Teachers fall into two camps when it comes to classroom technology – the evangelists and the cynics – and deciding between them (or trying to find a middle way) can be tricky at best, or a trip through a war zone if you discuss it with the wrong people.
The problem with this issue is that it’s seen as a debate, and that naturally polarises things. It would be a great step forward if the question was reformulated (as I did in the title to this piece) to look at the key question here which is how we should go about using classroom technology. Anyone that is involved in online teaching is going to be starting out in the camp that sees technology not only as necessary, but as a real benefit. I’m no exception here, and in arguments with colleagues who see no purpose in technology I have often resorted to the term “Luddite” to describe their position. This doesn’t help of course, and I know that, but I can’t seem to help myself – the topic is emotive.
In no way am I against teaching without technology. The dogme approach, started by Scott Thornbury, has greatly influenced the way I teach. Using very little in the way of materials and reacting to the issues that the learner has during the lesson has brought marked improvements in my students, but that doesn’t mean that the results are better than when using an arsenal of technological aid. It’s not better, it’s just more appropriate at that moment. Horses for courses, if you like.
But even if you move fully into the pro-technology camp, the debate doesn’t let up. I’m constantly bombarded with ideas from tech-friendly zealots who get classes talking together over Skype or using Twitter to discuss this or that topic. The question is, who benefits the most from this? Because using any form of technology or materials in a class has to satisfy two criteria – Does it improve the learner experience? And, does it improve the learning? Many of the blog articles on using this or that internet service are quick to trumpet the fun, the motivation and the engagement of the learners, but are not so forthcoming about results. Having fun in a lesson is a great thing, but I’ve had plenty of fun lessons where I haven’t learned much. From the teaching standpoint, I obviously like to hear that students like my lessons, but I like it more when they say that they really learned something with me.
Even some of the big-hitting educational activities, like wikis, need to be treated with caution. The overwhelming majority of online courses I see have at least one wiki activity. Some seem to be simply a collection of them loosely collated into a topic. Now wikis are great in higher level learning, and they work especially well with strangers, but get a group of kids with next to no prior knowledge, less than good language skills, and issues with the other people in their class, and the exercise becomes one of social management and proof-reading for the teacher. If that isn’t the object of the exercise, then maybe you should be looking at a different exercise. Those who hold social learning up as the holy grail of teaching will doubtlessly disagree here.
Podcasting is another method which gets a lot of column inches. Now in language teaching I can see a use and a clear benefit from getting a class involved in producing work in this format. But introducing it took a lot of time. Recording your own voice is one thing – there are apps for that – but if your learners are in any way aspirational, then you are going to have to teach them some editing skills, and quite possibly something about file conversion. That may not sound like much, but it might take three or four lessons in some classes (and it probably relies on equal access to the technology outside of the classroom). That’s a lot of time not to be teaching your core subject material. I decided it was worth it, but I fully understand teachers who feel uncomfortable about investing so much time.
The time factor can be drastically exacerbated by teachers who want to introduce a wealth of such activities into their class. There are blogs out there where you could be forgiven for wondering when that innovative teacher ever gets round to doing any subject teaching.
Wherever you look you are going to be bombarded with opinions on introducing new technology to the classroom. The fanboys will try to make you feel as though you are still lounging in the last century, and the cynics are more than happy to remind that the current crop of Nobel prize winners all learned through chalk and talk.
A good example is the interactive whiteboard. I love them, and I wish that every classroom I use had one, but lots of my colleagues reject them completely. Have a look at some of the articles here if you are fan. Now one of the recurring criticisms is that IWB’s are not particularly interactive in the way that is promoted by the suppliers. In all the promotional material, you’ll see smiling kids doing amazing things with the bottom half of the board (because they are usually not big enough to reach the upper part!) When you observe classes where these boards are in use, there is often not much learner interaction. If you were to watch one of my lessons it wouldn’t be any different and I’m fine with that, because for me the IWB is simply the best presentation tool available and that makes it worth its money. I can present information for the learners better and with far greater flexibility. Sure, the learners use them for their presentations too, but I don’t buy into the marketing hype. For that reason I feel most of the criticism is as misplaced as the majority of the sales material. And I’ve got absolutely no problems with teachers who use them more intensely. It’s not my style though.
In short, there isn’t one right way to use all these wonderful services in your teaching. All the ideas you find all over the internet are just that – ideas. They may well work for the author, but if you aren’t completely sold on the idea, then your learners won’t be either. So take an idea and turn it around. Throw out the parts you don’t like, and steal some points from another idea you got somewhere else. At that point you become the master of the technology and not the servant. The right way is your way, now. (And that might change tomorrow, but that’s good.) Use the technology through your own conviction, not the conviction of me or anyone else.
Your learners will know!