Western Australian primary schools are starting to use new technology to teach students Chinese rather than hiring language staff in the classroom.
My Chinese Teacher enables schools to have their students chat live on video with a tutor in Beijing for 25 minutes a week.
One hundred regional and metropolitan schools across Australia are using the program, 16 of which are based in WA.
Co-Founder of My Chinese Teacher, Tom Shugg, said schools had lots of technology in their classrooms but still grappled with using it.
“The My Chinese Teacher program has proven an effective way to use existing technology,” Mr Shugg said.
“Students get to see the real Beijing courtesy of webcams and observe things such as the density of living, bicycles on the street and even snow which can create real world context to the type of place China is and it really motivates students.
“Schools love our program because it is very engaging and completely sustainable, not being reliant on one individual within the school to keep it going.”
The children at Beechboro Primary School are the latest Perth students to use the program.
Previously the school did not offer a language program other than English.
However, as of 2018, the State Government will require a language other than English to be introduced in Year Three and then progressively into later years of primary school.
Beechboro Primary School Principal Len Christie said that to hire a classroom teacher to teach a language full-time would cost the school more than $100,000.
“We’re trialling [the program] and so far because we have the right technology, we have no lag time, clear audio and video direct from Beijing.”
The 2017 prices for the My Chinese teacher program would only cost the school $2300 per classroom a year.
Although the lesson was only a preview, if the school chose to continue with My Chinese Teacher, Beechboro Primary School Year Three teachers Janet Barrett and Vinka Meredith said there would be benefits.
“It was good, it was clear, it was enthusiastic,” Ms Meredith said.
But the fact the lessons only go for 25 minutes a week when the state requires one hour of language classes troubles the teachers.
“We have 35 minutes to fill in after the interactive class,” Ms Meredith said.
“We aren’t too sure what we’re going to do during that time.
“Our concern is that we’re not going to be able to support the kids afterwards.”
Ms Barrett said she was unsure how assessments were going to be carried out, though the children in her class responded well to the video lesson.
“The kids enjoyed it and they loved learning about the background of China too,” Ms Barrett said.
“But what is taught in class must be graded.
“We’re worried we’re going to have to teach a language we don’t know”.
Mr Shugg said the fact ordinary classroom teachers supported all of the lessons was a departure from the conventional model but so far had been his greatest success.
“The follow-up activities we provide are all online and are not reliant on a classroom teacher’s ability to speak Chinese,” he said.
President of the Modern Language Teachers’ Association of WA Kate Reitzenstein said the association did not have an official stance on the My Chinese Teacher program, but some teachers have encountered it before.
Principal of the Chung Wah Chinese School Rossmoyne Campus MA Xuanli was sceptical of the efficiency of learning Mandarin via webcam.
“It depends if the students have the intention to learn,” Dr Ma said.
“It may be okay for single adults, but in larger groups students won’t be able to receive personalised feedback on things like pronunciation and their accent.
“For younger students it’s better if a teacher is in the classroom with them, I can’t say for everyone … but most students will not have the attention span for online lessons”.
Schools in regional WA have been using the program as a way to deal with a shortage of language staff willing to make the trek to their schools.
Both St Paul’s Primary and Baynton West Primary School in Karratha have been using My Chinese Teacher to provide language lessons to their students this year.
A study commissioned by the Australia-China Relations Institute shows the number of students enrolled in Chinese at government schools has doubled in WA since 2008.