The dry, sleepy grain-farming town of Underbool couldn’t be more contrasting to the bustling, crowded congestion of Beijing.
But in this tiny primary school in Victoria’s far north-west, 25 students make the journey to Beijing each week, without even leaving the classroom.
‘My Chinese Teacher’ is a video-link program which operates in 42 Victorian schools.
Co-founder of the program and owner of the company ‘My Education Group’, Tom Shugg, says he had noticed regional primary schools suffering from chronic language teacher shortages and poor resources.
“If they’re beyond 20-kilometres outside of a capital city, they typically can’t find a language teacher, or they are able to find a language teacher that would really struggle to retain them,” Mr Shugg says.
Each Wednesday, students up to grade-six tune-in for their lesson with teacher May.
Even before the class begins, the kids are learning as she pans her camera out a window giving a ‘live-shot’ of downtown Beijing. The cars, the smog, the congestion are a real eye opener for those at Underbool Primary.
For Hamish Farnsworth, who hails from a farm out of town, the Beijing vista is less than appealing.
“I’m thinking I love the country better than the city because the air is cleaner instead of the fog and all that,” he said.
But the aspiring grazier sees merit in the program all the same, and is already planning a visit. “Because I could go sell my sheep over there for 5,000 Yen a lamb,” he said.
Underbool Primary School Principal Rebecca Prentice says one of the major benefits is the bond the school has developed with their “other” teacher, May.
“It’s phenomenal. They just love looking out the window, they love asking her personal questions family questions, how different it is, the food,” she says.
And for 10-year old Indie, the weekly classes have inspired a hunger to travel and a career objective.
“I want to go over to China and be a zoo keeper because I like Pandas and they’re my favourite animal,” she says.
The most commonly asked questions focus on the country’s culture rather than the language.
Technology and education expert Dr Suelette Dreyfus from the University of Melbourne says that’s one of the main advantages of this interactive program.
“The language that the children learn is not just your text book of Latin from 2,000 years ago,” Ms Dreyfus says.
“It’s a live language and a live culture. It’s who the Justin Beiber of China is and that’s likely to excite young minds.”