Tuesday, April 03, 2007

postal scrotum: on teaching and videos

Max writes in:

So it looks like what's happening in Japan is happening in Korea now as well: it's getting increasingly harder to land a decent university job. I think the heyday for ESL teaching is over. The market has probably neared its saturation point. Teaching ESL is fine if you just want to come over to Korea/Japan for a year or two on a lark; in fact, that's the kind of employee companies like mine seem to prefer. You might think that employers would value experience and maturity, but it always seems like the bottom line is money, meaning that it's harder to get rid of employees who have been around a while and you have to give them raises, and so on and so forth.

I also think we should take a cue from artificial intelligence researchers like Ray Kurzweil. I really wonder whether ESL jobs will be here 20 years from now. As computers get smarter and smarter, students will be able to do more and more learning online. I predict that soon enough students will be learning [from] online intelligent virtual personalities (whose lessons would be cheap if not free). Heck, even now, if you already have a basic foundation in English and you're a motivated, empowered, self-starter, I think you could do a heckuva lotta learning on the net--and all for free, too.

The future of employment seems riddled with uncertainty.

Max also writes:

Okey-dokey. I made a video of me interviewing my students and uploaded it to YouTube. My concern is that there is too much noise created by my webcam's microphone (kind of a dull, droning noise). Could you give me your opinion about that droning noise? Do you think it strongly detracts from the viewing experience? I know the video quality is poor, but I can accept that. However, I think the noise could be a problem, especially when the students are quiet (which they often are--dammit, where's my cattle prod?).

The reason I am asking is that I am planning to use my webcam a lot in upcoming classes. If you have a minute, please take a look at the video here (feel free to skip the introductory credits). Also, maybe you could please ask your readers for their comments?

Readers: I recommend that you give Max's fine blog a visit. If you want to comment there, you'll need to register (it's WordPress, so this should be no surprise to anyone). I think Max would appreciate reactions from anyone, but I suspect that his video would be of special interest to (1) ESL/EFL teachers, (2) people interested in the tech aspects of podcasting, and (3) people with an interest in drama, speech, and other forms of presentation.

Max: My own reaction to your video was that it was good because it was simple and straightforward. I don't know how long the editing took, but I'm impressed. I have yet to learn how to post anything to YouTube (which reminds me: readers can comment on Max's video right there on YouTube), so your editing and posting of the vid struck me as quite the accomplishment.

As to the question of background noise: yeah, I did find it a bit of a problem, mainly because it seemed at times to obscure what the students were saying. It wasn't tragic, though; having taught Korean-speakers for so long, I qualify as a "sympathetic listener" and can decipher most student utterances. I suspect that the background noise issue can be resolved by both using a better microphone and moving the interviews to a quieter, less echoing venue. I have no idea how deeply you want to get into videocasting, but if you're ambitious, then you'll probably want to make certain crucial purchases, such as a directional mike.

Luckily, many of my readers are more tech-savvy than I am, so I'm sure you'll get a few suggestions from them as to how best to solve your audio problems.

The students were indeed shy, but that's to be expected. If you were to continue making these videos, they'd get used to it, and the videos would serve as a record of their progress. I'd like to incorporate more video into my own classes, taking my cue from my buddy John Williamson down in Dunedin, NZ, where he uses video all the time to allow students to check their progress.

I don't want to focus exclusively on the video's problems, however. It was a good video, all in all, and your technique will only get better as you continue to film your kids. I enjoyed watching the vid and look forward to more.

Oh, yeah-- I do have one question. One of the girls read out her name, her phone number, and her city of residence. Call me paranoid, but is this acceptable for public consumption in Japan? If it is, then I apologize for asking, but I can imagine some North American parents wondering about that.

Readers: Max's own post re: the video production is here. While you're at Max's blog, check out his critique of Big Business' manipulation of Joe and Jane Consumer.



  1. I think the distance from the mic was more of a problem than the droning. Max is obviously going to be speaking louder than the students, so the mic should be much closer to them.

    As for ESL jobs disappearing in 20 years in favor of AI teachers... I'm not so sure about that. Will AI be a valuable tool in ESL teaching? Probably. Will it replace human teachers entirely? If artificial intelligence improves to the point that it can replace a skilled and experienced ESL teacher, than it will have improved to the point where it can replace pretty much *all* teachers, up to a certain level. I can't see AI progressing that far in the near future. And even if it does, I'm not sure that people would be willing to entrust the education of future generations to computers (although some would argue that we're already doing that to some extent).

    Just half-formed thoughts here, nothing more than babbling.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, Charles. You may be right about AI not progressing very quickly. Who can predict the future? The thing to remember, though, is that computer power is doubling every year, which means exponential growth. So many processes now are already controlled by computer alone (think about the Pentagon's pilotless planes flying over Iraq), so many advances are in the news every day.

    Kevin, thank you very much for that thoughtful reply.

    I think you're right about the webcam. I will probably have to splurge and buy something better. I wish we had a budget for these things. I don't think my boss would be willing to shell out for a nice webcam. He's pretty good about buying other things (books, CDs, DVDs, and other materials). But generally the staff are not very tech savvy (ours is a new building without internet connections in the classrooms; a lot of the paperwork is still done by hand).

    Regarding how one girl gave her phone number and city of residence. Yeah, I realize how that could strike a cord with Westerners. Your question reminded me of how many drivers in Korea leave their cell phone number visible on the dashboard (often in the form of a nice embroidered pillow) so that when they park they don't have to worry about boxing other drivers in.

    Well, even if some shitcake did call her number, he probably wouldn't be able to speak Japanese, so he couldn't do much harm.

    It could be an issue that my student's number is spoken in the video, but then again names, phone numbers, and addresses are generally public information, aren't they? Phone books are full of such info. Maybe your reserve was due to the fact that we can see the student's face as well?

    You've made me think of a lot of other topics, though. Damn, I can't stop writing. I think one of the things that has happened in the West is a big loss of trust in social situations. You just never know whether that guy over there is a sex offender. My best guess is that sex offenders are probably found in the same percentages the world over, but that Korea and Japan haven't really woken up the reality yet. (Shame is a bigger issue over here and such offenses are probably less likely to be reported.)

    Anyway, I would say that this whole issue of privacy across cultures and fear of strangers merits a few blog posts of its own. Or we could talk about the how the internet has affected notions of privacy and trust.

    I myself, I believe, am not a very private person compared to most other Canadians or Americans. Like I wrote before, I used to have naked pictures of my babies on my blog. That was probably pretty naive of me, but who could have believed that some fuckup would get off on baby pictures?

    Still, I can't understand the notions that a lot of my fellow compatriots hold. Two anecdotes about Canada before I go.

    The first was when I called my auto mechanic at his home. I couldn't even be sure I had the right number, because this was the terse message on the answering machine: "Hello, you've reached the number that you're calling. Leave a message, and we may call you back!"

    The second was when I was renting out half the basement of my Greek landlady's house. In the driveway, I noticed an earring that must have been dropped by the girl living in the other side of the basement. I knocked on their door several times, and was about to give up, when she opened the door. She was home with her boyfriend, but her explanation was that they didn't answer the door if they didn't know who it was. Now her boyfriend was a firefighter, so you would have thought he would be fairly macho. But such is the fearful attitude towards strangers back home.

  3. EEEK did i post my comment? sorry if i double -no triple posted my comment. appologies in advance.

    let me try this one more time....

    Hallo and greetings from Canada!

    I was just wondering, Kevin, what your own thoughts were as to the demise of ESL teachers.

    I was a bit worried after reading Max's entry as I am a student here in Canada finishing my last year of University and would like to head over to S. Korea or Hong Kong to do just that.. become an ESL teacher!

    I really hope that the above Charles, is correct about his prediction in not seeing AI intelligence progressing to the point where it'd replace teachers.

    One last thing, I'd like to give my compliments on what a brilliant blog you have! I should like to comment and visit more in the near future.. as soon as I get my exams over and done with!

    And I hope to sign up to wordpress (after exam slavery) so I can comment on Max's page too.

    Kind regards,

  4. Angela,

    Thanks for visiting the blog, and welcome!

    I think the Kurzweilian future isn't coming anytime soon, but I do subscribe to the "strong AI" school of thought, which says that humans will eventually be capable of building machines that are, for all intents and purposes, conscious in the human sense of the word.

    Language, however, presents a special problem for people in the field of artificial intelligence, because utterances are often context-bound and require a very large measure of social awareness (a branch of linguistics called pragmatics deals with this) to be understood correctly. Between human interlocutors, misunderstandings occur all the time, so it seems likely that machines will suffer the same problems in machine/human interaction even after such technology is ready to go (though, for all we know, machine-to-machine communication might be nearly perfect).

    Social awareness, in AI, is a subset of the larger issue of determining relevance. How, exactly, do our minds determine what's important and unimportant in our daily lives? Our brains have to sort through who-knows-how-many terabytes of sensory data every minute; this isn't an easy task, yet our brains perform it routinely.

    Artificial minds, contrary to brains, currently have trouble judging relevance the way humans do. For example, when is the foreground action more important than the background action? A human being knows that a car rolling toward her is of far more importance than the bird in yon tree, but if there were no danger from an oncoming car, then that bird, even though part of the background, might capture the woman's attention.

    A cool essay about this very problem, the problem of meaning and relevance, can be found over at a blog called Conscious Entities, which devotes itself entirely to questions in the philosophy of mind. The essay in question is here.

    So I don't think language teachers (or any other human teachers) are in danger of losing their jobs anytime soon: the problems being encountered by AI theorists and practitioners, while not intractable, are nevertheless formidable. We'll be chewing on these problems for some time yet. In the meantime, a career in teaching awaits you!

    Thanks, Angela, for your kind words. Good luck with exams!


    PS: If you're thinking about teaching EFL in East Asia, I'd recommend that you visit a blog called EFL Geek, which is run by a gent here in Korea.

    PPS: Regarding WordPress registration: I think you have to register for each WordPress blog. It's simply a matter of finding the "register" link on Max's blog and then following the instructions. You'll be done in a minute or so.

  5. Thanks Kevin.. you are so helpful and kind!

    As mentioned, I hope to get back to you when my exams are done.

    PS: Your banner ad for your book is soo gosh darn funny!
    PPS: you said EFL? what's the difference between that and ESL? Well i suppose i can and i should google that.

    Bye for now and hope all is well, and then some!




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