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Then, now...and next?

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Carrie Carrie | 15:12 UK time, Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Hi everyone,

Today I'd like to share with you a blog from Hamish, a former BBC Learning English producer, who founded the BBC Learning English website back in 1996. This week, as we celebrate 80 years of the World Service (you can read more here), Hamish thinks about the past and wonders about the future.



Carrie asked me to look back at my 30 years in English teaching at the BBC. I'll start before that, with my first lesson as an English teacher. In Burundi, Central Africa, in September 1969. The classroom had 40 desks, open windows, an iron roof, and a shiny, uneven blackboard. And chalk - though this ran out from time to time. The pupils were keen, learned fast, and could mimic me brilliantly. You don't need technology to teach. But students need to enjoy learning.

In Burundi

With teachers at Matana School, Burundi, 1969

When I joined BBC English by Radio and Television (as BBC Learning English was then called) I found a vast range of modern teaching tools to use - at least, modern in the 1970's. Short Wave radio. Stencil and spirit copying machines for scripts. (No photocopiers of course - they came later.) And 8mm films of the department's television programmes - black and white and - wow! - colour. Moving pictures plus sound - a great resource, as I tried to demonstrate to groups of teachers. The trouble with film was that if you tried to freeze-frame for too long, the projector caught fire!

Chinua Achebe

Recording Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe

Then, along came video - despite assurances from experts that this new technology would never be used in classrooms. Philips 1500, V2000, Betamax - and eventually the standard format, VHS. The BBC series Follow Me combined TV, radio books, audio and video cassettes. Most importantly, underlying the project was the recent Council of Europe language framework, Threshold Level. This analysed language in new ways, looking at functions - what the language was doing - and not just its structure.

Tallinn, Estonia

At a conference in Tallinn, Estonia

Around 1992, a cousin of mine came over from the USA and introduced me to the internet by plugging a small computer into my aunt's phone socket. (Much to her surprise.) You could communicate with people anywhere, and read pages of grey text on a grey background. There wasn't much chance of ever getting sound or video on the internet - but, like film, it seemed to have great possibilities for teaching. And, in March 1996, we launched the BBC's first English language teaching website. Four months later, during the BBC English Language Summer School, we made one audio file available, and soon afterwards started an email discussion group. And then learned how to put video on the web. And, a few years later, tried mobile phones.

Next year, BBC Learning English will celebrate its 70th birthday - the first BBC English language teaching broadcast was on 4th July 1943. Let's look a bit ahead. How do you think people will want to learn English by the year 2050? What type of English? And, most importantly, is there anything around now - in technology, linguistics, psychology and so on - that might grow in importance by then?


Recording a series in Moscow University, September 1989

Mimic - imitate (here, for amusement: I had a habit of saying "Right...ummm....errrr...now..." and the pupils had great fun copying me)
Spirit copying machine - a machine for producing a limited number of copies of a typed or hand drawn document. Also known as Banda machines. The spirit is the alcohol based ink used.
Freeze-frame - to pause a film or video on one frame or individual image
Function / structure - A language function is what you do with language - for instance, "Requesting someone to close the window". The different structures used to do this may include: "Is that window open?" (Question), "Shut the window" (Command) and "That window is letting a lot of cold air into the room" (Statement)
Background - in the early 1990's many web pages had no colour, just different shades of grey
Email discussion group - the bbc-elt discussion group, launched in January 1997, used email to allow learners to discuss topics with the help of a moderator


  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Carrie thank you for sharing the blog from Hamish. It truly gives an insight into the development of BBC Learning English program and also reminds us how it was before the technology revolution. Hamish is spot on when he said "You don't need technology to teach. But students need to enjoy learning."

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Carrie, thank you for this interesting topic.
    I’m not young and I can remember my excitement, when I began using internet.
    It was so wonderful contacting people all over the world, finding a lot of information, sending messages and receiving answer staying at home and all over the day ! I began using internet when my teacher went to London: I have lived in Milano and I had to prepare my thesis. So, he proposed to me to use e-mailing and I discovered a very useful instrument. I was a young mother, a worker and a student and internet was so useful, because I could look for information and write e-mails during the night or on Sundays. And now I’m using Internet to learn English in very comfortable and cheap way !!
    Internet changed our lives and our way of learning too.
    But Hamish asks an important and intriguing questions about the future: what sort of innovation is going to grow in importance ? I think that this is a difficult question to answer and I have no ideas at all !!
    Best wishes by Maria Teresa

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Carrie,
    Thank you for sharing the informative blog of Hamish. It seems he had an accomplished career in BBC Learning English, and took part in many of the pioneering projects.
    It's so difficult to predict the world in 2050. Despite of all the growing factor of regionalism, I believe, English language would maintain its global appeal as a prime language for commerce and science. However, it'll depend mostly on how the English speaking countries like US & UK fare in the future.
    Science is developing so fast and technology has become so affordable that it's difficult even to predict where technology may take us in even in next 5 years. However, I can see that a day is not so far away where there'll be virtual class room, where the teacher would be able to interact with students of different remote areas in a single class room, where everyone would be able to see each other, interact with each other at the same time as if they are sitting in the same class room. It'll revolutionize the education system of the world, sitting at a remote place in Africa or India, a competent student would able to study and earn a prestigious degree may be from Oxford or Stanford, at a much lesser cost (no visa, no staying abroad with same teachers and co-students with the same interaction and experience). Won't it be great?
    To predict the technology of the future, I prefer to watch the sci-fi Hollywood movies, they are in fact, much ahead of time. I would love to know what others predict about the future technologies.


  • Comment number 4.

    The BBC had playing abig roll in a history genarally I gree with the colleagues bbc it real revolution in an education and news embody the democrace because it's depend a values such as a conversation , I mean not to sent massege just but it's listening to people and what are they needed , as well as it's made thier voices listenlly , it's the first radio at me and all a friends I know becaus we found their self here in an oldest a life school .

  • Comment number 5.

    Hello Carrie,

    Mr.Hamish did very stunning thing with creating such a wonderful source for learning English. I regret that I joined BBC Learning English late, my English could be more sophisticated now.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hello Carrie and thanks to Hashim for his interesting explanation about teaching resources.
    I was born three months before he started to teach English in Burundi. And when I went to school I have some more tools to learn than he had to teach, but they are so rudimentary. I had English class at nine for first time and I studied English until I finished Secodanry School, but it was, most of all, written English. Sometimes, we students listended a speech from a low quality cassette, which we hardly heard an of course didn't understead it at all. The most people took rather poor notes, but those who attend at private classes.
    I studied Hispanic Philology at the University and I choose French and Italian as foreign languages and avoided English because it frightened me.
    I finished my studies and I started to work as Spanish as foreing language teacher at the Salamanca University and in languages schools. My tools to teach weren't already very advanced. Of course, I can photocopy, I had a cassettes and a video, and I used a computer, but only the word processor. However I noticed something had changed: my teachers had treaned me to teach in a very different way I have learned even French an Italian at the University. It was the communicative approach Hamish quotes. Indeed we searched for amusing materials and whenever it was possible from real-life situations close to our students.
    In the course of the time, I obteined a secure employment as a State Secundary School teacher by passing competitive exams. I come up with some bunchs of teenagers without any interest in Spanish language o Litterature. Indeed it was difficult to compete against subjects as Tecnology or Physical Educatior and agaisnt the prestigious and useful sciencies. Not to mention their hormonal development than kept them absolutely busy, so there was no room for nothing else in their head.
    I couldn't more agree with Hamish than students need enjoing to learn, so I passed years making notes and exercices different from the texbook to avoid the boredom, and looking for examples through adds, comics, songs and teenagers magazines. I thint my achievement wasn´t a great deal.
    Certainly, I got tired of teaching the same subject (I wanted to be Maths teacher), of repeating the same things and of quarreling with bad-tempered teenagers. And if a teacher wants their students to enjoy and learn, the teacher ought to enjoy the lessons too. If the teacher gets bored the students do too.
    Then the Interctive Whiteboard or Digital Blackboard entered my Secondary School. Its use was a challenge for a lot of teachers no expert

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Carrie,

    First and foremost I would like to congratulate all of the founders and colleagues on their great job. I am very grateful for your work you have done for nearly seven decades.

    The ways of communication have progressed in leaps and bounds for many years creating fast and widely used and easily accessible ways of human connection.

    As History has shown, the conventional techniques of communication firstly seemed to be endangered by the new technical inventions but later the new ones found their proper places in the daily routine. For example lots of people buy expensive tickets and go to the theater to enjoy a special artistic atmosphere of a beautiful performance even though this kind of programmes can be found on TV.

    Back to my profession. Being as a family practitioner doctor, in my view is that nothing can replaces a personal meeting. Something special is being existed while I am paying attention to my patient whose words express only a little part of his/her problem. I am afraid this kind of relation will be difficult to be remodeled in the cyber-world.

    Internet and other electronical possibilities much more can be used in the field of teaching-learning especially at the advanced level.

    I am looking forward to trying and experiencing new ways of learning which can help me to improve my English.

    Best regards,

    Krisztina from Hungary

  • Comment number 8.

    I don´t know what is happened to the comment I posted the day before yesterday, but It was published incomplete, so the most important part is missing. I understeand this because my comment was really long. I prefer you delete it completely, though it took me a lot of effort, because like that it hasn't any sense. Thank you very much.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hello from Hamish to Narrosgirl,

    You summed up really well the difficulty of teaching teenagers. When it goes well, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences. (And when it doesn't.....!) It's hard to know how to engage their interest. On one occasion when I was teaching in London we took a group of 15 year old pupils to Paris for a few days. One afternoon we visited the Louvre, and split up into three small groups. The Louvre is very big, I didn't know my way around, and I got lost. We ended up in the Egyptology section, surrounded by ancient Egyptian tombs. There were several examples of hieroglyphics, ancient Egyptian writing, on the display cases. The pupils were intrigued, and they spent half an hour working out among themselves what the drawing of a cat plus a straight line, a squiggle and a crocodile might mean. I'm sure that if I'd marched them in there and announced "Right, class, we will now learn elementary hieroglyphics" then their reaction would have been much less positive.


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