#AusELT is privileged and delighted to be able to welcome Scott Thornbury as our first Twitter chat guest of the Year of the Horse. One of Scott’s current research interests is the “ed tech” phenomenon that has dominated ELT in recent years, and exploring what this means in practical terms. He will be joining us on Thurs 6th Feb at 8.30pm Sydney time [click here to check the time elsewhere in the world] to discuss some of the questions he raises below – we’ll see you there for what promises to be a very thought-provoking discussion.
As long ago as 1966, Pit Corder warned that ‘the use of mechanical aids in the classroom is justified only if they can do something which the teacher unaided cannot do, or can do less effectively’ (1966, p. 69). Nevertheless, the craze for newer, better gadgetry has continued unabated, creating what one writer called ‘the caravan effect’: ‘a metaphor in which the travellers (technology enthusiasts) stop for a while to drink from the waterhole (the latest technology) until they have had their fill; then they move on to the next waterhole to drink again’ (Levy 2009, p. 779). Moreover, each innovation arrives garlanded with claims that are seldom if ever realised, such that the history of educational technology in the 20th century has been characterised as a continuous cycle of ‘hype, hope, and disappointment’ (Selwyn 2011, p. 59). Why is this? One reason (adduced by Selwyn) is that the power of technology is often enlisted in order to solve problems that are non-technological in nature, language learning being a prime example. If we accept the ecological view that language is a complex dynamic system, subject to multiple and interconnected influences, social, psychological and environmental, the idea that change can be effected by a quick technological fix is ingenuous, to say the least. The history of the social sciences is littered with the unintended consequences of such interventions. Beware of geeks bearing gifts!
In order to guard against the hype, any recommendation for integrating a learning technology into our current practice should be countered with Neil Postman’s oft-cited riposte: What is the problem for which this technology is the solution? To which might be added a second question, based on Pit Corder’s aforementioned warning: Can the technology do it better/more effectively than the teacher unaided?
What, then, are the problems that technology might solve? To answer this question, it’s useful to draw on the current state of research to remind ourselves as to the necessary conditions for learning a second language, which, for the purposes of the argument, I’ll frame as problems:
1. The input problem, i.e. how does the learner obtain sufficient (comprehensible) input?
2. The output problem, i.e. how is the learner provided with opportunities for (pushed) output?
3. The interaction problem, i.e. how does the learner engage in (scaffolded) interaction?
4. The feedback problem, i.e. how does the learner get optimal feedback at the point of need?
5. The motivation problem, i.e. what motivates the learner to make best use of these input, output, interaction and feedback opportunities?
To which might be added (because it’s debatable as to whether it’s necessary)
6. The data problem, i.e. how does the learner readily access useable information about the target language?
It’s my contention that technology (meaning here ‘digital technology’, and especially that which is available online) has made significant advances in terms of helping solve at least some of these problems, such as the input problem and especially the data problem, where it easily outperforms the unaided teacher. But it has some way to go in terms of the output, interaction and feedback problems, while the evidence with regard to motivation is inconclusive.
I would go further, though, and add that one of the unintended consequences of an uncritical commitment to educational technology might be the effective disempowering of teachers in the interests of servicing the neoliberal ‘knowledge economy’. As Lin (2013) warns: ‘Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardised, marketable product […] This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into ‘service providers.’ The invisible consequence is that language learning and teaching has become a transaction of teachers passing on a marketable set of standardised knowledge items and skills to students.’ This commodification process is, of course, massively expedited by digital technologies.
In the early 19th century a group of English textile artisans aggressively resisted the threat to their jobs and lifestyles posed by the development of new technologies. They were known as Luddites. Ever since, the term has been used to disparage anyone who questions the assumption that technological innovation is always beneficial. But were the Luddites so wrong?
Levy, M. 2009. Technologies in use for second language learning. The Modern Language Journal, Focus Issue: Technology in the Service of Language Learning.
Lin, A. 2013. Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: Building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up. TESOL Quarterly, 47, 3.
Pit Corder, S. 1966. The Visual Element in Language Teaching. London: Longman.
Selwyn, N. 2011, Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates. London: Continuum.