Friday, March 05, 2004

Beware "Technological Advances"

Blinger in Korea (see links on the right) blogged yesterday about classroom layout, and was saying that he would like to have some technological advancements at his school. That started me thinking about the situation at my previous employer, Prefectural University of Kumamoto, or PUK to its friends. (Yes, it does look like another word.)

Take heed, oh gentle Reader, this cautionary tale of Bureaucracy out of control...

When I was interviewing for a job there in 1990, I was asked if I would like to work in a place where I could use language laboratories. It sounded intriguing, and I said yes. It turned out that the building to which I was assigned was equipped with LL's, and those teachers assigned there were obliged to use them. It sounded fishy at the time, and got fishier. First, I was assigned to a BUILDING, Foreign Language Education Center, not an administrative body for education, like a department, school or faculty. Next, all of the people assigned there were non-Japanese. The building itself was a building for all of the non-Japanese educators at the school.

The administrator of the place, a Professor Arikawa, told us first that we would need to take classes on how to use the equipment. The vendors of the equipment came and started to show us how the stuff worked. They showed us, and we tried to remember, but they were techies, not teachers, and it was difficult to remember it all. It was also all in Japanese. None of the trainees were Japanese, but we got by with alot of cooperation. On top of that we were finding that even the stuff that we did remember, didn't work the way it was supposed to. In fact it would work in some places, but not others. We let Prof. Arikawa know about this, whereupon we were criticized for being lazy foreigners who were using this as a pretext for getting out of work. We assured him we were not, and next addressed ourselves to the techies. They assured us that we were correct, that the procedures for some rooms were different, because they were different models of the same kind of machine. What should have been an elegant system that would work the same way all the time, did not.

We were also finding that even with those issues taken in to account, the machines did not work as they should. When we made this an issue at one of our training sessions, the techies gave up. They decided we needed a real trainer, one who could speak English. They decided that language must be the problem, not the machines. They enlisted the aid of a trainer, conversant in English, who could show us how the machines worked. Victor Japan sent a someone who would show us how to master these machines. She left in tears, because our Japanese was better than her English, and her efforts to tell us anything in English was a hindrance, so we asked her just to stick to Japanese. Then the machines would not work the way she was told they would work. One of our number took her and her employers to task right then and there.

In later questioning we found that Victor Japan had sold Kumamoto Prefecture a prototype of a machine that they had no intention of ever manufacturing, in fact the computers that controlled the LL's were very old at that time. There were bugs in the software, and bugs in the machinery.

I used the machines for tasks that would aid my students. I never used the LL's a learning laboratory with the Audio Lingual Method, the teaching/learning method that spawned LL's. Hardly anyone makes resources for that method anymore.

When next the prefecture decided to build language classrooms, they came to us for ideas. Their initial idea was that since the LL's had worked so well to begin with, they would repeat their disaster. We convinced them that it really had been a disaster, and that the people of the prefecture would be better served by not installing them. When asked what we wanted, we gave them a list. The problem was that our list would not come anywhere near to using up all of the money already allocated for the construction of the classrooms. Japan Inc. would get its share from the prefecture whether the stuff was useful or not.

We worked with an ingenious public servant to have useful, reliable equipment installed and still use up all of the money that the bureaucracy was throwing at it. When the building was built and the machines installed, we attended the training sessions. There were similar problems, but nowhere near as outrageous as before. We stopped going to the training sessions.

We learned, and there is still evidence, that in this kind of acquisition of great amounts of machinery, human resources take a back seat. Look at the pictures in the link above. There are people in those photos. Some of them are teachers. One of the teachers in the photos is still teaching at PUK. The others have gone, me included. I believe that is my photo on the top, where the students are sitting in a circle. I am not using any machinery in that photo. Convenient room that one. There was very little machinery in it. The machinery is still there.

Tips for teachers in decision-making positions:
1. Make sure you are not buying a prototype.
2. Simple is best. The bells and whistles break.
3. Try to make sure its about people, students and teachers, not the machines.
4. When it comes down to it, the students learn from the teachers, not the machines. No student ever wrote on any of my course evaluations that they liked or hated the machines. They did say that they liked or hated ME.

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