Interview with Eric Baber

In the first interview in our series: Members of CETEFL interview members of CETEFL, Simon Gill talks to Eric Baber. Eric is a frequent contributor to TECH. He is also co-founder of NetLearn Languages and the Certificate in On-Line Teaching of English (COLTE) course and organised the recent TESFL/TESL virtual conference, ELToc, possibly the first of its kind. Simon, a frequent book reviewer on CETEFL and recently appointed manager of REV, lives in Olomouc, in the Czech Republic, where he follows the great Central European tradition of holding down lots of jobs simultaneously. The main one is at the teacher training college of Palacky University.

17 Jan 2002


A TEFLer who is not afraid of technology


SG: Teachers and technology are seldom truly happy together. You seem to combine the two worlds, though. Are you that rare beast, a teflista who got into technology? Or?

EB: I must be! And yes, it happened that way around, rather than vice- versa - I started off life as a TEFLer and then got into technology. Well, professionally speaking, that's the way it happened. My father has always worked with computers so we've always had them around the house, so I guess you could say that I was raised with them. Professionally, though, I studied English and Drama at university, then went on to do my CTEFLA and then my DELTA, so I'm firmly rooted in TEFLing. It was shortly after doing the DELTA and having been given lots of very interesting opportunities at a London language school that I started becoming interested in technology of my own accord, and started looking for ways of combining the two, and that ultimately led to what I'm doing now.

SG: You are known to CETEFLers as the organiser of a very successful virtual conference last year. What else does your work involve?

EB: (Takes deep breath.) I think to answer that one I'll need to go back a few years! As I say, a while after doing the DELTA I looked for ways of combining TEFL and technology. This would have been in late 1996 or so. I'd obviously already encountered CD-ROMs, storyboards and so on, but was never really that thrilled about that sort of technology. While I certainly thought that they were useful, I'm more of a people-person, so sitting students in front of computers and telling them to work with this or that CD-ROM just didn't do much for me. What really got me going, though, was the Internet - the idea of having humans in different parts of the world communicating with each other captured my imagination, and it was this area that I found really intriguing. After a year and a half or so of exploring the Internet and its various uses in my spare time, I'd found what I considered to be a really neat idea and one which I thought other people would appreciate as well. That idea was having live online lessons with a real human teacher in one part of the world, and students in other parts of the world. At that time - 1997/98 - it was text-only, with live audio being quite choppy and unreliable, but a colleague of mine, Mark Haverstock, and I decided to give it a go commercially. That was in April 1998, and we set up at the time as NetLearn Languages. So from 1998 onwards my first main duty was that of Director of Studies - in many ways it was pretty much the same as that of DoS in a "normal" school: timetabling, recruiting teachers, training them in our way of doing things, observing and supporting them, that sort of thing. We've always recruited qualified and experienced classroom teachers who are comfortable with technology, but they've also always needed training in our specific way of doing things in terms of technology and methodology. After training our own new teachers for a year or so, we thought it would be a good idea to make such training available to other teachers as well - teachers who we weren't recruiting, but who were interested in teaching online for their own purposes. This led to the development of the Certificate in On-Line Teaching of English (COLTE) course, which has been running now since mid/late 1999. So that became another one of my responsibilities - interviewing candidates and running those courses along with one or two of our more experienced teachers. All along I've always kept my eye out for new and different uses of Internet technology in other fields, and like thinking of ways of making those technologies work in the language-teaching field. That has resulted in us converting a distance teacher-development course for non-native speaker teachers for another organisation; one thing we learned from that is that a course that works well on paper may not necessarily work well online! It has also resulted in us getting involved in webcasting events - basically, allowing an event like a presentation or a conference to be heard and seen by people via the Internet. Our "dabbling" in this resulted in the ELToc that you mentioned earlier - the online conference for English teaching professionals. We were very pleased with how all of that went, and feel that we've finally managed to make an inroad there to ELT professionals who, it has to be said, are more often than not reluctant to have anything at all to do with computers if they can help it. So those now are my main areas of responsibility - DoS of NLL, running the COLTE courses and running online conferences (for which we have some nifty plans waiting in the wings). That is now proving to be quite a burden, so there will probably be some reshuffling of responsibilities within the next year or so, allowing me to do more of one of the things I really enjoy - pushing random buttons on keyboards and seeing what happens as a result :-)

SG: This idea of teaching-and-learning online is fascinating and is surely set to grow. What do you see as its advantages and disadvantages vis-à-vis more traditional ways of working?

EB: Well, one of the main advantages is that it allows learners access to a native-speaker teacher - that's not always an option in some parts of the world. Many students (rightly or wrongly) see this as an advantage. Another one is the flexibility and time-saving it can afford: instead of having to travel half an hour to the local language school, take a one-hour lesson and then spend another half hour travelling back home or to work, the student can just turn on their computer at the pre- arranged time, and there's the teacher. That can save them lots of time and/or money - if a company normally has a teacher coming to visit them in-house they'll ultimately end up paying for that service in some way. Smaller advantages have to do with the way such a lesson can take place: we use a "whiteboard" for instance on which the student and the teacher can write, draw, import pictures and a few other things - pretty much like a whiteboard in a real classroom. Instead of the student having to copy things off the board at various points in the lesson, though, the electronic whiteboard can be saved onto the student's computer at any point during the lesson, so they have a complete record of what was written. This saves scribbling time and can allow the lesson to be more focussed. As a result lessons may be more intense/intensive than a classroom lesson, in which there may be a few "breather points"; these don't occur as naturally in an online lesson, so if the teacher feels the student needs a minute's break they have to build it in. It can make for a more productive hour, though. One final advantage that springs to mind is that many people now use the Internet as a communications medium for business or pleasure, so studying via that method is really ideal. In the same way that telephone-lessons can be much more effective for a student whose main need is telephoning skills, online lessons can be more useful for a student who spends a lot of his or her time communicating with clients or colleagues via the Internet. A disadvantage is that you're not in the same room with the teacher and other students. For some learners, the "touchy-feely" aspect of being in the same room with the others is a necessary aspect of the learning process; for these learners, an online course probably won't be very satisfying. Another disadvantage over other forms of online study is that it's likely to be pricier than self-study stuff: there are several sites where you can pay a flat fee per month, and then use the website as much as you like during that time. With live online lessons the teacher needs to be paid (obviously) so it's likely to be more expensive. Another possible disadvantage is that the student needs a reliable computer with a decent Internet connection; that's not always cheap or easy to come by, depending on the country or city in which they live. Of course they then also need to know how to use the computer, though the learning curve isn't very steep at all.

SG: What do you think ICT in its present state of development has to offer our profession?

EB: Much, much more than is being taken advantage of. I frequently find the people involved in our profession highly frustrating. As I said before, I think I'm quite a people-person, but trying to get across to the average EFL teacher that a computer is a tool with loads and loads of different uses can be like banging your head against a brick wall. Many teachers are afraid to touch computers - I'm not quite sure why, but they're definitely passing up some really good opportunities as a result.

SG: So do you think an ICT element should be compulsory on pre- service teacher training courses? Would that help break down this barrier?

EB: Yes, definitely. The token hour that many teacher-training courses build into their courses just doesn't cut it. This is an area where we're in a vicious circle - the trainers themselves are often afraid of, or just don't know enough about, IT and how it can be used for language teaching and learning, so they don't add such a component to the course. Hiring someone in for a few sessions from another institution is often seen as too expensive, so I think many courses just don't address that aspect. Training institutions may also not realise that help can be very close at hand - a session on IT in language teachng could even be delivered online to their trainees by someone like ourselves! (That's the last shameless plug, I promise ;-) ) Coming back to your previous question, though, here are some ways ICT could be used more by our profession: To exchange ideas between ourselves, in various forms. Listservs like our dear CETEFL are prime examples of how a question like "How do I get my students to talk?" can get you dozens of answers within a day or two. In a staff-room where everyone's busy preparing for their next lesson you're probably lucky to get one or two answers during break-time; listservs can be much more rewarding in terms of volume and quality of responses. Regular online chat-sessions could also be organised by theme, rather than by geographical location; for example, if you're teaching medical English in outer Mongolia, you're not likely to have a whole lot of peers there with you. However, you could meet online once a month with other teachers of medical English from around the world and exchange moans and gripes, uplifting stories, and teaching ideas.   Online conferences I really feel offer huge potential. None of us TEFLers are rich, but we like exchanging ideas and chatting to each other. Online is therefore a brilliant medium for this - no travel or accommodation fees, but the possibility of learning a whole lot in a short space of time. No, it won't replace all face-to-face conferences in which we can all hit the bar together afterwards, but it's an opportunity we'd be silly to pass up. For further development courses. Again, since none of us make a lot of money, taking 2 months off to do the DELTA or a year off to do an MA is often impossible. Taking such courses online, though, is ideal. Anyone who's ever done a correspondence course by post knows that it's possible to take part in further development like this, though the feeling of isolation can be immense. Online courses can offer the same instruction as postal courses, plus a whole lot more - the chance for the course participants to keep in touch with each other throughout the course by e-mail or discussion boards, thereby combatting the feeling of being on your own, and allowing you to get a quick answer to something that otherwise might have held you up for a week or two. Those are just some of the ways that professionals could make use of ICT - and that's really focusing mainly on Internet technologies rather than ICT as a whole.

SG: Gaze into your crystal ball and tell us what impact ICT is going to have on ELT in the next ten-fifteen years.

EB: I'd like to start by saying what impact it WON'T have - and that is that it will NOT make all teachers redundant! I think many teachers fear technology because they're afraid it'll replace them. In my opinion, this isn't the case. Most learners like to learn from teachers - whether the teacher is in the same room with them, or at the other end of an Internet line in some way. Self-study CD-ROMs and websites therefore won't replace the human teacher, in the same way that self-study books and tapes didn't either. However, I think there will be a number of changes in the profession as a result of ICT. Those teachers with IT skills of some sort are likely to be in higher demand than those that don't. Most of our students use e-mail and the Internet in their everyday life; they will ask teachers questions such as "Are there any good websites you can recommend for English learning in my spare time?" or "How can I use the Internet to further improve my language skills?" Those teachers who can answer those questions - and not just reading off the answers from a crib-sheet - are more likely to get the better- paying jobs. In addition, I'm quite sure that most schools will add on some form of online support for their students themselves. Especially schools in native-speaking countries whose students stay for 2 or 3 weeks and then return to their home countries, will be keen to continue a relationship with those students once they've returned to their home countries. Teachers who can bring online teaching skills to those schools will therefore have a better chance of getting employment than those who don't. So, on the whole, I'm not sure ICT will radically change the ELT profession in the next 10 - 15 years, but teachers will be expected to have a broader range of IT skills than is the case now. And after all, why shouldn't that be the case - in just about every job under the sun nowadays people are expected to be able to use wordprocessors, e-mail and the web, so why shouldn't we?

SG: Somebody said not long ago that in addition to the inability to read and write, there are now two other kinds of illiteracy, the inability to speak English and the inability to use ICT. From your point of view as a TEFLer sold on ICT, how true is this?

EB: I think this is quite accurate, though knowledge of use of ICT isn't perhaps as crucial to a language teacher as the ability to read, write and be able to teach well. If a teacher tries hard enough they certainly can get by without any knowledge of ICT; as I mentioned before, though, they will be competing for their jobs with teachers who are comfortable with computers, and students will appreciate those teachers more.

SG: Thank you, Eric, for your time. There’s a lot of food for thought there…


Return to list of interviews