We’re Still Toddlers in Designing Materials for University Level: Bal Ram Adhikari
Bal Ram Adhikari is a Lecturer of English Education at Tribhuvan University. Mr. Adhikari is a translator, editor, poet, and essayist. He is involved in designing ELT courses and course-books for universities. He is an editor of NELTA Journal (2015-2016) and a country editor of SAARC Poems (2012 & 2013). Our Choutari editor Jeevan Karki has managed to talk with him on the course development process in higher education, trends, his observations on the available courses and his experiences as a whole.
1. What was your expectation as a university student about the curriculum & materials and how it turned up as a contributor to courses and course books for higher education? Can you share your experiences?
As a university student, I belong to the generation of the 2050s. This generation of students of English education was exposed to English mainly as a system. Our exposure to English was mainly confined to pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Our obsession was with accuracy in pronunciation and grammar. We rarely experienced English as discourse, art, and ideology. With these components of English, the courses also offered methods and techniques to open up linguistic resources to the students. What we were studying was the abstraction about English rather than actually experiencing the language as a whole. As a student I wanted to read English; I wanted to write; I wanted to speak. There was no any reading-based course for English students save one compulsory literature course in B. Ed. and the elective in M. Ed. Our English reading was scanty so was writing. The courses were encumbered with definitions, phonetic symbols, phonological and grammatical analysis on the one hand and methods and techniques of transferring them to the classroom on the other. Such division and analysis have their own merits but they mar aesthetics of language and its generative power. Consequently, we suffered from deprivation of content, for content we needed exposure to authentic texts in English. I would read the texts prescribed for the Humanities of English in order to supply myself with necessary nutrients of English. I wanted to see English at work.
I started my teaching career at University in the early 2060s. Our professors had felt the necessity of introducing content-based courses apart from giving continuity to the courses on linguistics, applied linguistics and pedagogy. It was the year 2012, I got a chance to work in the team of Prof. Dr. Jai Raj Awasthi in his capacity as the chairperson of Subject Committee. Prof. Govinda Raj Bhattarai had a crucial role in framing out these courses and selecting the texts for them. Since then I have contributed to different courses and course books.
2. What’s the process of designing and developing course books at the university level?
I can only talk about the reading courses and course books I am involved in. For such courses, authentic texts are selected from diverse disciplines and geographical locations. Mostly the texts are prescribed from books, magazines, and newspapers. For the convenience of students and teachers, such texts, which are widely scattered across disciplines, geographies, and sources, are to be compiled and accompanied by appropriate reading and writing tasks. Rather than writing, this is the process of compiling and editing the text and developing the tasks in congruence with the course objectives and levels of students. To my knowledge, there are no specific guidelines as such for developing course books in our university. Nor is there any workshop, seminar, and orientation for this. Normally, the course of study itself serves as the guidelines for compilers, editors and task developers. It means we are mostly guided by our own experience as students and teachers of English, the theoretical knowledge we have garnered over the years, our intuition that might tell what fits and what doesn’t in our context, and our interaction with the teachers who handle such courses.
3. What new trends do you experience in the process of designing courses and materials in the university?
Current global ELT trends have some bearing on our university courses and materials. The global trends such as content-based instruction, technology-based/-supported instruction, inter-disciplinarity, context-sensitive and context-responsive pedagogy, and blending of the global and the local have begun to appear in our courses too with varying degrees of intensity. There is a growing trend in valuing the role of content for the balanced development of English. We are slowly getting out of our age-long obsession with formal components of ‘container’ i.e. teaching English primarily as a system. What is being prioritized in the courses is the content that fills in the container. Lately, Department of English Education has adopted a content-based approach to teaching reading and writing for academic purposes. Similarly, the content-based courses are open to global and local experiences and expertise. If you go through the courses such as General English, Expanding Horizons, and Interdisciplinary Readings there you can see the presence of creative and academic writings by Nepali writers too. We are on the way to claim with pride that we are not only the consumer of knowledge/information but also its producer. This, in the long run, will dilute native speaker hegemony in our English courses. We are not only ‘downloading’ global texts but also ‘uploading’ our local texts for our courses. This will strike a balance between globalization and localization and might result in glocalized version of English education.
Another emerging trend is the inclination towards strategy-based instruction. The guiding assumption is that to teach is to equip trainee teachers with different strategies so that they can learn in their own way and continue their learning even in the absence of the instructor. This will contribute to learner autonomy. Technology-based/-supported instruction is also making its way into the courses. Recently, the B. Ed. curriculum has included a course on technology and ELT. I should also mention here the revival of translation and the space it has gained in English curricula. ELT curricula of Tribhuvan University, Far Western University, and Mid-Western University have prescribed a separate course on translation theory and practice. It means translation has come back to second language pedagogy after a long banishment. Now the courses have realized it as a reality of ESL/EFL contexts. In the pedagogical framework of World English, for instance, David Graddol identifies translation as one of the skills needed on the part of teachers. Translation has also played a key role in engaging students in (re)generating Nepali texts in English.
As to designing materials, we should accept that we are still toddlers. Not many courses contain the materials developed by our university teachers. The general tendency is to prescribe books published by multinational publishers and articles published in international and national journals.
4. How do you evaluate the available English language curriculum and materials for higher education?
My observation on the courses and materials will be primarily holistic, experiential and impressionistic. I will also draw on some empirical information from my own research work. Overall, the English curricula of Faculty of Education have outgrown the yard of linguistics, their parental discipline. With the inclusion of the courses like Expanding Horizons in English, Critical Readings in English, Mass Communication, Translation Studies, Literature for Language Development to name but a few, the curricula of B. Ed. and M. Ed. are being more interdisciplinary. There is a growing realization among course designers that apart from linguistics and applied linguistics, the neighboring disciplines such as literature, critical thinking, mass communication, and science and technology have much to offer to the English language curriculum. The curricula rate is high in terms of knowledge and skill components they impart to trainee teachers. By and large the curricula aim at exposing trainee teachers to a) subject matter (knowledge about language in general and the English language in particular), b) pedagogical content and skills (knowledge about how to teach and skills of translating knowledge into practice), c) general and academic communicative competence in English d) experiential knowledge of professional action (actual act of teaching) e) knowledge and skills in carrying our research, and f) subsidiary skills for teachers (translation and mass communication).
Integration of knowledge and skill components is one of the strengths of the courses. As to organization, the curricula have adopted a mixed-approach of syllabus designing i.e. process and product approach and analytic and synthetic.
I sense that our curricula rate low in terms of the curriculum development process. Theories and principles of curriculum development say that we should make informed-decision about all aspects ranging from policy to classroom pedagogy and assessment scheme. Our curricula are not firmly based on the information collected from research. Its consequence is the disparity between course objectives and students’ expectations as well as classroom reality. It means we are heavily inclined to and probably satisfied with the top-down approach.
In the year 2012, I carried out a research funded by the University Grants to find out student teachers’ views on the grammar course offered to them. They viewed that the course and reading materials both were silent about the reality of our ELT context and it was theoretically loaded. These two major findings of this course can be generalized to other course and materials too. All courses are prone to such weakness where there is lack of needs analysis. In the absence of needs analysis and the analysis of the situations, courses and materials might fail to achieve ecological validity. The courses are ecologically valid when they take into account of contextual factors and underscore their roles while setting goals and objectives, and selecting materials, and designing assessment schemes and tasks.
There is the poor transfer of knowledge into skills, owing to lack of adequate space for action and reflection in the everyday teaching-learning process. The curricula are yet to adopt a model that calls for theory followed by action and reflection. In the absence of action-cum-reflection, the theoretical knowledge imparted to students will only remain information. As you know, information is important but not sufficient for transformation. The English curriculum has recently included a course on technology at Bachelor’s level. However, my impression of the overall courses is that the course designers still think that technology in education is a luxury, not a necessity.
Even from the cursory survey of the prescribed course materials, you can sense that there pervasive dominance of global reading materials. Few courses contain the materials embedded in the Nepalese context that address our issues. That is, our English curricula have to respect and capitalize on our own professional experience and expertise. This is necessary to actualize principles of post-method pedagogy that advocate particularity, practicality, and possibility.
Nonetheless, the course designers seem to be aware of this fact and they have worked in this direction. Some of the courses, for example, have allocated a separate block for Nepali writings under the headings such as “Reading our Own Context”. The initiative like is praiseworthy and commendable. But the problem is the lack of sufficient English texts by Nepali writers. We need more and more creative and issue-based academic as well as nonacademic writings related to the Nepalese context. Such writings should emanate from diverse areas such as education, literature, culture, science and technology, and entertainment, to name but a few. Given the proliferation of English texts by Nepali writers, we will have sufficient texts from which we can select those appropriate for our students. At present, we are resorting to Nepali literary texts in English translation to fulfill the demand such texts. However, translation might supply creative writings, not the academic and issue-based.
You might raise a question. Why are we lagging behind in quantity and quality of English writing? The problem lies with our courses in higher education. The space they allocate for generation of ideas and creative expression is scanty. Apart from pedagogy, the courses should also teach the students how to appropriate English to express their general views and creative urge through this language. To this end, we should shift from mechanistic framework of teaching methodology to what Prof. Bhattarai in 2015 NELTA Conference said “Teaching of English as Art”. To this, I add, the teaching of English as Art and Ideology.
5. We develop and prescribe the curriculum and course book/textbook for university students but in the other part of the world universities develop curriculum & materials in collaboration with students? This is of course high sounding. But can we not start including students (to some extent) in the process of making the decision about what they would like to study?
In principle, collaboration with such key players as students, teachers, and administrators is integral to curriculum development and course books writing. Students are obviously the most important of all. They are key agents. All materials and human resources outlined in the curriculum are geared towards linguistic, psychological and content needs of students. Collaboration is instrumental in diagnosing their needs, expectations, and limitations. Based on the diagnosis we can design effective pedagogical intervention and realistic mode of assessment. We know that students are active agents in shaping teaching-learning process as well as the learning outcome. Very often, experiences they bring into the learning community and expectations they have from the courses are key to their success. Moreover, by collaborating with them, we can generate relevant teaching materials from themselves. In our context, the irony is that we ‘prescribe’ knowledge and skills to our students in the package of courses and course books without consulting them, let alone collaboration. Whenever the issue of collaboration, or say consultation at the very least, with students and teachers crop up, it’s dismissed something as ‘high sounding’, ‘impractical’ or ‘ideal’. Sure enough, something is high sounding so long as it is confined to ‘words’ not extended to ‘work’; it is ‘impractical’, so long as we do not put into practice; it is ideal so long as we lack the willpower to actualize it.
As to “can we not start including students” (to some extent)? Sure, we can. For this, first we need to shift from product-based approach to the process-based to designing courses and course materials. Second, we need to train teachers for collaboration with their students. It’s the teachers, not a small group of curriculum developers and course designers, who are in everyday interaction with students. Moreover, we should change our views that teachers are not ‘implementation agents’ nor are students ‘mere consumers’ of what is prescribed to them. The outcome of teacher-students collaboration can be shared with the curriculum developers, course designers and material compilers/editors/writers in seminars and workshops. For the fruitful outcome, I envisage two levels of collaboration: collaboration between teachers and students, and collaboration between teachers and curriculum developers.
6. What challenges do you see in designing English courses for the higher level?
For want of research, it would be difficult to pinpoint the challenges. ELT in Nepal is in a state of flux. English is gradually taking in Nepalese culture and losing its traditional status of a foreign language. However, it is not a second language either. It means we need to rethink the status of English in relation to other languages and its role in our context. ELT has morphed into the most rapidly spreading educational and academic enterprise. With this has cropped up a myriad of challenges at all levels of curriculum development and course designing. Drawing on my own experience, I see the following as some of the challenges: redefining the goal of teaching English, striking balance between forces of globalization and ethos of localization, extending the range of English use respecting students’ first languages, incorporating local practices and expertise, making the courses diagnosis-based, practice-oriented and reducing the disparity between course objectives and classroom reality, and creating sensible space for technology in the courses.
It’s high time that we redefined the goal of teaching English in the multilingual communities like ours and its role and position in relation to other languages. We should clearly define in the policy the type of communicative competence (apart from the professional competence) we aim to develop in the prospective teachers. Now the time has come to shift from the monolingual notion of communicative competence to what Cook calls “multivalence??”
How to incorporate technologies is being a pertinent challenge. No need to reiterate that presence and dominance of the internet technology is pervasive in all walks of our life. With the entry of WIFI-connected mobile phones into the classroom, there is the influx of information. With this, each student is carrying a learning resource in his/her pocket beyond imagination. Gone are the days when the students had to rely on the scanty notes and hands-outs given by the teacher. I mean, resources and information are flooding in our classrooms. Thanks to technologies but, there is lack of knowledge and skills for their exploitation to support teaching, to enhance learning and to maximize the outcome. Let’s take M. Ed. English curriculum as an example here. Even a cursory glance at the courses reveals a fact that few of them have made scanty reference to online resources. I sense that the internet, which lies at the heart of our everyday life, still lies at the fringe of the courses. The sooner our courses embrace technology-enhanced and –supported learning the better the result.
Related to the global spread of and easy access to technologies, particularly the internet, is the tension between forces of globalization and ethos of localization. The courses cannot prioritize one at the expense of the other. See the tension. On the one hand, we want to produce English students/teachers who are not only globally aware but also can sell their knowledge and skills in the global market. To this end, our courses need to expose them to global issues, methodology, and materials. On the other hand, we are advocating national, ethnic and even geographical identities in the medium (English), the message (content) and methodology. We wish to see our own geographical colors in English, and we are claiming ‘our own variety’ of English called ‘Nelglish’. Looking for the balance between these two forces is likened to treading a tightrope.