The Bionic Wom(e)n of Hanoi
5 February 2019
Hanoi: The place where John McCain was held as a POW for five and a half years, the burial place of Uncle Ho (Chi Minh), the gateway to the famous Dragon boats of Ha Long Bay, and the home of some of the most dedicated English Language Instructors I've ever met. They are the Bionic Women* of the National Economics Univeristy (NEU): boldly fighting English language learning apathy with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), and an infinite amount of other confusing edu-speak without batting a perfectly-mascaraed eye! I know this to be fact because I got to witness it in person over two weeks of workshops, conferences, and many, many delicious meals.
Through my position as an English Language Specialist for the US Department of State, I was asked to conduct two weeks of teacher training workshops on Blended Learning (BL). BL is one of the latest trends in education, a model where learning takes place in the dual spheres of the in-person classroom and the online landscape. It's heralded as the best of both worlds, allowing students the now-cliché opportunity to "learn anywhere, anytime" while still having the four-walled classroom as an intimate learning community to build the connections and motivation that's otherwise lacking in the anonymity of strictly online learning. All of this sounds great until you realize that the classroom teacher must balance somehow culling through the latest, shiniest edu-tech trends and their resulting pedagogical implications with remaining relevant and innovative for her particular course (be it Reading, Writing, Business English, etc.) and a generation of students who process information fundamentally differently than she did - all at the breakneck pace of emerging technology.
Some call it The 21st Century Teacher. Others call it Teacher 2.0. I call it The Bionic Teacher - always plugged into computers, smartphones, Insta handles, hashtags, tweets, and avatars...trying desperately to stay on the right side of the Digital divide. Bionic Teacher makes teachers sound like the super-human beings they are. Plus, look how hot Lindsay Wagner looks in that jump suit (see picture above)!
Through no small miracle, NEU lit up their Bat-Signal to call in reinforcements. I knew that in order to do the English faculty at NEU justice, they needed to experience BL first-hand as a student. So, six months before the training, I rolled up my sleeves and started building an online learning environment through MoodleCloud, a free learning management system. I'd some experience building similar sites at Ohio State (through Desire2Learn and Cornerstone), but with a new audience with new needs, I needed to recruit help from NEU to make sure the digital landscape was going to be effective. Enter Thuy Pham, aka "Kelly", the Dean of the NEU Foreign Language Faculty and all-around life saver. In the months leading up to the workshop, Kelly stayed up many late nights to skype-chat with me across several time zones about the faculty, sharing that they were all eager but extremely busy with full-teaching loads (some of them balancing nearly 50 contact hours a week on top of required administrative duties, research, publications, and family). She aided me in distributing needs analysis surveys to the group of nearly forty instructors so that I could gauge their knowledge and perceptions of BL before we ever met. Meanwhile, I read everything I could find on the latest research and trends in BL in the English language classroom. All of this information coalesced to form a workshop structure:
Moodle would serve as the online space for the instructors to learn at their own pace about the what and, more importantly, the why behind BL. I used the Office 365 tools called Sway and Forms to present information in what I hoped would be an easily digestible and engaging form (though post-surveys would reveal that the instructors would have appreciated more video or audio components so that they could listen and attend to other household chores at the same time -- brilliant!). The Sway/Forms lessons covered six areas as seen below. Click on them if you're really bored or interested in seeing embarrassing "talking head" videos of me introducing each lesson!
Overall, the workshop was a success! My formal review of the whole workshop is written up in a highlight for the State Department here, or you can watch this fun Vietnamese TV news story about the workshop, where - through skillful editing - I appear to be afflicted with an acute case of RBF** or - as my father would have it - I've been portrayed as a bourgeois capitalist, just another prop in the Communist propaganda machine***. Either way...Woohoo! I'm on TV!
In the end, I rested easy knowing that the workshop had some, if even a small impact on the NEU crew. A few instructors let me know that they had already attempted using some of the tech we explored in their classrooms. A few more told me of their plans to create their own Moodle courses. Most importantly, a post survey showed a significant self-reported decrease in apprehension related to starting their own Blended Learning classrooms.
These Bionic ladies* certainly had an impact on me. It was through getting to know their individual experiences as educators that my plans to go back to school were solidified. Up to this point, I had flirted with but not fully committed to going back to school for Instructional Design - a field that studies evidence-based models for designing effective online learning materials. My strengths lay in taking the expert knowledge of one and presenting it in new packaging that can be delivered to any audience. An advanced degree will allow me to sharpen what experience has taught me about this field and, hopefully, to continue helping other ESL instructors both in America and worldwide. I want to continue empowering the extraordinary teachers I meet around the world. I guess what I'm saying is I want to be every Bionic Woman's sidekick. Yeah. Now, excuse me while I go pick out my super cool, super hero sidekick name. Does anyone have a jumpsuit I can borrow?
*Okay, technically there were two, very dedicated male teachers in the bunch, but it ruins my catchy title. Sorry, gentlemen of NEU!
**RBF - Resting Bitch Face
***The views and information presented here are the author's father's own and do not represent the views of the author, the English Language Specialist Program, or the U.S. Department of State...but, c'mon...that shit's funny.