New website helps teachers give speaking practice

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Aug 7, 2012 - 20:15
  • Updated : Aug 9, 2012 - 14:53
The original version of this article erroneously stated that there were 5,000 free trial minutes. This should have read 500. - Ed.

Many English teachers in Korea face a common problem: A lack of contact hours makes it difficult to give students enough speaking practice.

KAIST professor Tim Thompson launched the website on Aug. 1 to give teachers the chance to offer speaking practice using video recording.

The project has changed somewhat from its inception in 2010, when Thompson and a fellow professor started work on a program to help deal with the lack of contact time with students.

“There’s so much teaching to these tests and that’s why they’re getting rid of all the native-speaking English teachers in Seoul. It’s because they’re like, ‘Yeah, we don’t need talking teachers; we need teachers who are going to prepare them for this grammar test,’” he said.

“But I think there’s a lot of people out there that want to negotiate things through the language and one or two contact hours just isn’t enough.

“That’s what inspired us to put this together: We saw a presentation skills student once or twice a week and they had this big presentation coming up and no one to practice with ― that’s the impetus.”

Originally a downloadable Flash-based program with animated interviewers, the concept has changed slightly, becoming an open platform on a website where users can upload videos of themselves setting questions or speaking tasks.

Students can then view the videos online and record answers using a webcam.

Recording on the site is free, but the site charges for watching videos, with 5,000 minutes costing 12,000 won ($10.70). A trial 500 minutes is free.

Thompson said the idea was that the students would not pay, but rather the teachers or schools would.

However, he hoped that students would also benefit from playing back their own recordings.

“The goal is to get them to produce in a foreign language … if they’re actually watching themselves speak, that’s got to be a good thing,” he said, adding that a new feature allowing students to re-record and edit their answers was planned.

Thompson pointed out that it could also help students who were intimidated by speaking in a class or teaching environment.

“Asking a student to speak in a class with 30 other students looking at them, potentially going to mock them if they’re wrong ― it takes that out of the equation,” he said.

The new format also allows uses beyond English teaching, he said, such as long-distance interviewing or teaching other languages.

Although the concept sounds simple, Thompson said he was not aware of another similar offering, although he knew of one that was audio based.

“You would not believe the number of people who have said to me, ‘What, nobody’s already done that?’ But actually, having coordinated with the guys who put it together, it really is quite complicated,” he said, explaining that the balanced combination of technical skills and teaching expertise was rare.

Thompson says that he is very happy with the site, but at one point it looked like it might not happen. His collaborator on the project, fellow KAIST professor Chris Surridge died suddenly of a heart attack last year, aged just 45.

“This is one of the hardest-working, most loveable guys you ever met,” said Thompson. “He did overwork, but this guy lived for his students. He was always doing stuff. He had so many other e-learning projects going on.”

On top of the initial shock, Surridge’s death left a massive hole in the technical side of the project. Thompson lacked the know-how to continue on his own. He eventually enlisted the help of a former student of his, but it wasn’t easy finding someone.

“It turned out that people who were talented were too busy and people who weren’t talented enough were interested,” he said.

“I was lucky to catch the guy I did at the right time and sold him on the validity of the project and that’s why he’s working with me and accepted the partnership.”

Thompson urged others to persevere with their ideas.

“There’s a lot of people out there with some really good ideas with some red tape in the way and they just say, ‘I guess it’s just too hard.’ If I’d done that, this wouldn’t have happened and I’m really happy it did.”

By Paul Kerry (