“What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” Part 1 of the #AusELT chat summary: ‘The mouse that roared? Issues with edtech in ELT’ (6 Feb, 2014)

Question Mark Key on Computer KeyboardThis is the first in a series on 4 blog posts summarising the many issues that were raised in the recent #AusELT chat with Scott Thornbury on the subject of edtech in ELT. The title quote is drawn from Neil Postman. References or links have been included as far as possible but let us know if we need to make corrections or additions.

 

Scott (‪@thornburyscott) started by outlining his position based on his recent #AusELT blog post:

‘The framing of digital technology as a generally “good thing” has become an orthodoxy within education thinking’ (Selwyn, 2011). Yet history of edtech has been one of endless cycles of ‘hype, hope and disappointment’ (Selwyn, 2011, p. 59). Witness: radio, TV, films, microcomputers, language labs, IWBs. Now mobiles, tablets, one laptop per child.

Techno-fundamentalism: an uncritical faith in the inevitable benefits of technology. Does it pervade ELT? I argue that it does. Typically it takes the form ‘101 things you can do with Blogster/Wordle, etc.’ Is this the way to make pedagogically sound choices?

Better to ask ‘What is the problem for which this tool/aid/app is the solution?’ (after Neil Postman)

So what problems have you encountered for which some technology has provided a solution? Specifically:  1 input, 2 output 3 interaction 4 feedback 5 motivation and (possibly) 6 data. How does technology solve these?

This summary looks at what the chat participants had to say on those 6 areas (NB: some of the areas have been collapsed together, not because they don’t deserve individual attention, but because the issues are related and ran together in the chat).

INPUT & DATA

No one would disagree with ‪@lukeealexander that “tech provides sts in TEFL contexts far more authentic material/input than 10-15 years ago.”

Participants were also quick to point out that “tech allows more universal access to corpora, from Google all the way to Corpus of Contemporary American Eng for example” (@ElkySmith) and that “explaining vocab, particularly abstract ideas, is much easier via images online.” (@forstersensei)

‪@thornburyscott stirred the pot again, suggesting that while digital media may offer massive input, it is at a low level of engagement:

“The Web is a technology of forgetfulness” (Nicholas Carr)

@sophiakhan4 agreed and suggested that it also often offers a low level of language development: “Lots of beginner and elem stuff – tapers off noticeably above intermediate level.”

OUTPUT & INTERACTION

I thought people might have a bit more to say about the extent to which edtech really helped their learners produce meaningful language in meaningful contexts, but it was a fast moving chat and it seemed to fall by the wayside somewhat – although some of the issues return in the section on FEEDBACK (below).

Several participants were positive about the the role tech can play in promoting interaction:

  • “Found tech wonderful for real-world communication tasks – real-meaningful-purposeful tasks” (@Innov8rEduc8r)
  • “interaction . . . learning beyond the classroom is a big plus. Apps, social media (when used properly) & online tools” (@forstersensei)
  • “Have just set up a wall for an exam class to link and add to. Faster comm from me to them, them to each other (I hope) . . . I find it great to allow SS to come together and solve problems. Fosters autonomy and builds a team.” (‪@ChristineMulla)
  • “I love to use pages and walls for exam classes – they use them to share photos, ideas and chat using target language.” (@PeloKaren)

@MeredithMacAul1 agreed with this, having experimented with Moodle forums to get students adding comments on a topic, but she added that it was “difficult to get everyone to participate.”  @Eslkazzyb agreed and commented that students “really have to see value very explicitly to participate.”

@trylingual took a neutral position: “Tech has brought the real world into my classroom. But it does not solve everything and often creates more issues.”

FEEDBACK

Participants were quick to pick up the connection between output, interaction and feedback. Arguably, in terms of language learning, output and interaction always requires feedback of some kind, whether that comes from the teacher, the software, a friend, or some other source.

  • “Feedback is the big Q for me. St seem to like using authentic tools, e.g Facebook, but less interested in feedback loop . . .” (‪@Eslkazzyb)
  • “Computers aren’t ready to respond to real output. Still need people” (@SophiaKhan4)
  • “Feedback is an issue for tech with a closed design. i.e. Only one correct answer.” (‪@trylingual)

‪@thornburyscott, as ever, had a quote to hand:

“Conclusion: CALL products ‘are not yet able to offer an alternative to human support or interaction’ (Nielson 2011).”

However, chatters were keen not to throw the baby out with the bathwater:

  • “Agreed.. but they can assist. Socrative is a great example of a tool that can be programmed w/ feedback.” (@forstersensei)
  • “How [else] to collect audio samples from all Ss in one short lesson so you can give individual feedback, individually? (@cioccas)
  • “Tech can b used 2 facilitate feedback between sts eg mobile phones to record and send speaking task, other st gives fb” (@lukeealexander)

‪@thornburyscott agreed that recording students output seemed to be at least one positive use of mobile phones for example, though @GwendaAtkinson queried the wisdom of winding up with 100 recordings to grade at home. @cioccas, however, thought that “recordings used like taking home papers to check” was a good idea and noted that we can provide audio feedback instead of written.

‪@thornburyscott was also quick to jump on the fact that tech doesn’t correct writing, “nor give-at-the-point-of-need feedback on meaning.” @ElkySmith proposed that this was just a matter of time, though @cioccas was less optimistic: “I’ve seen tech that tries & if that’s the future I’m worried.” @forstersensei felt that edtech could still assist, nonetheless, and suggested trying Kaizena for providing oral feedback on writing (according to  @trylingual there is a plug-in for Google Docs that does the same).

@IH_Barcelona also suggested that if the problem is getting feedback from learners, then Google forms is a “brilliant, easy, useful” solution.

MOTIVATION

I’m not sure motivation and engagement are the same thing but for the purposes of this Twitter chat, they were certainly closely intertwined.

Tech is engaging – but where’s the evidence?

@Shaunwilden started off with: “I’m not sure if it is a problem per se but [tech] definitely helps engage sts.” @Innov8rEduc8r agreed: “Engagement was sky high with tech for my sts. And desire to improve pronunciation, grammar was also high.”

@thornburyscott wasn’t willing to take this as evidence: “If technology engages learners, where is the proof? Questionnaires (Do you like using mobiles in class?) are unreliable . . . Better to assess motivation by degree of attention, time-on-task. Evidence is not good . . . I’d just love to see some evidence that students are more engaged.”

There were many responses:

  • “My proof would be watching lessons before and after” (@Shaunwilden)

Where’s the evidence that ANY tool is engaging?

@TomTesol set the cat among the pigeons by drawing an analogy with textbooks: “Where’s the proof that textbooks engage learners?“

‪@thornburyscott was quick to respond: “Textbooks don’t engage learners either. Other learners do. And teachers.”

@Eslkazzyb thought the analogy was very valid: “The skill is in the T using the book and tech to suit their learners’ needs & interests.” ‪@SophiaKhan4 agreed that whether textbook or tech, “life has to come off the page/screen. They can help but not alone.”

As a final word on this topic,  @forstersensei implied that the combination of textbook and tech might be the best of both worlds: “digital textbooks can be much more engaging than photocopies . . . add interactive content” – however, the jury was definitely out on the whole area of this kind of blended learning tool (more on this in Part 2!)

Whether tech is engaging or not depends on . . .?

Returning to the problem of motivation/engagement, participants were clearly divided on whether they saw tech as essential or not.

Admitted technophile@Innov8rEduc8r was all in favour: “Engagement was never really an issue if I designed projects that catered to their interests and needs . . . My students were more engaged – more attuned to their English skills – and where they needed to improve – and had a sense of agency.”

On the other hand, admitted Luddite @Eslkazzyb wrote: “Interestingly I don’t see as much drive from Sts as expected. They seem to prefer solid lessons with or w/o tech . . . Tech did not necessarily add to levels of engagement for my classes . . . Seems some of the most simple ‘low tech’ ideas are often most effective.” ‪@Penultimate_K agreed, putting it in a nutshell: “I’ve never had a student come to me & complain that they don’t use enough edtech.”

@Innov8rEduc8r wrote: “Wonder if our approach is affected by our own engagements with tech. Me: I love tech” and @tamzenarmer thought there was definitely truth in this: “The teachers in my institution who love tech most can get Ss to engage.”  @PeloKaren summed it up: “It’s like any topic/idea: if the teacher is engaged in it the students will be more engaged – but it has to be balanced.”

Is there evidence that tech is NOT engaging?

‪@thornburyscott then widened the scope of the discussion by equating motivation to attention and arguing that the internet as a whole may be contributing to reduced attentiveness: “Motivation = attention. But Internet fosters ‘continuous partial attention’ and reading online is typically ‘shallow.’”

@trylingual didn’t take this as read, asking: “Can we install better habits? Have these phenomena been verified to be present in all st populations?”

‪@thornburyscott  referred to a study that tracked more than 100 very motivated students using online self-study software. The study found that only 5 of those students completed the course. This rang bells for several chat participants. @cioccas said: “I’m not surprised given most self-study courses I’ve seen. Still need humans for real support, FB, etc.” and @SophiaKhan4 felt that it was “easy to enroll [on an online course]/buy a package. But w/o real-life feedback [it] is meaningless in long term . . . much easier  to enroll & feel like that is an achievement than do the work & finish.”

However, the quality of the self-study package that the study evaluated was questioned, with @IH_Barcelona asking “Was the fault with the course design or the technology itself? . . . Was the online experience primarily a technological one? Or a social one? Social way more likely to ‘work.’” @forstersensei asked: “Was there a concrete outcome in the course? ie. a degree? If not, why do it?” and he also added “Tech can’t be the sole medium . . . better as a support.”

And there you have it. If you have some more ideas in response to Scott’s 6 questions, please let us know in the comments. Part 2 looks at attitudes to edtech in more detail, including ‘technofundamentalism’ and how teachers really feel about the implementation of blended learning programs.

References

Postman, N. 1993. Of Luddites, Learning, and Life. Technos Quarterly, 2(4). Retrieved from http://www.ait.net/technos/tq_02/4postman.php

Selwyn, N. 2011. Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates. London: Continuum.

This summary by @SophiaKhan4

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