Thursday, 31 January 2013

UK India Opportunites in English Language

I attended the British Council's UK India Opportunities in English Language Forum yesterday.

My head is still spinning from the numbers, and just how huge the numbers to do with India are. The state of Bihar alone is training 67,000 English teachers. The state of Marharashtra (it includes Mumbai) pays for 14 million free school meals a day, and gives out 16 million free text books each academic year. In total, India aims to 'upskill' half a million young people in skills including English.

The English and Foreign Languages University ("Eflu") has a new vice-chancellor, Prof. Sunaina Singh

There are opportunities aplenty for UK institutions to collaborate on research projects into "Indian ELT", there will be more details out soon in EL Gazette and via its Twitter feed (@ELGazette).

The other news (to me, anyway) is that India is now on track to meet its Millennium Goal for the number of children starting school by 2015. Even though starting school is not the same as completing an education, it's amazing that any country had achieved any Millennium Goals at all.

Rajendra Darda, Minister for Schools for the state of Maharashtra. He studied journalism at the London College of Printing in the 1970s

Dr Rukmini Banerji of ASER Centre, which does the largest annual survey of English proficiency among Indian schoolchildren

Sanjiv Kaura of Times of India described the world's biggest circulation English newspaper's vast Teach India volunteer initiative to teach spoken English for employability.

UK Minister for Skills Matthew Hancock (right, arms folded,) described as "India-tastic" his visit to India and the Indian delegation's visit to the UK over the previous fortnight.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Rise of the Korean English-teaching robots?

An update on an article that first appeared in EL Gazette in April 2011

Matt Salusbury reports on Korea's next generation of EFL educators

Rough sketch of a Roti teaching robot, by the author

South Korea has set itself up as a global centre of excellence in robotics, with the government funding robot research. Machine-gun-equipped robot guards patrol the demilitarized zone, the tense border with North Korea. At 14.6 billion won (£8.12 million) each, robot border guards can identify whether a soldier is a North Korean infiltrator and whether they're surrendering. Somewhat less terrifyingly, EFL teaching robots are now infiltrating the country's classrooms.

As with most new education technology, finding appropriate ways to use the technology is more important than the hardware itself. (Many EFL teachers will recall being told, 'You have to use the interactive whiteboard in your lesson because the inspector's coming.') Current EFL robot trials suggest Korea's educators have found a workable application for teaching robots - allowing a native-speaker teacher in an office somewhere to 'visit' EFL classrooms to support non-native teachers. One aim is to provide remote support to teachers in provincial cities, drawing on the wider base of teaching skills in Seoul.

The latest Korean robo-teacher is Roti, a Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist)-developed 'telepresence unit' deployed in schools in the cities of Masan and Daejon. A video of Roti at work seen by the Gazette shows what is basically a TV monitor on the end of a pole, borne around n a set of wheels. The TV monitor can swivel around to face students, and on the screen is the face of the native speaker EFL teacher, who converses with the class while the robot walks around interacting wit the students, a Korean teacher and the classroom whiteboard.

As well as Roti there's the small penguin-shaped Engkey robot, another Kaist product. Some 36 of these were deployed in Korean schools last year. There's also a stand-alone version of Engkey with no human controller, which instead uses voice recognition to help students practise English pronunciation, particularly useful for that boring reinforcement work that language learning requires. Engkey comes ith optional male or female voices - thoug the female proven more effective in teaching. In one lesson demonstrated to Korea Times, Engkey told a student, 'Not good this time! You need to focus more on your accent. Let's try again.' Shy youn learners often find robots easier to talk to than daunting native speaker teachers.

Robots such as Engkey and iRobi (which takes the class register, leads nursery school children in songs and reads to them) will be in every Korean kindergarten by 2013 and every Korean school by 2018. Kaist's roboticists caution against leaving the robots to look after the kids for too long because the children may develop 'attachment disorders'.

Korea seems to have got it right by using robots as an add-on teaching assistant to enhance the effectiveness of native speaker teachers - in short supply - collaborating with real-life Korean Teflers. The nightmare of a Terminator-style rise of the machines in EFL is still a long way off, but teachers should perhaps be alarmed by claims for the next phase.

The Hyundai Research Institute's Kim Shin-kwan predicted last year in the New York Times that robo-Teflers will eventually 'evolve into stand-alone teachers which do not need human guidance', possibly putting the estimated 30,000 native-speaker Teflers in Korea out of a job. Kaist's Engkey team leader added that Engkey will 'mature' enough to completely replace English teachers in 'three to five years'.

Kent Holiday, CEO of Eleutian, a company that teaches via internet video-conferencing links to classes in China, Korea and Japan using state certified US public school teachers, corresponded with me in January 2013. In Holiday's view, the English-teaching 'robots' that glide around Korean classrooms are 'a great marketing story for Korea but in reality it is not working'. Instead, 'students - and more so parents - want their children studying when possible with a US teacher.' An article based on an interview with Holiday will appear in the forthcoming (April 2013 IATEFL conference special) EL Gazette.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Chasing shadows – London Cryptozoology Club's "Tunbridge Wells Bigfoot" expedition

Investigating a Tunbridge Wells mystery

In November last year, there were widespread news reports of a sighting of what became known as the Tunbridge Wells Bigfoot, a roaring, black hairy figure "eight feet tall" with red eyes that startled an eyewitness walking on The Common at night. London Cryptozoology Club decided to investigate.

It should be noted that we went to Tunbridge Wells with a very sceptical view of this so-called "Tunbridge Wells Bigfoot" (TWB) phenomenon. We were particularly sceptical of an online posting by "Greham S," who claimed that a courting couple on a bench in The Common had witnessed the "Ape-Man" back in World War Two. Greham S left no other identifiers, and didn't give his source. There was also said to be an encounter with the "Kentish Apeman" by Territorial Army soldiers in 1991 at Bluebell Hill, Kent, which they saw off by throwing stones at it. We were not expecting to find TWB, we felt that the answers, if any, were more likely to be in what they diplomatically call the "pyscho-social realm".

"Do Well, Doubt Not!" Motto on bridge near Tunbridge Wells station (click on the image to enlarge)

Our plans, such as they were, mostly involved going to the pub and asking locals if they'd seen anything odd. Sitting around the pub was particularly high on our list of priorities.

Light snow over Wellington Rocks

So myself, "Other Matt", Rosie and Dewey set off on a January morning, and (mis)adventures already came our way before we'd even hit the platform at (Royal) Tunbridge Wells. One of our number caused us to miss a train with a complicated transaction involving getting a few quid off his ticket on the basis of his Oyster season ticket, and I left my bag on the train and had to jump back in and get it before the doors closed. That's how intrepid we are in the London Cryptozoological Club!

Wellington Rocks on Tunbridge Wells Common

Someone had come all the way from Brighton to run his radio-controlled all terrain cars over Wellington Rocks

Sophisticated Metropolitan city slickers that we are, we naively imagined that Tunbridge Wells Common would be some well-manicured Home Counties park with beds full of flowers in orderly rows, and perhaps a boating lake or something. Google Maps didn't really indicate just how wild it is either. In my naivety I half expected to bump into prolific letter-writer Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

It turns out The Common is a 200-acre wilderness, with bogs and spooky dead trees and three rock formations – Wellington Rocks, beloved of BMX bandits – High Rocks and Toad Rocks (we didn't get to see the last one). It was extraordinarily bleak, not the sort of landscape I'd associate with the Home Counties. There was even a mysterious disused railway running through the woods on The Common.

An uphill struggle

After about an hour of up hill and down dale, along Hungershall Park (Hunger shall lead us to the pub!) and Cabbage Stalk Lane, we finally made it to the Beacon pub. On the way, we talked to one dog-walker whose little dogs were shivering in the cold, and when we said we were looking for Bigfoot he joked that we must have been to the pub already.

Winding roads on the Common

The excellent Beacon pub – near High Rocks - has in a stain glass window the coat of arms of the Harrison family, with hedgehogs on it (herrison in French) and two golden crescent moons with red in the middle. While some of us felt they might be something to do with the red eyes on the TWB, the waitress said, "We call them stuffed olives." Over drinks and food, we speculated on the rock formations and various "Stone Tape" theories about geological formations and faults having an influence on the human brain, making people see things.

Hedgehogs and "stuffed olives" (red eyes?) on the Harrison coat of arms (click on the image to enlarge)

There followed a brisk walk across The Common and back to the station, as it was getting dark and we did not want to be out on the Common in the middle of a winter's night. A follow-up expedition involving a night vigil was suggested as we took the train back to Charring Cross.

Night manoeuvres on the Common

The previous evening, I'd emailed Neil Arnold, the go-to guy for all things strange and cryptozoological in Kent, about our outing. The morning after our trip out of town, I got this email from him:

"Hi Matt, there is no Tunbridge Wells Bigfoot and I've had to spend the last few months trying to tell so many papers etc this. I have a piece in next month's FT [Fortean Times] regarding it. The report in question was dubious to say the least, and not sure why anyone would go chasing shadows around TW. The common is relatively small. All this has been investigated by myself over two years ago after reports of a monkey on the loose around 1949. I've just had published a book called Haunted Tunbridge Wells.Regards, neil."

Oh well, chasing shadows it may have been, but a fun time was had by all.

A strange, dark, vaguely human shape looms out of the dark on the Common!

London Cryptozoology Club investigate the Wellington Rocks

Text and photos copyright Matt Salusbury