Steve Schertzer

Notes on the Thailand TESOL conference

An event run and sponsored by self-centered, pompous, and arrogant buffoons

I'm so angry right now, I could spit! I just finished reading an article in the Nation newspaper about the Thailand TESOL Conference which took place in Bangkok on January 20th, 2005.

I try not to attend these conferences. One reason is that I'm usually busy teaching. Another reason is that they are usually sponsored and run by self-centered, pompous, and arrogant buffoons who have been out of the classroom far too long to have anything worthwhile to share.

A case in point from a talk on "Technology in Education" by Mr. Stephen Heppell, director of the UK-based Ultralab.

"Technology is adapting rapidly and bringing extraordinary changes in what youngsters can do and think about education. Almost every young adult now had a mobile phone, so they now can learn anywhere at any time they like."

At this point I feel as if I must apologize. Obviously, I was quoting from the article so please bear with me.

Technology doesn't adapt. People do, or they attempt to. And youngsters don't think about education. Adults do, or they're suppose to. Adults are in charge of the education of youngsters, or they're suppose to be. But by the looks of things, they are not doing a very good job.

He calls this "m-learning" or mobile learning. There's also "e-learning." (More on that soon.) e-learning? m-learning? Are you kidding me? Learning through your mobile phone? Are you kidding me? Learning what? Let me give you a short, but typical conversation-- cell phone style. (For those already in an ESL classroom, I beg your forgiveness.)

ESL Student: (Mobile phone rings. A musical theme. Maybe a Britney Spears tune ot the latest Tata Young ditty.)

Friend: Where are you?

Student: Starbucks.

Friend: Really?

Student: Yes!

Friend: What are you having?

Student: A cappuccino.

Friend: Really?

Student: Yes!

Friend: Anything else?

Student: A brownie.

Friend: Really?

Student: Yes!

Friend: What else?

Student: I got a new CD today.

Friend: Really?

Student: Yes!

Okay, I'll stop now. We all know that this useless exchange can go on indefinately-- and often does. I defy anyone in the ESL world to come up with any educational value to this insipid and intellectually bereft conversation.

There is a porno actress in the United States that has recently come out with a series of "moan-tones" for mobile phones. Imagine that. You're writing something on the board-- perhaps how to use adjectives as past and present participles-- when all of a sudden a series of orgasmic moans protrudes from one of your students' pockets.

Hey Lek, I'm very exciting about your cell phone! Your cell phone is excited me!

Here's some more drivel from the article:

"The beauty of m-learning is that students can collaborate with other learners or teachers via discussion forums and chat areas. They can also access their materials and teachers through websites and TV."

Again, my apologies. How did students ever learn anything before cell phones and computers? Oh yeah! Books! Teachers! Debating and conversing with classmates. Do I have to go back to the Starbucks conversation?

By the way, I'm writing this column in an internet cafe in the heart of Bangkok. There are 11 people in this room including me. Two foreigners and nine Thais. Seven of the Thais-- mostly high-school boys-- are playing games. Violent games, by the looks of things. A Thai girl is writing a letter-- maybe to a fat bald German man in Dusseldorf asking for more money. I'm not sure what the other one is doing. But the point is, no educational activities are being pursued here. Not in this room, anyway.

Do these pedantic pinheads at the TESOL conference actually believe that human nature has changed that drastically in the last 50 or 60 years, so as to allow contemporary technology to be used for its intended purpose? It has been only 60 years since the liberation of Awschwitz; only 26 years since the fall of the Khemer Rouge; only 11 years since the Rwanda genocide; less than four years since 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban. And the last time I watched the news-- just a few hours ago-- we were still killing, raping, torturing, and molesting each other in huge numbers. Do these cyber snake-oil salesmen really think that they can transform the world through the apotheosis of technology?

Here's another quote. Again, my sincerest apologies. Talking about his UK-based Ultralab and how m-learning works, Heppell says,

"This project takes their (people's) experience and adds a degree. Imagine when you already have prior knowledge and skills, just adding a degree to that."

Just add a degree? Just add a degree and what? Presto! Instant education! Just add water and presto! Instant noodles! Instant education. Instant learning. Instant noodles. Isn't education NOT suppose to be instant? Isn't education--REAL education-- suppose to remind us, teach us, and warn us about the dangers of instant anything? Education is a process-- some might say a life-long process. It takes time, patience, persistence, and perseverance amoung other things. The pursuit of a university degree is not for everyone.

You don't add a degree to experiences. You add experiences to a degree. Hard earned experiences. A university degree is stationary. It is stable. In fact, it is one of the only stable things remaining in an everchanging educational environment. And it must remain that way if real education is to take place.

Now it's time to get serious, and no apologies for that.

"Our investment in education is relatively large, amounting to 251.2 billion Baht last year, while the population's access to and participation in education is quite impressive."

This from Khun Chana Kasipar, head of the Vocational Education Commission. The population's access TO education? The last time I checked, large segments of the Thai population have little or no financial resources to fully take part in what is, in essence, still an elitist educational system.

And, by the way, how and where was this 251.2 billion Baht spent? Certainly not on teacher's salaries, where a first year teacher in a government Thai school makes less than 6,500 Baht a month. The cell phones that many of my students use, and these cyber snake-oil salesmen speak of, are more than twice a Thai teacher's monthly salary!

It would be far too easy for me to sit back and say that these people don't know what in the world they're talking about. But that wouldn't be true. The fact of the matter is, these cyber snake-oil salesmen know exactly what they're talking about. They know full well the societal consequences of their foolish words. And that's what makes them dangerous.

While the internet can be an effective educational tool ONLY if used properly, it is both fraught with an overabundance of useless information and innundated with charlatans, quacks, swindlers, and perverts of all shapes and sizes. By and large the internet is a wasteland; a dangerous minefield of human debauchery where people-- especially children-- dare to play at their own peril.

The problem with the internet as an educational tool is that it can teach us no more than can a really good teacher. We learn about history, and more importantly, FROM history. The internet has no history. People do. Societies do. The internet, as an educational tool, has no depth. People do. Good teachers do.

As far as the internet is concerned, there's no THERE there. No history. No depth. No mind. No warmth. No heart. No soul. No bowels. It has no stories to tell. No myths to pass down to the next generation.

While there are some very good parents out there who are limiting their children's use of the internet and supervising them accordingly, there are, undoubtably, many more naive and gullible parents who are buying into this "cyber snake-oil" hook, line, and sinker! I can understand why. But it makes false promises.

It promises parents that their children will have unlimited access to a global ecomony. It tells parents-- especially those in the Third World and developing countries-- that their children can succeed and prosper ONLY with full access to technology. Some will succeed. The vast majority won't. That's life. Meanwhile, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

What is also missing here in this apotheosis of the cyberworld is any discussion of how governmental and societal forces are at play in oppressing their citizens by other means, either through a lack of politcal will, an antiquated and insufficient justice system, or social inequality between the sexes and other segments of a particular society. Social change, which gives ALL people in a given society equal access to education, justice, and jobs is not what this column is about. But these kinds of changes will go a long way in educating our children in a way they should be educated rather than simply setting them loose on the minefield that is the internet.

One last thought. Children do not need computers in the classroom. They need parents at home. Good, loving parents. Computers have no arms. Parents do. Computers cannot read stories to their children. Caring parents can. Computers do not hug and kiss their children goodnight. Loving parents do. Computers do not, and can never create a warm and loving environment for their children to learn, love, grow, succeed, and prosper. But caring and loving parents can. Computers can never do anything for their children, because computers can't have children. Besides having no arms, no legs, no mind, no heart, no soul, and no bowels, computers also have no genitals. They cannot reproduce. An interesting fact that seemed to have escaped the cyber snake-oil salesmen in their attempt to deify computers.

If the internet is to be used as an educational aid for our children, it must be used in conjuntion with a supportive and loving home environment where parents are in total control of their children's internet use. Otherwise technology in general, and the internet in particular, will become ever more dangerous for ourselves, our children, and the world.


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