Cynthia C. James: “We see different groups of people that work on isolated small projects here and there…”

A week ago, we interviewed Cynthia C. James, a primary schoolteacher from Malaysia currently pursuing her doctoral studies at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. As a member of the Cambridge Digital Education Futures Initiative (@DEFI_Cambridge) Innovation Lab, Cynthia studies on edtech, teacher professional development and digital educational inequalities. On the side, she runs @goingdigitalelt and also writes on her blog at We are very excited to publish this interview as we dive into her research work.

Tell us about yourself and what are you currently doing.

I am a primary school teacher in Sabah, Malaysia who is currently on study leave. I’ve been teaching for 20 years now and I have served in 3 primary schools. I  briefly served as a District English Language Officer at Kota Kinabalu Education District Office for 3 years before pursuing my postgraduate studies. I am currently a full time PhD student at University of Cambridge doing research on educational technology and teacher professional development in low resource contexts.

What made you become interested in educational technology?

It wasn’t based on any isolated events. It’s an accumulation of various encounters and experiences and conversations with people. If I were to pick one, it would be the Glocal conference hosted by Sabah Malaysia University. It was a global conference on computer-assisted language learning. It was the first conference that I attended as a teacher. It opened my eyes. There were a lot of educators and researchers from various levels who attended that conference, just sharing how they utilized technology in their language lessons. These are not just people who teach in a context where technology is easily accessible, we also have people from sub-saharan Africa where it is scarce with resources and they were able to deploy technology effectively in their lessons and that inspired me. Because at that time, I was teaching in Kunak and it wasn’t that rural as compared to other rural schools in Sabah but I do think that the context can be categorized as low-resource because our internet connection isn’t that good and we have few resources to teach not only in terms of technology but others as well. So, if teachers in Africa for instance can do this, maybe I can do something like that as well. That sort of piqued my interest in exploring further on how I can utilize technology for my English lessons.

Are there any rarely explored perspectives on educational technology that most people are not aware about? Tell us about it.

I don’t think this is rarely explored, but I think it should be frequently explored and that it should be frequently done. The first one is the contest against the notion that educational technology is expensive. I came across this view very recently. It was at a conference in Warwick which was organized by Warwick university and Warwick independent schools. A lot of  people from various backgrounds came together. One of the speakers said that people seem to be reluctant to invest in educational technology especially in places where there are deprivations of economical factors because it is expensive but actually it isn’t. People are actually playing that card saying that educational technology is expensive because they have cautiousness about deploying technology at a large scale. I was a little bit taken aback by that argument because all this while I’ve subscribed to the fact that educational technology is expensive. That’s why we lack internet access in the rural area and fancy gadgets in the rural area in low resource schools because it’s expensive. But the speaker said that it’s actually not expensive relative to what we have been investing in in education. It’s something that makes me want to explore further whether educational technology is not as expensive as we thought it is. This is not referring to investing education technology at an individual level but it is referring to investment in educational technology at a national scale. I know that teachers have invested in education technology in their teaching practices but we should not burden the shoulders of teachers. It is not sustainable.

The second one is against the notion of educational technology being flashy new objects. When people talk about educational technology, people tend to talk about it as something new. But actually educational technology has been around for many years now. I’m referring to digital technology which has already been around since the 1950s or 1960s, maybe gaining prominence through the work of Seymour Papert. It is puzzling to think that most people think that education and technology is a new thing and it is a new object.But when it comes to other disciplines for example medicine, people are more open to embracing technology in their practice. But when it comes to educational technology there seems to be a lot of cautiousness regardless of literature stating that technology is ubiquitous and pervasive but when it comes to education we build some kind of a wall because there is a skepticism on how we should impact our learners. From the same conference, I think we should disregard educational technology as a flashy new object anymore. We should embrace it as everyday tools just like everything else in education, just like books, pencils, pens, whiteboards and all those sorts of things. 

Maybe the argument should shift from whether or not we should use educational technology but rather on how we should use educational technology that would impact our learners in the most positive manner.

The third one is, this is not rarely explored but I would like to see it explored more. Because I think it is the key to successful implementation of educational technology at all levels, which is to see more collaborative efforts among different groups of stakeholders at all levels and on a nationwide scale. Currently, we see different groups of people that work on isolated small projects here and there but we don’t see the government, politicians or economists, educators, parents and students coming together to work on that. However this is not unique to educational technology but education as a whole. 

Can you tell us briefly about the essence of your latest paper titled ‘Narrative Inquiry into Teacher Identity, Context, and Technology Integration in Low-Resource ESL Classrooms’? What is the implication of this research in every teacher’s teaching context?

It is based on our project with the Going Digital ELT professional learning community which started in 2015. We gathered teachers who are interested in deploying technology in a more effective manner in their language classrooms. During the pandemic, we feel like we should get more teachers to share their stories. Basically the essence of the paper was to highlight the value of experience as a mode of professional development for teachers. In the paper we zoomed in on the dimensions of teacher identity which refers to the perception of themselves. Not just as a professional but also as an individual – how they see themselves and in the context where they are teaching. We specifically focused on low resource context for that particular paper and we wanted to see how these two factors -teacher identity and context contribute towards technology contribution practices in their classroom. The emphasis is upon experience which is drawing on John Dewey’s theory of experience. How we can utilize experience as a mode of professional development for teachers in order to get them to learn, by improving their practices by reflecting upon their own experience and also how others can improve their practices by learning from other people’s experiences. 

There are two layers. The first layer is the teachers themselves reflecting upon themselves so they are exploring the journey of how they reflect upon their identity. For example, one of the teachers we interviewed was someone who learned by doing, therefore she wants her students to learn by doing as well. How she drew upon available resources in her context because she was teaching in a rural area because they have poor internet connection but they do have some PCs in her school. Instead of thinking of using the latest cutting edge technology in her classroom, she just used whatever that was available. In short, each teacher has his or her own style or individuality and they also have their own context so those are combined in order to come up with an approach which is most effective to them.

So, identity and the context how this connects towards her, it enhances her technology integration practices in the classroom. So we share the stories with other teachers and try to see how this can impact other people’s experiences – which is the second layer. This paper is only focusing on the first layer. The second layer will be described in the upcoming paper.

Tell us about your current research. What does it entail and what inspired you to look into it?

The initial plan is to explore the possibilities of designing a culturally responsive technology which can be deployed in low-resource contexts such as in the rural area and particularly in indigenous communities. What inspired me to do this was spurred by the recent pandemic especially in the context of Sabah. It affected me as a teacher. Stories like Veveonah who had to take exams by climbing up a tree in order to get internet connection or students who had to risk their lives standing on a dilapidated suspension bridge just to get internet connection. People who have been reluctant to embrace educational technology especially in such contexts were probably caught by surprise by the pandemic to a certain degree because suddenly by hook or by crook we must use it during those times in order to ensure that our students learn. However, nobody was prepared for that kind of thing to happen even in areas where technology isn’t a problem. Furthermore, teachers are not trained in traditional settings to cope with a crisis of that measure. We had a lot of well meaning people who tried to flood the educational scene with lots of technologies and apps but very little focus on how it can be done effectively by aligning it with good pedagogy, good learning theories. So this motivates me to embark on this research because I want to see how we can get teachers to be design thinkers. This is a very valuable skill for educators to have especially when we talk about educational technology because right now the teachers just take whatever it is available on the market and just use it without much regard for pedagogy or learning theories or classroom management. We see technology as just a medium but actually it’s more than just a medium. 

Marshall McLuhan, an expert in media, said ‘the medium is the message’ which I think is true and which can be embraced in the educational technology field. Basically for my PhD I hope to explore for a teacher professional model to be designed in a way that can help teachers to learn how to be design thinkers and to design technologies that are culturally responsive with regard to their context and professional identity.

What do you hope for in the future with regards to educational technology, especially in the Sabahan context.

What I hope to see is more collaborative efforts from various stakeholders such as governments, educators, policymakers, and even those in the industry and private sectors. And we must involve teacher’s voices and students. I hope there are such efforts on a larger scale rather than people working in silos because in Sabah we have multiple challenges whether economically and geographically. Despite having teachers going above and beyond, if we were to solely rely on them, it is not going to be sustainable. Optimal impacts can only be achieved if everyone works together rather than working individually. 

We hoped you enjoyed the interview. We would like to take this opportunity to thank Cynthia for her time and also wishing her the best in her PhD studies!

Cynthia C. James has been in the field of ELT in Malaysia for close to 20 years, serving in multiple roles as a primary school teacher, teacher trainer, district supervisor, published author, website manager, and independent researcher. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. She is passionate about enhancing the quality of teacher professional development in low- resource contexts, and in exploring how better understanding of teacher’s learning can help address the problems of educational and digital inequities.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s