Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Life in Cyberland

It has been almost a year since I last set foot in the "I.T. classroom" at ye olde academy, and it has changed a lot.

Actually, that room has already gone through some considerable changes since I started working at Seishin in 1996. It started out as just a large extra classroom, one that was often used for my upper-grade English lessons. Then, in 1997, they started converting it into a computer lab. They put in special desks with pop-up monitors and keyboards on pull-out drawers. Each one contained a Pentium II computer. There was also a projector in the corner, two large network printers, and a teacher's desk with a pair of master control computers, a MIDI music setup, and a number of conveniences. The neighboring room, which was originally intended to be a department office, came to contain twin servers, extra hard drives, a couple of workstations, and a whole lot of spare parts.

As it turned out, they hardly used it at all except as an ordinary extra classroom with the machines locked up. Frankly speaking, it was a bloody waste of time, effort, and money (not to mention potential...though it did provide plenty of advertising propaganda).

So now I'm here today, and they've completely reworked it. The basic layout is the same, but the pop-up/pullout desktop machines are gone. Instead, there are locking cabinets containing a mass of laptop computers. Each student checks out his or her own machine, takes it from the cabinet, carries it to his or her desk, connects the AC adaptor plug that is built into the desk, boots up, logs in, and is then able to access the internet via wireless network. The teacher's station not only looks more modern than before, with twin large-size LCD touch-screen monitor panels, but it also has much more comprehensive network control including the ability to tap directly into the monitors of individual student machines, send messages to them, or even shut them down remotely (displaying a very cute screen saying [in Japanese], "YOU'VE BEEN STOPPED! Go see the teacher...and do what he says).

UNLIMITED POWER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

*ahem* Anyway, that's not why I'm here. Thirty-two students have applied to participate in Seishin's first exchange contingent to our sister-school in Caloundra, Australia. We plan to take twenty. We have to weed some of them out. Today we start the trial by fire with an English proficiency test. It's not just any test, either. It's being done through a contractor, and the whole thing is carried out online.

For some strange reason I have suckered myself into setting things up all by my lonesome, so I have this sterile-looking, plastic-smelling room all to myself. The only sound is the eerie symphony of the various fans in the projector, master control, and heating system. It's bloody hot in here, and when I check the environmental controls (heh heh...I LOVE saying that!) I see it's set at 29 degrees Centigrade (84 degrees Fahrenheit), so I promptly reset it. Unfortunately, since this is one of the few well-insulated rooms, it's going to be an oven for a while at least. Taking thirty-two laptops out of the cabinets, hooking them up, connecting the mice, preparing headphones for each, and then booting all of them up takes almost a full hour. Still, it's enjoyable somehow. Kind of a Zen thing. I'm feeling peaceful and reflective, and it's almost too bad when the other two teachers show up with the company consultant.

Not long afterward, the applicants start to ooze in in gobs of three or four. I say "ooze" and "gobs" because some of them are so nervous they can barely move...and they are drowning in sweat. (Of course, that might be because the room is still so damned hot!)

The consultant guides the jittery rabble through the initial log-on and talks them through the website's complicated sign-in procedure one teeny tiny step at a time. It's a good thing, too; some of these kids are whizzes at math or English but can barely tie their shoes. After a lot of fuss and bother we finally get all of them to the "start" dialog. Then, with a few anxious twitches here and there, the kids press The Button and launch the test.

It's wild watching them take it. It starts out with basic multiple-choice problems dealing with grammar and vocabulary. From there it goes to picture/story and then listening problems. The whole thing is as colorful, animated, and creative as a modern website, and the students almost look like they're having fun even while nervous enough to shatter at the least provocation. The fixed time limit, which counts down very visibly in the upper right of every screen (fraying the kids' nerves even more) is only halfway gone when the first few get to the "end" screen. Others make it there one by one over the next half hour. After they finish, they help me break down their computers and return them to the cabinets, and then they bolt from the room as fast as they can go.

Each individual's results are available for immediate printout as soon as s/he finishes, but we decide the printer is too noisy and save them on disk for future reference instead. Still, it's convenient to be able to take a quick look at each student's score right at the end. Another beauty of the test is that each student works at his or her own pace. Most of them are in good shape, so it goes rather quickly. The trickle turns into a flash flood, and soon the room is empty again.

There is no scoring chore facing us at all. We'll just check out the results by fax in a couple of days. Isn't technology wonderful?

Japan has long since arrived at the age where most cram schools use computers or self-study machines so that (ideally) each student can always find his own guidance and support in that flat-screened world. Now our I.T. classroom has evolved into something very similar. We've heard plenty of nay-sayers, though. For one thing, it's all so impersonal and antisocial. The students basically have no need for each other or for their teachers; they just live in their own, private cyberworlds, doing what they want when and how they want at their own pace. We have to wonder if the increasing lack of motivation, blatant disregard for others, and inability to interact with classmates among new students entering our school has at least some of its roots in the increasingly online world of children in this era. Of course, a lot of that probably has more to do with those cell phones which have become something like a new vital organ for young people. Still, after watching students take this exciting, fast, convenient, automated, trouble-free, and totally impersonal test without any interaction with anyone else (unless they encounter something that isn't automated, whereupon several of them immediately get stuck), I can't help feeling that the world seems somehow colder. Quicker, easier, more seductive, but colder.

Maybe that's why the heater was turned up so damned high...


  • Incidentally, when we got the scores back we noticed that one student got a score of "0" on one part of the test. Her scores were good on all the other parts, so it didn't make sense. When we asked her about it, she said that she answered one question, pressed the "next" button, and then the test screen went totally blank, followed shortly after by the "end" screen. In other words, her test crashed. We'll probably have to find some other way to evaluate her.

    So much for technology...

    (How much did our school pay for that?)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:43 AM  

  • There will be in our very near future a class of society that never leaves their homes, except in case of fire. All ready, I can do 95% of all my shopping online, I can have groceries delivered right to my door, and if I could swing it, I could work from home like Snabulus. They will never feel rain or snow on their face, and the sun will be an annoyance that causes glare on the monitor.

    Time to get out...

    Heck, I could even get my wife on line.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:21 AM  

  • Well, WHY DON'T YOU????????

    (Sorry...had to vent a little frustration.)

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 6:53 PM  

  • pa've -

    and that class of shut ins will probably grow to look like Jabba the Hutt and perhaps have a personality to match. Actually I think it is already happening.

    I see people everywhere who are staring at their cell phone, talking on it, or playing a game or text messaging, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings and irritated by any interuption, like having to interact with the real world. I wonder where that is going to lead?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:03 PM  

  • Well, I am currently typing this message sitting atop Big Bear Mountain, wearing my skis, and looking down the slope of untouched powdered snow. As soon as I press ENTER, I'm going to sling my laptop over my back, and take a stab at a double-black-diamond, with nothing but the wind to get between me and gravity. Ah yes, no hermit here!

    Oh crap, that's just my screensaver. Nevermind.

    By Blogger DewKid, at 10:05 AM  

  • MM, I thought it's very kind of you all to let the student have another chance. I hope she gets selected. Will you get to go along too?

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 12:01 AM  

  • Pa've just described me life. Help!

    yuppp - Protocol to say Yes over a modem.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 6:33 AM  

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