Best defence

April 7, 1995

Christina Preston reports on a Chilean initiative to enrich and protect oral cultures through a multimedia network for teacher training in the country's poorest areas.

The Mapuche Indian tribes in Chile enjoy a rich oral culture that has no written form. But in the authoritarian Chilean education system under military dictatorship, Mapuche teachers were marginalised and Mapuche children embarrassed by their traditions. Now the dictatorship is over, Chilean universities are competing to create rival alphabets for them. This academic approach misses the point: a truly oral culture cannot be captured in writing.

In Europe as well as in Chile those who are good at reading and writing have always dictated definitions of literacy. Fortunately, the 20th-century attitude that oral cultures are only a stunted version of their printed, text-based peers is beginning to fade as indigenous people are heard. Commentators across the continents such as Lake Sagaris, Margaret Meek and Francesco Chiodi are outlining the virtues of these modes of communication.

The benefits of reading, writing and speaking in the dominant language of education, whether Spanish or English, are not in doubt. But the different perspectives on life offered by communicating in mother tongues should be recognised and celebrated.

There is more opportunity in the British national curriculum for valuing oral skills than there is in Chilean schools. But respected education theory in the United Kingdom still tends to reflect the notion that in children, as in history, orality gives way to writing eventually: although experience should tell us that for many adults this is never true.

Greater control over the tools of multimedia is fuelling this debate about the role of ancient and modern oral traditions of communication. Evidence is being gathered by an innovative project, Enlaces, which has been funded by the Chilean government and the World Bank, to put an interactive, multimedia network of computers into the remotest and poorest schools.

Where the Mapuches are in school, the Enlaces team has discovered that "point and click" interfaces, graphics and sound allow the Indians to communicate the best of their traditions without the need for written screen text. This has serious implications for the way teachers in these areas are trained.

The Mapuche Indian respect for change has meant that they have embraced this technology wholeheartedly. Mapuche teachers are collaborating with the Enlaces team to create software in celebration of their philosophy, legends, beliefs, homes, lifestyle, their music, poetry, songs and traditions.

They are recording their knowledge of the local habitat from their unique perspective. Tribes are collaborating across the mountains to record existing vocabulary in sound and graphics including new words for the modern world which will keep the language alive.

Most challenging for western understanding of progress is the fact that in remote villages the culture of the book, so cherished by academics, has been by-passed altogether. Communities that have never had libraries or books in Spanish are now well resourced with illustrated and animated information from on-line databases and networked CD-Roms. Teachers and students are in international dialogue as empowered world citizens, when only a short time before they doubted whether they counted in the Chilean capital of Santiago. The effect on the ethos of the schools has been dramatic; the impact on interpersonal relationships marked; interest in general education has also improved. For deprived and isolated groups in the western world this experience holds a powerful message about the role of self esteem in school effectiveness.

As the new democratic Chile has emerged, the country has earned an international reputation for reconciling profound differences without bloodshed. Education has benefited from this national attitude because there is a consensus about the country's needs. The government knows that if every citizen is to have a share in an expanding future, standards of literacy are crucial. The alternative is a nation of sharply divided "haves" and "have nots" with attendant social unrest from minorities who have little to lose. Politicians have identified education as the key to economic success and national unity. For the first time in 20 years education will receive a larger budget than defence.

The programme is pledged to improve equity and equality in education. It is supported by the World Bank and the Chilean government. The Enlaces project, part of the programme, is responding to the education needs of the country with radical thinking about information technology education for teachers and students.

First, the Enlaces team redefined the meaning of "literacy" to include "telematics" skills - a term which includes information technology, connectivity and communication. The educational multimedia network used by Mapuche tribes is part of a national service designed by Enlaces to train teachers and students for the 21st century. This national network is in its second funding phase and reaches more than 200 schools.

Qualitative and quantitative assessments with evaluation tools built into the network, give weekly measures of activity that can be adapted for sensitive feedback to the training team and the teachers. The central team can respond and adapt daily to the needs of the teachers and children. Isolated schools can be identified and supported. Good practice can be encouraged and rewarded instantly. Qualitative research studies that run in parallel provide invaluable teacher education information for international practitioners. Charts and graphs of activity and achievement have proved invaluable in securing more funding from the government and World Bank which have to base their internal proposals on quantitative data.

The future of minority groups such as the Mapuche is not the only problem the new Chilean government faces. The state system in Chile is overcrowded and under-equipped. The teaching force is largely middle-aged, authoritarian, poorly trained and demotivated by lack of responsibility and hourly pay rates. There is no tradition of in-service training. The network provides teacher education in context and according to expressed need. One teacher, elected by staff and supported by face-to-face training with online support, leads training, runs the network and encourages activity on it. Surprisingly, it is the older teachers who have proved the most willing to take on these telematics responsibilities.

Schools must bid to join the project. Competition is fierce. More than 200 primary schools are now connected; a raft of secondary schools will start next year. The schools are given powerful and user-friendly multimedia Apple computers and printers.

New generation software such as Clarisworks is bought on licence for the schools to download at night when telephone charges are cheaper. Radio links are also used. There is network help on-line. Seconded teachers encourage curriculum activity from the centre. The Enlaces team's first task was to design a simple and accessible common interface that neither teachers nor pupils would find threatening. Their solution - La Plaza - is based on a metaphor of the village or town square common to all Chileans. The metaphor simplifies the network tasks by relating them to the activities associated with a post office, a kiosk, a museum and a cultural centre.

The post office is a simple electronic mail system for children and teachers. At first, the team were unhappy intervening to generate activity on the network artificially, but the graphs of activity showed that this strategy did help the schools to develop their own momentum. The cultural centre in La Plaza is a place to establish communication among teachers about teaching and learning.

Through the electronic network which forms the backbone of this system, teachers are establishing personal ties and an exchange of experiences at local, regional, national and international levels. There is no tradition of professional organisations in Chile. It is new for teachers with a common subject specialism to communicate their experiences and opinions to each other. The Enlaces team invite the team leaders to a series of face-to-face training sessions on classroom applications that also focus on professional development and exchange of ideas. The networked forum for this kind of discussion is growing in popularity, especially as a backup for training which involves travel and expense.

Teaching methodology has been at the centre of La Plaza, which is designed to reinforce styles of teaching that promote independent learning, collaboration and negotiation admired in the UK system. The development of school publications and newspapers in UK schools has proved a fruitful area for training because publication is an important way of raising corporate self esteem, of reaching out to the community and to other schools across the country.

In La Plaza, the kiosk offers a window for this kind of dynamic information. Multi-media-based newspapers, books and anthologies and magazines with text, graphics, sound, animation and video clips are being developed to be read all over the country. Teachers are also learning to teach creative writing and self expression which has not been done before.

The kiosk houses illustrated stories and poems which are widely read. Students are contributing to on-line dictionaries of playground words, grandparents' vocabulary and foreign additions to the language.

The museum is an information centre with greater permanence than the information contained in the kiosk. High-quality curriculum software is designed by the Enlaces team with seconded teachers, curriculum developers, psychologists and graphic artists. The museum is also a database of information, experiences, demonstrations, reviews and classroom uses of educational software, contributed by the teachers and trainers.

By trawling the best of international practice the Chileans have built an enviable system. The evidence for the network as a catalyst for change in developing good learning and teaching methodologies is impressive. The infrastructure it offers for continuing in-service education for teachers in the classroom is compelling.

But the Enlaces team is not finished yet. Their teacher educators and software engineers have identified areas where British experience can be helpful. Some of the team have joined well established online courses at the Institute of Education, London University to help them extend the use of computer-mediated communications as a vehicle for professional development, pursue effective schools research and study theories of the management of change and teaching and learning methodologies.

The British Council is funding a three-year project between Enlaces and Project Miranda, a partnership in telematics research, curriculum development and teacher education based in the department of mathematics, statistics and computing at the Institute of Education. It is focusing on industry and education partnership in telematics teacher education, academic writing in English, joint software development for international markets (with Gravesend-based software developer TAG and the Scottish Council for Education Technology) and on-line scholarship programmes in partnership with Toshiba.

And there are lessons to be learned from the Chilean experience. It is exciting to see a country where politicians and educators are focused on a common direction. The simplicity and totality of the Chilean state network system looks unattainable in the UK where the complex interrelations of vested interests and power groups can be overwhelming.

Yet nearly all the elements for a state network for schools exist in the UK already. The National Curriculum makes literacy, numeracy and information technology the three core skills. 4,000 schools subscribe to Campus 2000 and others have joined the Internet. There is over a decade of network experience well documented by organisations like the National Council for Education Technology, BT and Campus 2000. Good practice in telematics has been developed in teacher education by academics such as Bridget Somekh and Nikki Davies. Expertise is being built up about the delivery of on-line teacher education by organisations like the Open University and the Institute of Education. The UK still has the lead in Europe.

There are many creative answers to funding such a system to include the local community as well. For example, the French equated the costs of delivering telephone books with the cost of a Minitel terminal in every home; recovered machines from industry and sponsored scholarships are possible. A range of service providers and companies with a genuine interest in education are keen to take up this challenge. There is no shortage of teachers who are able and knowledgeable: bids for Toshiba scholarships in partnership with Project Miranda, the Gemini project run by NCET and BT and the multimedia awards by NCET all indicate high levels of teacher awareness and commitment to telematics.

Tax advantages for teachers who buy computers for professional use, the exemption of schools from telephone costs and a loosening of the control of the regulators have been recommended for years. But isolated pockets of activity cannot be effective without a national political vision. For once the signs look good. The Department for Education is asking for consultation with education and industry on networks; the Department of Trade and Industry is planning to connect schools to the Internet.

At the Parliamentary IT Committee conference on March 22 the message to the politicians from industry and education was clear: networking the schools cannot be left to market forces. . . take the lead!

Christina Preston is director of Project Miranda. She has just published The 21st Century A-Z Literacy Handbook: linking literacy with software for education and training at Pounds 9 plus 90p p&p from Project Miranda (A-Z), Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL.

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