Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

I’m writing this at the end of a two-week author visit to Japan and Korea that has seen me do seventeen presentations of one kind or another.

I started with a speech that no one could hear at the rather raucous OUP party at the JALT conference in Hamamatsu, Japan, and finished with a drama workshop for some students from Korea Christian University, in what they tell me is a haunted house hidden in a wood on the outskirts of Seoul.

The highlight, for me at least, was my ‘Glad To Be Grey’ Pecha Kucha at KOTESOL, even though my attempt to interest the audience in a Gangnam Style dance routine was an utter failure.  

Saluting the talent of my all-time hero Albert Einstein during my Pecha Kucha

Before I came to Korea this time, I read that the Korean government wants education to be paper-free by 2015. They plan to spend $2.4 billion to buy a tablet for every student and digitize the curriculum content across all subjects. It will be introduced in elementary schools in 2014 and across the entire education system the following year. A totally book-free and paper-free system.

The tablets will probably be provided by Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung, but no one is sure about that. And with an election coming up this December, this could of course all change.

But what I found rather surprising was that hardly any of the university teachers I spoke to, almost all native speakers, had heard anything about this. One who had heard about it, an American in his forties, said: ‘It’s just for middle school, not us.’

I fear he may be wrong.

I’m really not the best person to comment on the value of digital-only education, partly because I have no idea of the relative value of books, no books or a blended system, and partly of course because I write books.

I love the classroom possibilities that new technology brings, and I’m aware of the massive impact phones, tablets or whatever can have on the ability of students to continue their studies outside the classroom in a manner they feel comfortable with.

But completely book and paper-free?

The fact is that Korea is not the only country which has looked at this possibility – Spain and Malaysia have also been talking about it, and when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, he wanted to introduce it there. One of the reasons he quoted at the time was the large number of law suits brought against Californian schools because of supposed back injuries suffered by children who had to carry too many books to school. Um, yee-es…

In all cases, the governments are driven by a desire to reduce the amount of money they spend on education as much as any belief that paper-free is a positive educational reform.

But I have always had a nagging doubt about the move to paper-free. I attended a talk by Brendan Wightman at a conference in Turkey earlier this year, and I thought he articulated the problem quite clearly.

Brendan Wightman in the middle of one of his energetic and dynamic presentations

Brendan pointed out that if a government gives out, say, 300,000 free tablets, you can be sure that every year some of them will be stolen, lost or damaged in some way. Let’s say a conservative estimate of 2%. That’s 6,000 tablets.

Will the government have a cupboard full of spare tablets for people who lose the one they were given? Just a thought.

Here’s a totally gratuitous photograph of my one-year-old grandson Maurice.

Maurice with his favourite toy – I have high hopes for this boy!

Well, not QUITE totally gratuitous.

His mother, my daughter Anya, took the photo with her iPhone after she’d retrieved it from the toilet where Maurice had dropped it. He had picked up the phone and quite deliberately chucked it down the hopper, as my grandmother-in-law Gladys would have said.

Here’s a thought – how many kids will turn up at school with a damaged tablet and blame their little brothers and sisters for the damage?

Actually, I’m reminded that Anya had a similar problem with some school material when she was at secondary school. She had a tough little budgie called Minty who walked along the bookshelf in her room, picked up one of her exercise books in his beak, took two steps along the shelf and deposited it in a fish tank.

The book survived, but the exercise material that Anya had carefully written with a ballpoint pen was unreadable. Not surprisingly, her teacher was a little sceptical that a budgie was responsible.

But imagine if it’s your tablet that finishes up in the fish tank.

If anyone has any inside knowledge about Plan B for damaged tablets, I’d be really interested to hear.

And finally, the best pop culture discovery of this visit – King of K-pop Psy and his Gangnam Style video, the Youtube sensation of the decade. This boy can teach us all about how to work an audience.  http://youtu.be/rX372ZwXOEM


Comments on: "Paper-free education – what can possibly go wring?" (18)

  1. Hello Mr Wilson,
    The use of tablets is a very good idea to substitute the large bunches of paper students have to carry to school. However, I think you are right. If they get damaged a lot of information may be lost and instead of being a means of progress it will become a big problem. I think the use of tablets may be a good motivation for students to read for example; however, it may work against education if there are students who cannot afford paying another one (in case of damaging the first). Besides, their use could lead students to practice bullying towards others by taking their tablets away from them. I think there’s nothing wrong in substituting paper for tablets, nevertheless they need a lot of careful use. Yes, most of the times children are not experts a it!

    I still prefer paper books, they aren’t a waste of paper. They are valuables sources of information and may last longer than a tablet, I think.

    Instead of thinking about spending less money for education and reducing the quantity of paper required for it, those countries should think about how to reduce costs in creating things that are really detrimental to the Earth.

    • Hi Marilu,

      well, interestingly, losing the material on the tablet isn’t the problem – there will be some kind of cloud storage system, so the pupils will be able to save everything at the end of every school day, or when they complete a task. Bullying, stealing – well, they’re more real and urgent problems to consider.

  2. What could possibly go wrong: how about the disenfranchisement of the parent? Putting everything online using virtual notebooks excludes the parent from the learning process. The other day as I was sitting near a mother and son in a restaurant, I overheard their conversation about the assignments he had/had not completed and what he had/had not learned. Everything was on the computer under a user name and password. Listening to their conversation, I realized she was caught between what her son was telling her and what the teacher had reported.
    When my ancestors left the South to move to the North, they had to make decisions about what to leave behind and what to take with them . As we move further into the digital world, we too need to determine what to leave behind ( from the industrial model school) and what to take into the new digital world.
    The spiral notebook/academic log is a reservoir of knowledge that serves as an ongoing record of what transpires in class EACH day and should be taken into the new world. It is the best physical example of Student Work.
    Keeping a physical notebook empowers the parent to participate in the learning process. Keeping a virtual notebook EXCLUDES many parents (especially low-income parents) from being involved in the day-to-day happenings of the classroom. However, a physical academic log for each class allows the parent through easy access to open and question the child about what’s going on in school EACH DAY.
    An effective method for a disciplinary conference with a student and/or parent is to begin with the physical notebook for each class – no notebooks, nothing learned. No need to discuss behavior, student complaints, or parent complaints because the so-called “student” is really a trespasser and should be treated accordingly.

    Lorraine Richardson is the author/creator of the reform model A Coach’s Guide to Asset-Mapping Teacher Quality: The Journey from Compliance to Community.

    • Brendan Wightman said:

      Hi Lorraine,

      I think the point you are making is really about access – if the parents don’t have the technology (or know how to use it), then how can they check their children’s school work? I’d suggest that any school initiating a technology programme is morally compelled to ensure that access is guaranteed, and this means providing the equipment to students if they don’t have it, and the guidance to ensure it is used properly.

      A flip side to the point you make is the one-laptop-for-every-child prgramme in Nigeria, where non-literate parents were actually able to access and engage with school messages, notes and data because a verbal recording was made on the students’ computer. The only skill they needed to access it was the ability to click a ‘play’ button.

      Digital reports, portfolios and notebooks can hold a lot more information than a paper notebook, so can potentially empower parents in new ways and to a much greater extent than ever before. One of the challenges schools face is using new technologies to bring parents into the picture and involve them more – and if the tools are available and the skill sets are either in place or achievable (with a manageable learning curve) it would, in my opinion, be negligent not to explore their potentials.

      Any tech programme needs to be planned and executed properly, though.

  3. You only need to look to the Plan Ceibal for how replacement and repair can be handled on a large scale…

  4. Loved Lorraine’s advertorial comment (not). Should I include my bio data and publications after my comment?

  5. Sorry, one more thing – with cheap tablets costing as little as $75, and some course books at tertiary level costing more than that, perhaps we should be worrying about what happens when someone loses the book (or has it stolen, or is bullied out of it)…

  6. I think one of the problems is that we are at the beginning of a transition, from paper to digital for most (if not all) of our information, even though there are still many people who do not believe. It’s difficult to know how to deal with this in education until the tipping point is passed, if it comes – I think it will. I think government initiatives like Korea’s should be applauded – it makes a change to see innovation being embraced rather than schools sadly trying to catch up with the times.

    I found what Lorraine wrote interesting. I don’t think the solution is to stick to paper, though – surely, giving the parents a user name and password is the best way to solve this problem. Parents should be encouraged to join in the digital revolution too – otherwise, they’ll be left behind. Another way is to encourage teachers to publish work on the Internet – one of the best way you can motivate students to produce better quality work is to show them there is an audience for that what they write, rather than their work being trapped in a fusty notebook.

    It reminds me of a friend of ours who has hardly ever used a computer or the Internet and who now finds it virtually impossible to book a cheap flight, now that travel agencies are disappearing or have been transformed into specialist places.

  7. I all for more intergration of technology into classrooms. We need to move beyond the age of one computer (running Windows XP) and one projector (which frequently breaks down) per class and start putting more tech into students hands.

    I do have a few doubts however. As well as the issues outlined in the post, I wonder about keeping the things charged. Can a primary school student really be depended on to make sure their tablet is fully charged each day? Fine, if one or two students run out of battery power at school, their tablets can be put on charge but what if it’s five or ten kids? In the classrooms I currently work in, six electrical outlets are avaible and two are permanently in use to power the existing computer equipment.

    But a bigger concern than that is the long-term use. As I mentioned above, the computers in my classrooms run Windows XP having been installed about 7 years ago at great expense to the school. They are now in dire need of replacement. In truth, they have been for the last 3 years. Can schools and governments really afford to upgrade or replace hardware every few years?

    My final concern is perhaps the biggest. In my experience, tablets are not that interactive. People who use them (and I put myself in this category) tend to use the receptively more than productively. The main issue for me is writing – I never write anything more than short emails or brief notes on my tablet. Anything longer and I use a computer or pen and paper.

    I think tablets potentially have a place in our classrooms but I don’t see them as replacements for paper, especially when it comes to getting our students to produce some writing, pictures, brainstorming etc.

    • There was an interesting article in the Bangkok Post about a school where all the kids had tablets. They weren’t allowed to plug them in the classroom (not enough plugs) but they only had three-hour batteries and took five hours to charge up. And they weren’t allowed to take them home. The children had to find a plug at the end of the class and stay at school until they were re-charged.

      • We can draw a conclusion here: if one does something in a stupid and ill-considered way then it will probably go wrong. This does not mean that the idea per se was wrong, simply that you were unable to implement it properly…

  8. Hmmm …(I’m the ultimate end-user, as for my bio.) It all reminds me of the issue of how dangerous pencils are. I’m looking forward to the outcomes in Korea.
    P.S. Do you think parents are interested in coursebooks, workbooks, exercise books??? It looks like they are interested in one thing: grades.

  9. burcuakyol said:


  10. Tablets were distributed to high school teachers in my school through an agreement with the Publisher that will provide the digital material and support, and the plan is to offer both possibilities for students next year – paper and digital forms. Only the high school students though will have this possibility. There will certainly be issues concerning the quality of the equipment and appropriate use of them, plus wi-fi connection. I can tell that some students are excited about this. I love the possibilities that digitals offer and I am excited to.

  11. ” if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail ” ….( some pedagogical guy can’t remember who..if anyone can help ?? ) a screen is one form of teaching medium ,,,an imaginative teacher and student would surely enjoy other forms aswell .

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