Myanmar Update

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank is away, I am staying at his apartment in the Pansodong area of Yangon, waiting for the next session of teacher training. Today marks the first third of my six weeks here. Also the first time I have seen the sun on this trip. Two weeks in and we have finished sessions in Bago (monastery near Yangon, in the jungle) and in Sittwe, in Rakhine State near the Bangladeshi border. Of the two Sittwe (pronounced sit-way in Yangon, but sight-way locally) was the most successful.

We had 42 high school English teachers for 4 days, 5 hours a day (including lunch). Rakhine State is what the Burmese called Arrakan after conquering them in 1787. They are similar to Okinawa in that they have a rich heritage, but very little support (and lots of control) from the central government. They have a different language and different customs, along with different food from the Burmese. The Brits called the country Burma because the ethnic group around Yangon had that name. They pretty much ignored the other 129 ethnic groups. That continues to a certain degree.

This lack of support means that the acceptance rate for high school grads into university is the lowest among all states in Myanmar. The Education Minister of the region hopes that our training can help teachers raise entrance exam scores for students.

The classrooms were hot, sticky and noisy. We occasionally had to stop classes or do writing or reading when the pounding rain on the roof made conversation impossible. But the students were really motivated and most were open to new ideas. There have been rumblings in the Ministry about changing the entrance exam away from one that tested memory more than language. Teachers are ready. It was good timing.

Games in Class

I have two games lined up for classes when they begin next month. I have been reading and exploring on ways to up the experiential level in a boring class setting.

Classcraft looked cool at first. Making classroom behavior into a group-based RPG fit right into my small group structure for teaching and interaction.  I considered my audience of college women and started to doubt whether they were familiar with MMORPGs. They could always ask their brothers, or even fathers. I asked in my class and happily about 25% (6/24) had played a similar type game on their Playstation or phone before. I was also wary about the thing being just a juiced up behaviorist trick, with the gold stars wrapped up in a pretty package. Not after the research. It is used in 20,000 schools. Granted, most of those are Jr. hi and HS, but close enough. The features lead to team-building and if my students can do that in English, perfect. I can build in using English as part of the settings as well. There are random events which spice up things, and make them more real. The only thing that still worries me is the reliance on competition, of which my students don’t have much of. Yet. Good for my first-year speaking and listening class.

Fantasy Geopolitics is a game to stimulate conversation about the world, about geography, and mostly about the news. I know my students are not familiar with Fantasy Football, but the concept I think they will latch onto quite easily. Instead of making up a team of football players at the beginning of the season, students choose a “team” or collection of countries (for my class, each student can pick 6). Then each class thereafter they can trade countries instead of players during the weekly “draft” at the beginning of class. The neat thing is that the countries are all rated by how much they appear in the New York Times. So instead of getting a hot running back for your team, you will be looking to see which countries have wars, revolutions, economic upheavals or other reasons to get in the news. After the first 3 weeks or so, goes the research, students start looking for signs that a country is ready to burst onto the newsfront, an embroiling scandal or whatnot. Each week, students are then rated on how much their exposure goes up or down. This means students need to keep reading each week. We use Newsela for graded reading access to news, but students can also look at authentic headlines in the NYTimes. The developer started with a Kickstarter campaign, but now the game resides at FANschool.org. They have other version of politics in general, and one for elections, but my students need geopolitics more.

Both of these games were featured in one of the best games for education books I have read in years. The Game Believes in You by Greg Toppo has a dozen chapters, each using an exemplary software to show how games belong in and improve education. I will show my colleague who teaches English Literature the endless runner game Stride and Prejudice. Still in development is Eoghan (pronounced owen) Kidney’s VR (virtual reality) adaptation of Jame’s Joyce’s Ulysses. This has been in development for 3 years since getting money on FundIt, similar to Kickstarter, and it looks like a group at Boston U is starting up something similar called Joycestick (get it?). We can learn empathy and great storytelling through Inanimate Alice. Another way to center your thinking and do literature at the time is the game Walden, a game, now out in Apha ($18). We live in Thoreau’s world and learn to become more self-reliant and negotiate society on our own terms. Finally, we learn how to throw trucks and run like a chicken using our brains and an EEG collar as the only interface. What this really does is work like Ritalin or Adderall (the games are still in trial) to focus attention.

Each of these games is an example of a different kind of software, each addressing a different kind of learning. The book is highly recommended. As soon as I finish reading the book, off I am to develop the first two to fit into my class, and have fun with the others.

Homework Exchange

I am at a tech conference for teachers (Japan Moodle Moot) and over lunch I was throwing out ideas to see if they resonated with others who use Moodle for teaching. Gordon Bateson was answering follow-up questions about his morning presentation on Badges.

This conference follows a week where the faculty admin from our Boston campus came to explain how the accreditation process goes on in the US. They use SMART (Business guru Peter Drucker’s 5 criteria for setting goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound (with a time frame). The course content is broken down into tiny bits, each with its own set of standards (actually, there are 4 sets, as Boston breaks the students into 4 levels). This requires a lot of work, but does force people (teachers and admin) to clearly define what they want to go on in class.

One of the interesting admonitions from the consultants in Boston was to make sure that time was not the determining factor, only one of 5 parts. Also not about how much work is done, but how much learning gets done. I applaud this.

It is looking like this kind of goal-setting (curricula and syllabi) are coming to Japan. Word around the Ministry of Education is that it is the next big thing after “active learning” runs its course.

I was put in charge of our sadly neglected self-study center, repurposed as an unofficial event room called the English Room. We need regular activities next year (starting in April).

With all these ideas, and Blockchain (technology behind BitCoin) applied to Education, I came up with an idea. Homework Exchange.

It seems with our students doing so much of the same kind of homework, it gets less efficient. It also adds to the teacher load. An Exchange among department members (espcially in our language learning skills courses) would give students an opportunity to do things with other students outside their groups with teachers doing stuff they are good it. Here is how it works.

I like playing board games. I set up Monday lunch as Gamer’s Lunch. Any student who comes can get recorded. If a teacher assigns that as a kind of speaking homework for their speaking class, she gets credited. But, for a teacher to assign an activity, they in turn have to offer an activity of their own. Say, watching a 10 minute video and leading a discussion. You build a series of activities, students get a lot more practice and teachers share the load.

There are a lot of logistics to work out, but it does satisfy the Ministry’s current guidelines for homework, 45 minutes a week per credit hour. (Unrealistic in itself, with students carrying a load of 24 90-minute classes, plus the homework, that makes for a 54 hour work week.) But hey, they might have some fun for at least part of it instead of doing fill in the blanks.

I see this starting as a face-to-face thing, then moving from a small group of volunteers to the faculty in the department, then across departments, at which time it will need to go online. Fortunately, tomorrow has a presentation on sharing activities in Moodle, at 9 AM. Takes an hour to get to the conference. Time for bed.

Teachers: Now a Working Class Profession

magister“From the Sage on the Stage to the Guide on the Side” is now about 20 years old. A little shopworn, but still a…how shall I put it….goal, of some teachers and how they adapt to technology. It is the gist of an Atlantic article by Michael Godsey, a K-12 teacher witnessing the “progress” right before his eyes. Another (and earlier!) way to look at it is John Higgins’ differentiation of teacher as Magister, the German cloak-clad lecturer, and the pedagogue, a poor wise man following around the son of a rich client to explain things to him. Find this in articles from 1983 and 1984, but also in his book from 1988.

pedagogueI have been in meetings all day, discussing the curriculum for next year. One area of contention is control of the part-time teachers (adjunct staff). I felt a palpable want, almost a need, to put restraints on behavior to standardize content among students and classes. And I think that is just because we can. Some adjunct staff even prefer to come in, teach the text, and leave. Labor rules here in Japan now promote this system of itinerant labor by capping any part-time contract at 5 years, requiring the university to make them full time, or let them go. So now we have churn.

But the attitude toward teachers (no, not adjunct staff), even though most are highly qualified to deliver a quality course, even when asked to provide their own materials. And yet…that desire to make sure they are doing not just anything they want is still there.

Which brings me to an article at one of my favorite websites, Hybrid Pedagogy. John Rees asks How long will your class remain yours? Here is the first paragraph.

The late labor historian David Montgomery wrote famously about workers’ control in America during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. “At times the story involved little more than silent and opaque resistance to the demands and innovations of employers,” he suggested in 1979. “At other times, workers in skilled crafts adopted and fought to enforce collective work rules through which they regulated human relations on the job and wrestled with the chronic menace of unemployment.” When I first read those words, I was in graduate school. I never thought they’d actually apply to me. Now, I believe that the working class in academia at all levels of employment are beginning to move from the first set of times that Montgomery described to the second.

He goes on to paint a very dark picture, but does leave the doorway open a crack with the following: “However, the key takeaway here should be that every professor should adopt only those tools that best fit their style of teaching (perhaps including parts of the LMS if they meet a particular need).”

The problem is, that most teachers today don’t know how to use many tech tools for teaching and thus will be at the mercy of those who do, the programmers and instructional designers. So if you don’t start putting some online tools in your toolbox, and learn how to use them in a class, or even outside a class, online, you will have to learn tools assigned to you.

I had my last graduate school class of the academic year (we start in April, end in February), and my student was worried after we went through the Atlantic article (link above). She was worried that she would be out of a job. I told her first, not in Japan. The horizon of change you can see in the US, but here, not even a hint. She is still trying to get a projector and laptop for her high school classroom, all she has now is a blackboard. Second, language learning is like learning a sport, or a musical instrument. Really difficult to put online. So we are safe, as long as we learn how to adapt the tech to us, before the admins try to make us adapt to the tech.