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“For God’s sake, let us be men, not monkeys minding machines, or sitting with our tails curled as the machine amuses us.” – D.H Lawrence

A language academy that I worked for underwent a revolutionary change in order to maintain and gain students – it swapped the whiteboard for the smart board, an internet-enabled touch screen television.

Although upon the majority of teaching staff were hesitant at such an overhaul by our directors, it’s not so surprising when you consider the tech-hungry society that it’s catering for. Living in modern South Korea pretty close to experiencing the feeling of being in a sci-fi movie due to the rampant flaunting of commercial technology from the giant flat screens adorning sides of buildings to the ever increasing choices of how to experience a movie at the local theatre to virtual shopping malls.

Because of the small size of the country, with it’s swelling hives of apartments, lightening fast wireless broadband connects the majority of the population. When away from home, their ubiquitous smartphones are seemingly glued to their palms, rapidly typing emoticon-strewn instant messages, furiously battling in online games and watching soap operas. The wifi spread knows no bounds here – including the subway or public buses, which have routers onboard.

One of the first impressions I received of the country was via in-car technology, as the driver transporting me to my small slot of existence (i.e. my new apartment) occasionally watched the road ahead, but mostly gawked at the mindless game shows transmitting from his GPS system. I’m sure those things were supposed to improve driving efficiency. It was probably a good thing I wasn’t aware of Korea’s car crash rates at the time.

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Students here have been brought up with world-leading technology at their fingertips. Many of the elementary students, even kindergarteners, have smartphones. Some count ‘robot class’ among the many after-school academies they attend.

Robotics is so popular here that a robot theme park is set to open soon in Incheon, a city close to Seoul. Students talk about having a robot cleaning maid as if it was as common as owning a microwave (or should that be toaster-oven?).

The changes that my academy made are just the start of a major revolution in the way classrooms may begin to operate. I evaluated typed and spoken homework online via the new company’s website, i taught lessons that were displayed on a touch screen TV linked to the internet, and every two weeks i graded students on a section called ‘Creative Thinking Project’.  ‘CTP’, as it is known, encourages students to collaborate and write a script for a chat show, a news report or a movie trailer and perform it in front of a virtual environment, made possible with an electronically activated blue screen background.

The background, digitally created onscreen,  can be changed during the performance depending on the scene, and later uploaded onto the schools website for parents to view, comment on, and give a rating.

Welcome to the future.

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Yet the increasingly tight schedule means that students have minimal time to come up with ideas and write the lines, so a lot of help was required from teachers.

Ideally, the students had to memorize their lines before recording day, but excuses always flooded in that they were at other academies until 10pm with no time left to practice. It’s hard to argue with that one. It’s easier to swallow than “The dog ate my homework”, where the size of the dogs usually found here are usually dwarfed by an A4 sheet of paper.

Smart boards are just the start. smartdesks are being experimented with to positive effects, and a branch of the same academy I worked at even focuses on tablet learning.

For one CTP project we had to brainstorm ideas for future classroom improvements. One student suggested a robot teacher. The worrying thing for human teachers though, is that this is not some silly idea stemming from a cartoon, but from the imagination of a child in today’s rapidly adapting technological society.

Thing is, the other day l I was trying to come up with some board games in my new school to strengthen my students’ vocabulary after my flatscreen lamp had died. I was going to do a few rounds of ‘hangman’ when I realized that with the current rate of suicides among Korean teenagers, maybe they needed more positive imagery.

I decided to change the game to ‘climb monkey’, using the same principles of hangman but with more positive imagery inspired by my critique of an earlier class’s book that ‘everyone is happy at the zoo’ (I had illustrated that monkeys would have more fun in the jungle.).

“Do you like it? It’s more fun, right?” I asked my class.

“No teacher!”, one of them yelled, followed by an indecipherable Korean phrase.

I turned to my assistant teacher for a translation: “monkey suicide”.

Cue hysterics.

In a country that has the highest teen suicide rate of the developed countries, the fact that I was in the company of South Korean teenagers laughing about such a meaningful and tragic topic was absurdly hysterical. In trying to divert the symbolism of losing to equate that of hanging, i’d inadvertently offered a similarly grim solution.

I’d made suicide funny – I’d like to see a robot teacher do that.

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