Sound and vision

30th September 2011 at 01:00
Take a mobile phone, a pair of speakers and #163;50m and you can transform a country's teaching quality. Or so Bangladesh hopes, writes David Rogers

Sounding more like a type of warplane, Bangladesh is what is known as an N-11.

The term was dreamt up by the man behind the much better-known acronym BRICs, which refers to Brazil, Russia, India and China, those countries deemed by the chief economist of investment bank Goldman Sachs, Jim O'Neill, to have the most potential to become the world's largest economies this century.

Mr O'Neill also identified the next best bets - or the Next Eleven, the N-11. To put together this list of countries deemed to have promising outlooks for investment and future growth, Goldman Sachs used a number of criteria such as macroeconomic stability, political maturity and quality of education. Once a country was on it, the positive message it gave to the world was the kind of fillip that most developing nations could only dream of.

It was not all good news, though. The US bank also said Bangladesh was the least developed of the N-11 countries, behind the likes of the Philippines and Nigeria, and had the most distance to make up.

The Bangladeshi government reacted to being bottom of the N-11 pile by setting up an initiative called Vision 2021, a kind of charter for what it hopes the country of 142 million people will look like by that year, when it celebrates its golden jubilee of independence.

Education is, of course, key, and ministers have set themselves the task of eradicating illiteracy while increasing emphasis on science, technology and English language skills. While the target is to dramatically increase the quality of English teaching to 12 million primary-age pupils, much of the focus of Vision 2021 is, innovatively, on the quality of teachers, who have been promised a pay rise.

And this is where English in Action comes in - an extraordinary UK-funded plan to use cutting-edge mobile-phone technology to improve the English of some 102,000 teachers. In short, between now and 2017, UK aid money will be used to help the classroom practitioners improve their English teaching skills with a mobile phone and a pair of speakers.

Costing #163;50 million, English in Action is being bankrolled by the UK Department for International Development, with partners including the BBC World Service Trust and the Open University. The programme preloads 350 audio and video files of between one minute and four minutes of spoken English on to mobile phones that are then distributed across Bangladesh.

The phones also contain 18 development videos for teachers on topics such as "giving instructions" and "doing pair work". They have the capacity to take a pair of speakers that can amplify the sound to typical Bangladeshi class sizes of between 50 and 60 pupils. To equip each teacher with a phone, speakers and memory card costs around #163;60.

One teacher who has already benefited from the initiative during its pilot phase is Keochinglah Marma, who works at the Bonorupa government primary school in the remote area of Rangamati Upazila in eastern Bangladesh. He teaches 50 students in grade 2 and a further 44 in grade 5.

"In my class there was not much interaction between students and me," he says. "My students were not attentive in my class, but now, being with English in Action, I know different teaching techniques which I can implement in my classroom."

As well as the mobile phone and speakers, the initiative is providing teachers like Mr Marma with printed materials such as posters, flash cards and activity guides. All the English on the audio files is spoken by local Bangladeshi people to help pupils learn a realistic kind of English - the government wants to avoid turning out a generation of Eliza Doolittles.

"I feel proud when my students say good morning and goodbye to me in English," Mr Marma says.

The man behind the initiative is Christopher Walsh, a senior lecturer in education at the Open University, who has just finished trialling the technology with 700 teachers in Bangladesh. With tributes such as Mr Marma's, the pilot was considered a success and right now the initiative is snapping up 5,000 mobile phones, which will be distributed later this year. The scheme will begin in earnest at the beginning of 2012. In all, 12,500 mobiles will be littered across the country.

Mr Walsh only settled on the right phone, the Nokia C1-01, late last year, when he discovered it could take a Micro SD card - essentially a memory card - that was capable of storing audio and video files: perfect for what the initiative required.

And he says the hiring of locals to speak English on the audio files is crucial. As strange as it might seem, many of the teachers were previously teaching English in their native tongue - Bangla. "Many of the teachers who teach English in Bangladesh are not proficient in it," he says. "The tests show that these audio files are starting to help teachers change their teaching practice.

"Before, teachers were using the grammar translation method. English in Action's teacher professional development, both face-to-face and via mobile phone, uses the communicative language teaching approach, which is much more interactive and about acquiring proficiency in speaking and listening through games, group work and pair work."

Helping each other

The English in Action project is one of a rash of initiatives that attempts to use emerging technology to transform education across the developing world. But Professor Stephen Heppell, who specialises in new media learning at Bournemouth University, says schemes like this one in Bangladesh only work because they thrive on everybody helping each other - rather than being dictated to.

"The schemes that fail are hugely top-down and lock people into a hierarchical mode," he says. "You need to include learning professionals to design the methods, but projects like this are about helping people to help themselves."

He says that such projects do not actually require many teachers and suggests this scheme could work in areas of the UK where literacy levels are poor. "There are lots of people such as parents and grandparents who could improve literacy. At school, older kids rarely sit down with younger kids and help them learn."

The #163;50 million question is: will the project in Bangladesh work? And will it help the country clamber up the N-11 rankings? So far, it seems to be doing something right.

"By using these materials and getting support from English in Action, I have changed myself and my classroom environment," says Mr Marma. "Now I am able to speak in English and my students are able to understand my instructions."


As well as teaching resources such as the mobile phone, teachers in Bangladesh receive peer support that sees two teachers from each school pair up and provide each other with support and feedback.

English in Action says this aspect is critical in overcoming isolation, particularly in rural schools, and is in contrast to the use of "champions" - individual teachers who are sent away for face-to-face training and are then expected to champion the new practices among staff.

The initiative will also provide workshops and cluster meetings - a forum for sharing and problem-solving among a wider group of teachers.

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