The word of the expert

Force majeure has pushed everyone home and towards distance learning and technology. The leap is big but not impossible. Here’s some of my experience in the area.

Over the last few weeks, we have all had our work lives significantly altered by the impact of the Covid19 emergency. Global social distancing campaigns and working from home has meant that organisations and individuals in education have rushed to implement different remote learning options in a very short space of time and, for the most part, with promising results. It hasn’t been an easy process, because sometimes the material resources have not been available and because teachers and support staff at various levels within organisations and institutions have had to learn a lot in very little time. The unusual life changes that lockdowns, in various forms, have imposed have generated an imperative of adaptation and the sudden embrace of technological communication solutions that, while there for some time, had yet to be implemented in many contexts. The outcome of this, besides substantial anxiety and confusion for some (which hopefully will be short-lived) is that many people have discovered the possibilities of technology to educate people beyond the conventional classroom space. It is more than probable that the impact of this forced change of practice is here to stay. Even when we go back to teaching in schools and traditional classes, we will be able to continue using the resources we have become acquainted with. Our horizons will have been expanded literally as well as metaphorically ….

Current activities

At a personal level, I have recently been involved in

  • moving my postgraduate classes online, e.g. on the MA in English at the Universidad de Belgrano.
  • teaching all my undergraduate and graduate courses using Google Classroom, Google Meet and other online resources.
  • working in a large team to put the classes of the Liceo Cultural Británico online. Here you can see, for example, the Online Teachers Help Centre I created for teachers at that institution. helping organize the material sent on email by teachers to my son’s class.
  • advising various other institutions of all levels and individuals on how to best manage in these circumstances.
  • curating materials and resources for teachers and students on my Facebook and my Instagram.

In spite of the difficulties and the speed at which we have had to do all this, I find this development tremendously exciting.

Back in Time

I realise I come to it with a background of experience in the area of distance education that enables me to see the possibilities and how things have changed and improved recently.

Building On Experience

My first experience of distance learning was teaching on interactive television back in 1996-1997 at Montana State University. You can see a paper we wrote, with Ray Day, about the experience back the here. Around that time, we also published two articles: Talking ELT across the Internet (1995) and How the Internet can Change Your Life (1997). In 1999, back in Argentina, I took part in my first low-tech online distance academic activity. It was organized by David Graddol for the British Council and we participated in a group led by Ana María Armendariz, with Silvia Rettaroli, Silvia González, Sara Melgar and Mario López Barrio in a seminar called PEGLOS (Planning for English as a Global Language Seminar). Several countries participated in our seminar, six if I remember rightly and I believe equivalent seminars were conducted with other groups of countries. The seminar consisted of guided activities that we received via email which involved discussion questions, tasks for data collection and reflection, and various instances of exchange. At the end, each team produced a country report, a true novelty in our case. This experience demonstrated to me we could take advantage of available technology to engage in academic exchanges that had hitherto been unfeasible without physical travel and, even with minimal resources, it was possible to have a fruitful experience and yield a substantive production. This, in turn, lead me to organize in my place of work at the time, ESSARP, the first “Distance Course” back in 2000, that were conducted entirely on email. They proved a great opportunity for people who worked in schools far away from the Centre, which was located right in town and particularly for those who worked in schools in the provinces which found it practically impossible to attend any face-to-face activities. So, it constituted a central form of inclusion of those who, for various reasons had been excluded from that possibility before, all be it in a privileged context. Later on, we worked with Silvia Rettaroli, Dario Banegas, Paul Woods as part of a British Council Argentina project in collaboration with Ceibal in Uruguay to set up Ceibal en Inglés (see here the Manual we wrote).

More Experience

Also with Silvia Rettaroli, Silvia Luppi and Sandra Revale, we worked on Remote teacher training for the Chilean government as part of a British Council Chile project (Mineduc Ciselt, ver aquí). At the Ministry of Education of City of Buenos Aires, I was involved in the implementation of online exchanges in various schools of the City as part of the Global Scholars project of Global Cities, Inc.. I have recently written a paper on the motivation this type of work generates in students and it is currently under review for publication. More recently, I have participated in different projects designing materials for online language teaching with María Laura García, Ray Day and others for Ministries of Education and private corporations.

The Way Forward

Final Thoughts What remains to be said is: don’t be afraid, explore this new environment and you will derive great satisfaction while teaching (and learning!). Having said all this, what I have learnt from all these experiences, and particularly from the last couple of weeks, is that each project and context requires particular solutions and that a pre-packaged, off-the shelf options rarely works satisfactorily, whether we are talking about a small organization or a country.

Tailor to your needs

Another key lesson I’ve been keenly aware of is the subservient role of the technology: we need to use the technology confidently, but the technology should not rule us; we should be clear about what our pedagogical aims are and revisit them at every stage (from planning to evaluation and back to planning).

Technology is your servant

What remains to be said is: don’t be afraid, explore this new environment and you will derive great satisfaction while teaching (and learning!).

Image placeholder

Cristina Banfi

Dr. Cristina Banfi is an Italian/Argentine graduate teacher of the IES en LV “JRF” in Buenos Aires, with an MPhil from the University of Cambridge and a PhD from University College London.