T is for Times as well as technology, oh yes, and teaching

Technology at workToday has been an exciting 1st May, what with everything being closed when I wanted to go to the swimming pool, the Pope… and the invasion of ants that seems to be moving into a really aggressive phase in my kitchen (and they don’t even bring their own beer with them), all I can say is thank goodness I have the technology to fight the ants (something that has a strong smell to frighten them away), drive out into the countryside (my car) and my book, so that I can switch off and read a novel. These are just some of the different forms of technology that we use all the time to make our lives easier and maybe just a little bit better, and this is just as true when it comes to teaching.

Scott Thornbury posted an interesting discussion today on the subject as a follow up to the ELTJ debate at Iatefl, It is true, as he says, that the debate got sidetracked into the issue of technology in our lives, rather than technology in teaching, but are the two mutually exclusive? Scott raised four important issues, and I was going to post a comment directly on the blog but it got too long so I decided to write it all here instead. (Sorry!)

1) The Delivery Model Problem

Scott rightly underlined the problem that many of the materials that are appearing, custom made for tefl, on the Internet, are simply materials that were originally designed for “in classroom use” transported into a digital format. This is, in fact, a major problem, and Gavin Dudeney pointed out in his presentation at the Brighton Iatefl that many of the apps that were developed for other things, are possibly more suited for teaching than the tefl ones.

Meaningful technology in Action

I’d just like to pause here to decribe one example of how technology has helped me and my learners, and it was not developed for tefl:

One tool, of many, that I have found to be ivaluable, for instance is Voicethread (see the activities on my wiki) This is a tool which I used to practise in preparation for oral exams where my learners need to talk about subjects at some length. The tool enables you to simply post media, photos, videos in a format where others can comment on them. I made a video talking about my friend’s house in Berlin, where I have often stayed and asked learners to post their comments.

Initially I intended them to watch my video on Voicethread and comment on it and then make their own videos that other learners could comment on too. You may well ask why it is necessary to go to all this trouble, embedding a voicethread onto a wiki and setting up a discussion thread on the same page where learners can leave links to their own videos later. Well, the answer is that my classes often have up to a hundred learners or more in them, and technology has actually made it easier for me to come closer to them. Not all of them, I admit, but many of them, and it has motivated them to learn in ways they would never have thought of doing just a few years ago.

Learners taking the process into their own hands

What was even more interesting was what happened in this activity. The learners became very interested in the idea of Berlin and started posting questions. Not everyone could record their voice as not everyone has access to a microphone, but on Voicethread you can either record your voice or you can type in a comment so nobody need feel left out. I saw this was happening so I took those comments and made a document working firstly on their language problems and secondly on answering their questions and providing a link to another voicethread about Berlin. This work was extremely successful and everyone was motivated by it. What made it such was, in fact, the learner-centred nature of the work, even though it began with a video of me speaking, and was designed to help learners prepare for exams. This, then, is just one example of how technology is enrichening my teaching and my students’ learning. So, yes it is true that some of the custom made tefl materials are mundane to say the least but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

2) The theory Vacuum problem

This was also a point worth making, that there are so many blog posts of the “20 things to do with Wordle” type, and I must admit that at times I think… Oh no, not again. But this actually reflects an underlying need. Teachers desperately want to use new ideas (and this, by the way, is just as true of activities whether they are connected to technology or not) and by learning what other people are doing, and sharing what we are doing we can actually develop. We could say that there is no theory often behind coursebook selection either which often depends on administrational decisions by language schools. The theory comes from training and individual intellectual curiosity which motivates dedicated teachers to look into the whys and wherefores of what they are doing. So, yes, we could do with more analysis and theory but I think it ties in with the next point too.

3) The attention deficit problem

There was a lot of discussion of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows at the conference and Scott refers to the danger of distraction, a phenomenon which we are all aware of. Jim Scrivener mentioned it too when he talked of preparing for the conference. You click on Brighton Conference Centre and then you find that there’s a Sealife Centre too oh, and Quadrophenia etc. etc. and before you know it you’re a million miles away from where you had originally intended to be. (very freely paraphrased by me )

Distraction has always been a part of classrooms, because of what Buddhists refer to as the “monkey mind”. It is basic human nature to be distracted. So, does this mean we should abandon technology. Well, no, that isn’t going to happen. We have to adapt to the world we live in and our learners, like us, tend to navigate in this way, so don’t we have a responsibility as educators to help our learners develop their “deep thinking” skills? Surely this is where we can help them by teaching them to how to use technology in a meaningful way, or even by introducing moments of contemplation into our lessons? This ties in, perhaps with the last point too, because if we are going to help learners use technology or anything else (language?) meaningfully then we need to know what works and why we are doing it, just as with anything else. The conscientious teacher has always developed his/her curiosity in this way, and now, thanks to technology, I add, we can do it by blogging and developing the discussion even further.

4) The added value problem

Here again, it is all too true that the “monkey mind” is often attracted to novelty for the sake of novelty and there has been a lot of inappropriate use of technology in particular by institutions who think of it as a way to save money and solve all their problems, so introduce online platforms without training the teachers or invest in interactive whiteboards which are never used, again because nobody has trained the teachers. This is a problem that we are all too aware of but once again it is surely a question not of the technology per se but of the way it is being implemented and misused. This is a human problem and all we can do is to try to use it meaningfully ourselves. So I agree wholeheartedly with this point. We should only use any type of activity when it adds value to what we are doing and we need to ask ourselves how it does that.

A Poor Workman Blames his Tools

Finally I think, before I sign off and go and take part in an online class, we must remember that the problem is rarely the technology although cost and lack of access are issues here. The main problems are still the way people use technology and that it what we need to address.

So, in case you were wondering about the title, T is for times because we have to adapt to the times we are living in and the way our learners learn in these times. It is also for technology being used meaningfully in learner-centred teaching.


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