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Tracy Swallow :: Blog :: e-learning: hopes and fears

September 21, 2008

In February of this year the British Council sent a rather frazzled Academic Manger to London on the Management Development Programme Level 2 (leveling up in the British Council isn’t half as fun as World of Warcraft , incidentally - but it does serve the same purpose: you get access to cool new skills, the chance to do battle with more fearsome monsters and it opens up new realms for you to explore.

Most of the content of the course is forgotten (accreditation, performance management, recruitment blah blah blah) but one day stands out as we visited international house and looked at* their moodle courses.

This was a turning point / epiphany / breakthrough for three reasons.

1)       I stayed awake AND paid attention for the whole session because the moodle platform is not dissimilar (at      least from the perspective of the admin control panel) from my IPB discussion board, so suddenly the world came into focus and made sense – I was hearing useful information.

2)       it made me wish I had applied for a job with IH instead of the BC and

3)       It gave me the desire to learn something new.

So (in a roundabout way which involved lots of course-googling and option-pondering) here I am.

I see the M.Sc in E-learning as a chance to combine what I love with what I do.  In my free time I am webprolfic: I engage in text based role play games, have my own online community (with a shiney new wiki), I blog and also appreciate the blogs of others and I spend far too much time on facebook.  I love it, it excites me.

the British Council, Chiang Mai

What I do is teach English as Foreign language (actually I use this phrase as it is familiar however it is terribly unfashionable now – we prefer the term ESOL: English for Speakers of Other Languages).  Or more accurately I manage the teachers.  I currently manage a small (15 teachers) British Council outpost in Northern Thailand.  It is lovely and slow-paced and it is boring me to death.  Yet even here we have Interactive Whiteboards and a 10 computer self-access centre – the provincial Thai kids who learn with us are a thousand times more technologically savvy than the (predominantly) middle aged men who teach them.

I love my job but I sometimes feel it stagnate around me.  Not just being here but being part of a huge slow moving behemoth of an organization like the British Council.  By the time we commit to a change the change proposed has become an anachronism.  Yet it is our organizational commitment to be a world authority in teaching English.

I wonder how many organizations are like us? Aspiring to a world they don’t really understand, with a board of directors (in our case the British government) who believe that bringing their people into the 21st century is simply a matter of teaching them a few new key-strokes.  When what is needed is a profound culture change. 

This is the crux of my concern – not only for the course but also for my (potentially) new career.  That there is too much to learn, our aims are too wild, we want too much and yet we don’t understand whether or not it will be good for us.  That we will fritter away resources on technological white elephants while there are still children (just down the road from me) who don’t have notebooks and pencils.

I want to get involved because I love the new technologies available to us, I believe in them, as agents of change socially as well as educationally – but I also want them to be used ethically and sensitively and with a deep understanding of the user behind the interface.

* When I say we went to international house and looked at their moodle courses I must confess that is all we did.  Their server was having an emotional event and so we couldn't access the course online.  So we looked at screenshots on a powerpoint.  This is an illustration of the gulf between our aspirations and our reality.  This gulf (which on a bad day is almost a dichotomy) could probably be a module in itself.

Keywords: discussion boards, EFL, ESOL, IDEL08, moodle

Posted by Tracy Swallow


  1. Hi Tracy

    Congratulations on a very engaging first post!  I laughed out loud at the idea of levelling up.   Do the challenges get harder to?

    So what sort of things are you hoping to get out of the MSc?  Do you have any concerns about the programme?

    I really hear your concern about cultural change and the speed of change.  How much autonomy do you have from 'strategic' management?

    On your comment about technological white elephants, you might be interested in http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves.html

     - just recommended to me this evening by a student in the Online Assessment course - which discusses how educators can get in the way of learning, and what a little technology can do.




    Clara O'SheaClara O'Shea on Tuesday, 23 September 2008, 22:54 BST # |

  2. I am glad you were amused!  The challenges definitely get harder... at least they do if you are doing your job properly.

    So what sort of things are you hoping to get out of the MSc?  Do you have any concerns about the programme?

    I will make another post to answer that, I don't think it would be wise to over tax the comment box this early on in the course :D.

    I will have a look at that link - the British Council came out with a brilliant one a few years ago - Global Village, social networking for schools.  It was pre facebook and it COULD have been facebook (for kids at least).  But it wasn't for 2 reasons I think:

    a)  They made too many rules, they didn't give it the space to grow organically - for example, school x had to register to interact with school y (there is alway the problem of restrictions though when getting kids & teens to interact online - you want to give them the freedom to explore without exposing them to the obvious dangers of webpervs) making it a safe and glorified pen-pal system rather than throwing kids all over the world into a big heap and letting them discover each other.

    b)  They didn't give it enough bandwith... or server space... or tech support... or trialling - so you would take a class into the CALL room and the site would crash, or we couldn't connect to it, or only half of the students had the correct permissions and we would have to play yahoo games for an hour and try again next week

    Wonderful idea, dumped after a year.... thousands and thousands of pounds wasted.


    Tracy SwallowTracy Swallow on Wednesday, 24 September 2008, 09:25 BST # |

  3. Oh wow, I just watched the video and watching those street kids browsing actually had me in tears!  What an inspirational talk!  Lots to think about.  Thank you.

    Tracy SwallowTracy Swallow on Wednesday, 24 September 2008, 09:37 BST # |

  4. My pleasure!  There are lots of very intriguing talks on ted talks - we use it for the Languages course a bit.

    The BC social networking idea could have been a real winner.  Systemic problems, like the limitations an organisation has to work within legally, can be deeply frustrating. 

    *stopping over-taxing comments now*  :) 

    Clara O'SheaClara O'Shea on Wednesday, 24 September 2008, 11:39 BST # |

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