Teaching Large Classes - Can technology help?

One of the great things about attending international conferences like IATEFL is that you can come across educators with experience and views so far removed from your own experience that your own deeply held views can be called into question.

I didn't get to attend the session on Investigating Large Classes - Are we making progess?, but it was one of the first sessions I decided to watch thanks to the wonderful recordings provided by the British Council's IATEFL Online site. I've been interested in this ever subject since reading David Graddol's English Next (PDF), and have made it part of a talk I've done on Innovations in Language Learning Spaces, which I'm updating for the keynotes I've been invited to give in the Autumn, at the IATEFL Poland and IATEFL Hungary conferences.

I didn't get very far into the session before my curiosity was aroused. Nigussie Negash from Ethiopia mentioned 'plasma teaching' in his overview of the situation in Ethiopia. Plasma teaching? What was that?

Here is an extract from Nigussie's report:
In primary schools and secondary schools, we can have 55-100 in one class...on top of this we have lots of changes...in the country. One we have for example is plasma teaching, where you have secondary school students sitting and listening to plasma transmission of lessons recorded in South Africa. The only duty the teacher has is switching on and off this TV; maybe 5 minutes introduction before the lesson, and maybe 10 minutes at the end. It's just mind-boggling, what's happening there.
As Nigussie continued, it was obvious that the problems that education in Ethiopia faces are grave and difficult to solve:
Now we're talking about a new curriculum in Ethiopia...there is a big gap between pre-service teacher training and what actually happens in an everyday teacher's life...the curriculum seems to be led by theory first and application later...teachers say they are unprepared for teaching large classes. Some of them say they don't even know how to use the blackboard...the teachers themselves do not have enough English language proficiency to conduct lessons.
With so many basic issues (shortage of teachers, lack of teacher education, teachers' low level of English), I wondered at the thinking behind introducing plasma TVs into classrooms as a solution. What did the government hope to achieve by this? And surely, this was throwing money down the drain rather than investing it wisely into teacher training? I decided to try and find out more.

One of the first things I came across was a report into plasma teaching:

Although it deals with Mathematics rather than English, the report has some general information and conclusions that are relevant to Ethiopian education and to plasma teaching as a whole:

On the reasons for adoption of the programme:
The standard of education in Ethiopia has been declining both in terms of quality and quantity for some decades...the system is unable to produce competent educated human power due to impoverishment of facilities, shortage of instructional materials, shortage of teachers and qualified teachers...New technologies offer opportunities to innovate on course content and teaching methods and to widen access to learning.
The plasma teaching programme was introduced by the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia in government secondary schools with the following rationale:
on the assumption that the system of education must be changed to active learning by using modern technology which brings us close to advanced world bringing every corner of Ethiopia where high schools coming together at equivalent better standard.
In theory, the idea of adopting plasma teaching to fill the gap that cannot yet be addressed in Ethiopia does seem like a good idea for the short term, so long as there is also investment being made into teacher education as a long term solution.

The conclusions of the report, which surveyed students opinions of this new method were that
introducing TV lessons in high schools created several new implementation problems like lack of coordination with the teacher, fast to understand, inappropriate planning of the lessons, inefficient utilization of the technology, misunderstanding as if the plasma TV present the lessons independently by it self with out the involvement of the teacher and the like which need adjustment some how. 
Clearly, the idea of plasma teaching only works if the teacher does more than switch the TV on and off (as Nigussie Negash said was the case in many schools). If it is used as the basis of an active discussion, then both students and teacher can benefit.

Then on Facebook, a friend and ex-colleague of mine, Lucy Mardel wrote a little about her experience of visiting Ethiopia for a teacher training programme (that's one of her photos to the left, taken from English for Ethiopia, grade 2). Although I knew she was involved in the education of the blind, I saw she'd visited mainstream schools too, and so asked her if she'd seen any evidence of plasma training. This is what she said:
Graham, do you mean a programme of learning in High Schools via TV from South Africa? We were told about it on our last visit - but saw no evidence apart from some very knackered TVs locked in cupboards! There isn't a regular enough electricity supply where we were for this to be reliable.
I also found a survey on Facebook about the subject, where a teacher at Debremarkus high school asked the question:
What was your experience learning with plasma tv compared to learning face to face with your teacher? 

The responses were mixed, but it was obvious that it did work for some students:
We had two teachers for one subject, one actual teacher and one plasma's teacher. actual teacher revises today's lessen, and if the school support some equipment, we do labs with our hands. every plasma's teachers are the best because they are highly educated. the plasma's teachers also are the same all over Ethiopia (Merkebu Amrach).
I was always glad by the plasma teaching especially because there is no time wastage; whether the class teacher has come or not is not my business. I just attend my class.And most of the plasma teachers were good (Abera Chanie).
So, I guess my point here is that the idea of leap-frogging and trying to stay up-to-date is great in theory, and I think using technology in this way could work well, but only if there is necessary support, infrastructure and training for it to happen. Otherwise, thinking that just supplying the technology is enough (sadly the case in many countries, not just in developing ones such as Ethiopia) is probably the best way of wasting money in education that exists in the 21st century.

I'd love to hear other people's views on this, and would be particularly interested to hear from people who know more about the plasma teaching initiative in Ethiopia or any other similar schemes to use technology to make up for a shortfall in teacher education or linguistic competence.


  1. Thanks for the post. My sister-in-law just started teaching at a high school that is very over crowded and she was complaining about how big her classes are. I agree with you. I think technology definitely has the power to make the learning experience better. She just found out about this new program that helps when scheduling parent-teacher conferences. She has yet to use it, but apparently it is said to have good results.


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