Saturday, December 13, 2014

Notes from the Mayul School, 2014

Part of the reason for my temporarily silence within the ELT community on Twitter and on the blogs was due to a temporary return to paper-and-pen notebook reporting during my return to Tibet (you can find a description of my first trip here). What follows is a summary of my experience, as I am just beginning to sort through books of notes and organize my thoughts. I have so many ideas about what this signifies, both for the Mayul school as well as larger implications for the application of this model in different contexts.

Having traveled to Golok once before (I was the English teacher at the Mayul school in the summer of 2011), I felt much more confident traveling there for the second time knowing what to expect. That being said, the goals of this visit were completely different. Rather than teaching students in the school, I would be setting up a computer lab the school, as well as installing and implementing a program using language learning software. Because so much of the project will depend on situations and outcomes once we are on the ground in Golok, there was not too much I could do to prepare beforehand. I focused for the most part on familiarizing myself as much as possible with the computers and with the Mythware program

As I only had a total of three weeks including travel, time was limited. We planned to order the software and computers in plenty of time for delivery in China, which I would then pick up and bring to Golok with me. I would set up the computers in a newly designated computer lab at the school, and install Mythware on each student computer, as well as two teacher computers. I would then train both teachers and students in how to use the program.

Of course, things in Golok move at a different pace than they do in the West, and nothing turned out exactly the way we expected it to. Language and cultural differences meant that each task involved extra consideration and often challenges.
The computers arrived later than we expected, and once they arrived it turned out that all of the instructions and content on the computers was in Chinese. Additionally, there were a lot of concerns about security and proper usage that needed to be addressed before we could move forward.

When the computers arrived in Golok, I immediately got to work setting them up. Once I charged and plugged in the first one, I discovered that not only were the instructions and packaging in Chinese, but the computer itself. All text, icons, and content were in Chinese characters. I don’t speak Chinese, and unfortunately no one at the school was familiar enough with written Chinese to translate the technical language on the Intel computers.
Having a degree of familiarity with basic Windows computer interface was hugely beneficial, as I was able to guess and predict with some certainty which buttons should be clicked and options should be selected, and after about 5 hours of troubleshooting I was able to log in and set up the first computer. Two days later, all 40 computers were set up with usernames and passwords, and were set up and ready to go.

We worked for some time leading up to the trip, considering and discussing different possibilities to maximize the effectiveness of computers for language learning at the Mayul school. We had decided on Mythware, which had been designed specifically for the Intel computers we would be using, and came highly recommended for use in similar contexts.
Mythware came highly recommended and proved to be perfect for use in a setting in which technology of this kind was being introduced to most of the users for the first time. Additionally, Mythware proved to be a valuable tool for classroom management, one that will be useful to instructors looking to regulate or manage use among a large group of students. The software has a very simple and easy-to-use interface. Support for the software included tons of user manuals and online instructional videos. For all of these reasons, Mythware seemed to be an excellent choice for use at the Mayul school. Use and implementation, however, do require and assume a certain degree of experience with computers, which not all teachers, and certainly not all students, had.
During my three weeks at the Mayul school I was able to install Mythware on all 40 computers, set up usernames and passwords, and link the student and teacher computers to work together cohesively. I downloaded all user guides and instructional videos, and left detailed and translated instructions with the two teachers who received the most training in use and implementation of the software.

In addition to our primary goals of setting up the computers and installing the software, several other issues came up once I was in Golok that demonstrated the need for additional tasks to support the project.
Once I saw just how little most of the teachers knew about computers, it became clear that additional language training would be needed to support their learning. For this reason, we developed several resources with essential vocabulary, translated in both English and Tibetan, to support both teachers and students in basic tasks when learning how to use the computers. We did the same thing with a user guide and instructions for these essential tasks, both using the computers and the software. We also compiled a list of useful websites that we thought would be useful to those learning and working with computers for the first time.
An additional concern was with security and appropriate use of the computers. Bringing technology, and especially internet access, to a place where there previously was none bring a host of other issues, and we wanted to make sure that appropriate and educational use was not only promoted but enforced. To do this, I worked closely with the teachers and administration at the school to compile a list of rules and guidelines to support appropriate computer lab use. We made copies of the computer lab “Code of Conduct” that came out of those discussions, and made it clearly visible at all computer desks in the lab. Additionally, we went over these guidelines with all teachers, encouraging them to do the same with students.

Despite all of the challenges that came up during the project, I was incredibly proud to have accomplished those three primary goals: the setup of the computers, the installation of the software, and the development of guidelines for their most effective use.  Having set up all necessary accounts for computer and Mythware use, and trained the primary teachers to the best of my ability gave me confidence that we had made an excellent start in the development of this program. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Thank you for the discussion

Yesterday I stayed late at work. Classes were finished, students and teachers had gone home. I sat up front at the reception desk to keep an eye on things while I wrapped up a couple of end-of-day tasks. 

One of our students came in, he was waiting for a friend of his. He went to sit down on a bench in the reception area, and we made some small talk, until we reached that moment in the conversation when the pleasantries had come and gone. There is always that turning point, when you can smile sheepishly and turn back to whatever you were doing, making the obvious indication that the conversation was just small talk and nothing more, or you can continue, not knowing where it will go. Even though it was late and just about time to lock up, I leaned back in my chair and blew right past that tedious moment. 

I asked the student about his upcoming transfer to another language school, and we talked about what he hoped to gain there. From there we discussed a certain skill area which is especially challenging for students from his language background, and I opened up a website on a topic that I thought would be useful and interesting for him. He told me how much he was looking forward to going home for the holidays, and told me about his siblings and their experience learning English. He expressed shock and interest when I told him about my experience as an only child, and we agreed happily that it is just as important to choose the family you surround yourself with, rather than to be born into it. He told me that even though he was transferring, he considered our school to be home, and us to be part of that family. 

Shortly, his friend arrived and as he stood to leave he turned back to say "Ava, thank you for the discussion." I thanked him in return, and we said our goodbyes. I drove home with a happy heart.