Ceibal en inglés for primary education is a large-scale remote teaching programme originally conceived as an innovative solution to the shortage of qualified English teachers in Uruguay (Banegas, 2013). It is designed for students and teachers in state-run schools in years 4th through 6th (ages 9 to 12 approximately). It is based on a combination of remote teaching, blended learning, team teaching, with features of both distance learning and face-to-face teaching (Kaplan and Brovetto, 2018, Banegas and Brovetto, 2020). Once a week, a teacher located remotely connects through a videoconference equipment to a school in which students are together in a classroom with their classroom teacher (CT), ready to take their 45-minute lesson. Most CTs are not English speakers themselves. Twice a week, after the remote lesson, the CT leads practice and consolidation instances using material specifically designed for the project. This way, students engage in English practice three times a week. The British Council has been a partner in this initiative since its pilot phase in 2012.
We interviewed Mariela Masuyama, who has been involved with the project since its beginnings.
Mariela Masuyama is the Teacher Development Manager at the Remote Teaching Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She’s been part of Ceibal en Inglés since 2012 and has had different roles within the programme. She was a remote teacher for the first few years of implementation, after which she became a Quality Manager, which involved supporting teachers and language schools to deliver the lessons to a high standard. In her present position, she continues to support them from a continuing professional development perspective. We talked to her about her experience and asked her about success stories, common challenges in remote teaching and how to overcome them, how the programme has evolved, tips for remote teaching.
Interviewer - You’ve been part of Ceibal en Inglés since its infancy. Can you tell us about the evolution of the programme? Have there been any changes that were implemented as more experience was gained?
Mariela Masuyama - Yes. Perhaps the most obvious change if we look back on our experience together in 2012 and we look at the programme now, is the size of the programme. What started off as something small that was being tried out for primary education has been scaled up to a level in which Ceibal en Inglés lessons reach every corner of Uruguay now and we have incorporated different types of schools in the primary public school system like special educational needs schools, rural schools. The program has also expanded to the secondary and vocational schools with different programs. So just the amount of activities being offered has broadened.
And then, of course, as a program, it has not only grown in size, but also developed and with a lot of lessons learned. So we have been through so much from the initial stages with a lot of trial and error. We've been through a pandemic and that's really changed the landscape of remote teaching as well. And now we are, I think, at a new stage of applying all the lessons learned and trying to constantly make things better and innovating.
I - And so I'm guessing that all the changes that you've mentioned have brought about added challenges to the implementation. Could you talk about that?
MM - Definitely. Whenever you try to innovate and you try to introduce change and new things, you are going to face difficulties and things you never expected. But I suppose when Ceibal en Inglés came to be, the big question mark was the technology of it all. Because despite the fact that remote teaching existed, it was always at a smaller scale with a different type of public. Usually when we think about remote teaching, we think about a more autonomous and older learner. We definitely don't think about the public education system. And so the first question was, can you carry this out at this size relying on the technology that is available? Can you reach -I don't know- 90.000 students? (I think that’s the number we are reaching these days through videoconferencing equipment).
You train teachers to learn how to use the video conferencing equipment. And I think perhaps I was surprised by the fact that the technology was something that people very quickly became used to and very quickly acquired. And yes, you have the occasional Internet issue, connectivity issue or some piece of equipment breaking down and having to be replaced, but the technology wasn't a challenge, at least not to the extent we had expected. The technology was more of a solution. And the challenges we have are some challenges that we share with teaching in public primary schools, which are the same as you might have face-to-face.
‘Technology wasn't a challenge, at least not to the extent we had expected. The technology was more of a solution. And the challenges we have are some challenges that we share with teaching in public primary schools, which are the same as you might have face-to-face.’
I - What about the opportunities remote teaching poses?
MM - I think with remote teaching there are lots of opportunities and teachers, and we have had all types of teachers. We have had very new teachers fresh out of college. We have had very experienced teachers who have been teaching in all sorts of schools for years, and now they're looking to do something different and more innovating. And everybody always points out that they are constantly learning, and it is on the one hand because there are a lot of professional development opportunities within the program, but it also comes from the types of development opportunities that come from the virtual classroom itself. We try to encourage as much as possible on the job learning and a reflective approach to teaching. And again, some things we notice are going to be transferable from the skills that a teacher has from their face-to-face classroom.
I - Well, in connection with that, the literature says that telepresence and being able to establish an affective bond with students are especially challenging in remote scenarios. How do teachers deal with that and how do you provide support with this key area?
MM - You will find that in the remote scenario, it is as important as in face-to-face teaching to develop rapport with learners or to create a positive language learning environment. Or to understand your learners and adapt your lessons to cater for their individual or of their group needs. And while the areas are the same, perhaps the actual subset of skills are different and the strategies that you use are going to change. For example, for creating rapport or building a positive learning environment. One of the things that we suggest to teachers is that they greet the learners enthusiastically. That their body language needs to be bigger on camera than perhaps in real life. We do encourage them to have this strong remote presence and we encourage them to use full screen mode and not to take up the screen with that perhaps a PowerPoint presentation or a slide show that would take up half the screen for a long time. We encourage teachers to avoid delivering the lessons sitting down and ready to do stand up, which also helps with body language and with their presence and with their voice to make eye contact with the camera. That is sometimes tricky because they are going to try to be looking at the students on screen, but the camera is up there. So all those little things are perhaps specific to remote teaching, although the aims kind of match what we are trying to achieve in the face-to-face lesson.
I - And what about managing the classroom at a distance?
MM - Well, fortunately, in Ceibal en Inglés, there is this, of course, strong remote teaching element, but there is also the support of a classroom teacher on site who is the grade teacher and who supports the learners during the remote lesson. And so they do help with classroom management, with behaviour management, there is a colleague on the other side of the screen who also helps manage the class.
It's tricky to manage the classroom or to manage behaviour remotely, but there are some things that can be done pre-emptively, in a way, to avoid the lesson getting boring and children getting distracted and things getting derailed along the way. So what would I typically recommend? You will have to do less classroom or behaviour management if your lesson is solid, if the activities that you have planned are varied and they are engaging, if you create situations where children communicate and you change interaction patterns so that it's not just 45 minutes of the children listening to the teacher talk. So do mix in games, do mix TPR, make sure that you're mixing stirrers and settlers and a range of things for the lesson to keep the children interested. And if they're interested, then they're more likely to just stay focussed.
I - Could you tell us examples of practices or projects, ideas that have been especially successful?
MM - Definitely. We have tried out lots of different things. And we also had special projects throughout the time and a few come to mind that were very popular with the children and proved very engaging. A large part of what Ceibal calls essential activities involves drama. And we have had through the years different types of festivals which involved bringing drama to the classroom and to teach the language through drama with the aim of children performing a play towards the end of the year. And those were so much fun, but also they were such an experience in the sense that the children learned and the teachers learned and the level of engagement that those created at a community level was just a fantastic experience.
Something else that we tried last year that was very interesting was a project with Minecraft. Last year each week or with each unit there was a mission with a learning outcome and different kinds of statements that children were meant to achieve. And so what we created was like a parallel programme for seven weeks or so where the children achieved the same linguistic objectives but in the scenario of Minecraft, of being castaways on an island and having to create a world together. And this was fantastic because we were also able to embed values in the projects and there was a lot of discussion and teamwork. And so that's a major success story, I would say.
I - What tips would you give to teachers who are taking their first steps in remote teaching?
MM - My first step towards a successful lesson is planning. And I think that, of course, we need to plan the lesson. We need to plan our activities. We need to plan the types of interactions that we're going to have. And so we also need to plan how this fits the tools that we're going to use for the remote delivery of the lesson. And so, for example, if I plan a speaking pair work activity to practise a question and answer in English, how does that translate into teaching the lesson over zoom? How am I going to pair students? Are students going to be talking at the same time? Are they going to be muting and unmuting one another? Am I going to be sending students to break out rooms? So you need to become familiarised with the technology that you're going to be using for the remote lesson. And then you need to plan for the technology that is available to support the remote delivery of the lesson.
I - Has your vast experience with remote teaching changed your beliefs and practices in any way?
MM - A little bit. Yes. I've always been an idealist. And when it comes to teaching, I've always believed in this transformational power of teaching, and that hasn't changed. But if anything, it's given me the confidence and first hand experience in what we can achieve as teachers or as part of a program like Ceibal en Inglés. Limitless. I never thought I would have the opportunity to reach children in a remote location that I had never even heard of and to become part of the school and become part of the community and to learn about their families or their homes. And so, if anything, it has given me more faith in the powerful effects and the impact that that we can have through remote teaching. And I think that this new modality of delivery is very democratising, and it opens up the possibility for access to teaching and learning in a way that was just not physically possible before.
‘Remote teaching has given me more faith in the powerful effects and the impact that that we can have through remote teaching. And I think that this new modality of delivery is very democratising, and it opens up the possibility for access to teaching and learning in a way that was just not physically possible before.’
I - Is there anything else, any other thoughts or ideas or reflections that you'd like to share with us?
MM - Just that I think everybody should try it. I feel that it's the way in which teaching and learning is heading and we are seeing more and more offers of remote teaching and learning. And I don't see this stopping anytime soon. It can be intimidating at first, but there's so much out there in terms of support for teachers, in terms of learning resources, in terms of self-access materials for teachers. And we now have online communities of practice. So even if you don't have remote teachers in your neighbourhood, in your school districts, you can get in touch with other, more experienced teachers. You can access materials such as the ones on the British Council website. Everything is out there. I think a lot of us that are perhaps early adopters of remote teaching have kind of been self-taught and learned from trial and error. Teachers now are in a better position to start remote teaching because there is more of a world of collective experience. So I don't see why anybody should not give it a try.
Keep exploring the subject!: Visit the Ceibal en Inglés site to explore different aspects of the programme in detail.