interested in the teacher and the questions come like “Do you have a motorbike?” – nothing connected to the class, they want to be talking to the teacher.

‘They really feel they are learning. They feel they have much more than their friends at the regular schools because they have the chance to speak – they are talking. They are really forming relationships with the teacher, and they want to meet her in person.’

The idea of remote English language teaching using video conference technology is not new, and is an increasingly popular and economical way for people to try to improve their skills, especially adults.

But it is rare to find an English teacher in the UK remotely addressing – and interacting with – a thirty-strong class of school children in a state-funded school abroad, following a curriculum and timetable.

“Students who fail their Ielts have to go through the upset and heartache of losing the place ”

British company Video Conferencing for Global Learning (VCfGL), which is behind the lessons in Sao Paulo, is also working with the Ceibal en Inglés project in Uruguay, delivering lessons in primary schools there. In just three years, the company has reached 6,000 pupils in total and hopes to expand further.

VCfGL’s founder and executive director, Mina Patel, believes remote teaching using sophisticated video conferencing technology is set to be the key to improving education around the world and addressing shortages of specialist teachers.

The former science teacher told the Gazette, ‘[This is not about] teachers in England taking over the roles of other teachers, it’s about our teachers giving help and support. We are a cost-efficient resource for them.

‘I would like to extend our work with South American countries and more parts of Brazil, Asia and Europe – wherever there’s a need and a shortage of teachers.

Some countries, she said, already had the infrastructure, but did not realise what was possible in terms of remote teaching and learning. And for anyone doubting that teaching in this way can be as good as face to face, Mina puts up a strong defence.

‘The technology doesn’t stop the creativity in the lesson. We think harder. For example, we had a lesson on germination and we labelled the parts of a plant, we germinated the seeds and compared seed growth in both countries.

‘We [in the UK] have some of the most talented teachers in Europe. The way we teach is very different the way they do in South America or other parts of the world.

We have pair work, group work – the pedagogy is totally different. The teachers [in other countries] welcome it and enjoy working in partnership.’

To back up what they are doing, Mina asked teacher-educator Warren Kidd from the University of East London to carry out a qualitative study on her teachers’ experience of remote teaching.

Dr Kidd observed lessons, did interviews with teachers and ran focus groups over a three-month period, looking at how the teachers felt about their practice and the ways in which it differed from ‘normal’ teaching.

He says remote teaching could be characterised as ‘similar to the manufacture and broadcast of live television’ – with the teacher taking on the roles of the producer, director and camera operator.

‘They are kind of director and the performer at the same time,’ he says.

The study showed that the presence of the camera didn’t seem to affect the building of a rapport, according to Warres, who adds, ‘If there’s a global teacher shortage, it seems that practices like this are sustainable and scaleable.’

‘A Mixed Methods Ethnography of Remote Video Conference Teaching’ by Dr Warren Kidd.

‘It’s not just English, it’s opening up their view of their world’

English teacher Mariana Bonotto volunteers at the Nucleo de Convivencia Menino Jesus school.

This NGO offers after-school activities to children from poor backgrounds whose parents work full-time. They take part in sport and ballet and are offered remotely taught English lessons with a focus on fluency and speaking.

Mariana told the Gazette, ‘We wanted to provide the kids with more possibilities, they don’t see far beyond their neighbourhood – they don’t go out very often. When we realised we could bring London inside the classroom – it’s not just English, it’s also this cultural input, this opening up of opportunities – the kids could think about the possibility of going abroad.

‘We want them to learn English, of course, but it’s not just English, it’s opening up their view of their world. This really matches what the NGO wants to do.

‘When you teach English here, it is much more grammar and translation and some reading techniques. It doesn’t really focus on fluency.

‘It is cheaper to do video conferencing and better to be taught with someone who is in constant contact with life in the UK. ‘It’s more personal, more authentic – the teacher brings her reality. It’s really interactive. We really feel as if she is here. We might ask her what she has for breakfast! The technology also makes the pupils more engaged and motivated to learn, Mariana says.’

‘During their first class, they want to have fun with the camera. They really have fun with it. They focus on it.’

Mariana Bonotto, is a state-school teacher of English language in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil.