Computers are meant to have transformed the way language is taught and learned but in many classrooms expensive equipment is of little value and barriers to successful integration remain
Nik Peachey 15 May 2012
Source: The Guardian
We are now 12 years into the new millennium and technology has become a prime element of almost all English language teaching (ELT) conferences and journals around the world.
Yet, when we look for real improvements in student performance and effective use of technology by teachers, I think that the results are pretty disappointing.
I have spent the past 10 years doing technology-focused training work, materials writing and conference presentations and it still saddens me to see how much resistance and cynicism exists among teachers to the introduction of technology.
But is it their fault?
I don’t think so. Even as an enthusiastic and experienced trainer, I can see that once technology gets into schools, things start to go wrong.
Investment in technology has often been equated with investment in hardware. In many ways this is the easy fix: throw money at the challenges that technology integration poses.
For example, education ministries around the world have been willing to invest in expensive interactive whiteboard (IWB) technology without really considering the benefits inside classrooms.
Having made the investment, teachers are often left to sort out how to use IWBs in a pedagogically effective way, often with very little training or support. Meanwhile managers can wash their hands of the problem and report back that they have done their part in integrating technology.
The willingness of many schools to invest heavily in this hardware is rarely matched by a similar, and comparably smaller, financial commitment to provide adequate broadband connectivity to classrooms.
Without sufficient connectivity the investment in hardware is wasted because, as soon as teachers and students start accessing content-rich websites in any numbers, the connection grinds to a halt, leaving the teacher embarrassed and reverting to traditional paper-based resources.
There is also the problem of the IT gatekeeper.
Very few IT support staff have any pedagogical training and they tend to see themselves as defenders of the IT infrastructure.
So, rather than being a friendly doorman who invites teachers in and helps them realise their technological aspirations, they can be defensive and hostile.
Often this is exacerbated by a breakdown in communication because both sides lack a common vocabulary for explaining problems.
Many schools have made the effort to try to put technology into the hands of students by creating computer rooms, but in most of the schools I have worked in these tend to be fixed, desktop computers built into rows of tables.
These computers rarely have any of the peripheral devices such as microphones, headphones or webcams that would transform them into tools for communication and oral skills development.
The design of the desktop computer and the upright screen often mean that once students are on the computers and logged in it’s very difficult to get their attention away from the screen. It is almost impossible to start moving students around the class for more social interaction.
Also, the fact that these are separate classrooms that teachers need to book out and take their students to for a specific time slot adds yet another obstruction.
Without doubt the biggest problem is the training that teachers receive, or the lack of it.
The focus of much training is still on hardware and “office” applications or ELT specific software. Training for equipment such as IWBs often comes after the equipment has been introduced into the classroom and although there is some useful software for language learning, it is often simply a digitised version of standard coursebook content dominated by gap-fill and matching activities.
So what do we need to do to start moving forward with technology?
One of the biggest priorities should be to provide not just adequate but really high-quality, open-access high-speed internet connectivity, preferably through wireless, to every corner of the school.
Students and teachers should be able to walk in and instantly access the internet with whatever device they happen to be carrying with them. This extends the potential for learning beyond the classroom and can effectively turn a school into a wall-to-wall learning zone.
A move towards open internet access will also encourage more students to bring their own devices such as mobile phones, laptops and tablets to class and should reduce the need to rely on computer rooms for accessing digital tools.
Providing teachers with tablet PCs such as iPads could actually save money as most of these devices can run low-cost or free interactive presentation applications that can take the place of expensive, proprietary IWB systems.
Tablets can also be used for preparing and transporting materials and for producing and sharing video, audio and rich media content with students.
Most important is the need for a different approach to teacher development that focuses on helping teachers with their own digital literacies.
These are the skills to integrate technology into our daily lives and practices.
Technology use, just like the language our students learn, needs to focus on things that are useful and that enrich and enable lives.
If we are using technology that has been designed solely for language instruction it is unlikely to have any real and long-term impact on students.
If we can help them to use applications, not because they help develop language, but because they are the tools that we genuinely use to socialise, study and develop ourselves, then we will be equipping both teachers and learners with the skills that we need to be successful 21st-century citizens.
Nik Peachey is a freelance ELT writer, trainer and consultant