Tech discussions in the Middle East

14th Oman International ELT Conference
8th  9th May, 2014
Muscat, Oman

The Corniche, Muscat. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2014. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The 14th Oman International ELT Conference was held from 8-9 May at Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman, under the theme: ‘Bridging Traditions and Innovations in ELT’. A variety of papers and workshops contributed their perspectives on this theme over the two days of the conference.

In my opening plenary, Principles and Practices of Mobile Learning, I surveyed recent trends in mobile technologies before outlining three main types of mobile learning, and three agendas for mobile learning, which are seen around the world. I argued that all mobile learning involves a trade-off between affordability and affordances. I concluded with several case studies of mobile English language learning projects from different parts of the globe, showing how the mobile learning types and agendas are realised in practice – and how it is important to balance up affordability and affordances in order to design the optimal kind of mobile learning for our own learners in our own contexts. The practicalities of mobile learning were explored further in my workshop, Introducing Mobile Learning, which suggested a number of entry points into mobile learning for teachers and students with different levels of technological and pedagogical/educational experience and confidence.

In her plenary, Cohort-Based Learning, Susan Barduhn mentioned that the average completion rate in MOOCs is only 7-9%. One reason may be the lack of relationships between students and teachers, and students and their peers; there is little chance to co-construct understanding together. Cohort-based learning is about a whole programme through which students move together, and which they complete together. When students enrol at different times – e.g., in PhD programmes – they are often working alone and don’t have the support of peers. In cohort-based learning there are special administrative and instructional provisions, intense group identification, and powerful interpersonal relationships. The faculty are also a cohort. Learning, Susan suggested, is in the relationships between people; she quoted Earl Stevick: “Success or failure in a language course depends less on linguistic analysis and pedagogical techniques than on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom”.  In this kind of learning, there is a need for a common space where the members of the group can find each other – and that space may be online.

The conference was intensely discussion-based, more so than many other conferences I’ve attended: I was constantly invited to join conversations in the halls and corridors, covering a range of topics, but often in the form of extended discussions about the possibilities for the use of new technologies in a variety of contexts around Oman, the Gulf, and further afield. I also managed to catch some other interesting papers, reflecting on the use of new technologies in general ways or with reference to specific apps, platforms and websites; these included Peter Waters’ paper The Road Ahead: Reviewing the Past to Design the Future, which reminded the audience that a focus on the recent must not come at the expense of forgetting the past; Is’haq Al Naibi and Marwa Al Hadhrami’s paper,  Whatsapp: The Harbinger of Collaboration in Language Learning, where they outlined numerous ways of using WhatsApp groups for training both receptive skills (with students for example taking notes in the form of mind maps in and sending in photos of these) and productive skills (with students for example sending in voice recordings on set topics); Munira Al-Wahaibi and Asila Al-Maawali’s paper Facebook Fosters Autonomous Learning in ELT Classrooms, where they argued that a Facebook group can be a good platform to support English learning – through online discussion, a student question-and-answer section, and an audio/video corner – while simultaneously developing students’ IT skills as well as developing student autonomy (which they suggested is a relatively new concept in Omani educational culture); and Fatima Al Shihi’s workshop, Online Vocabulary Learning, where she illustrated the use of the ESL Lab website for teacher-led or self-directed access.

There’s clearly a lot of interest in new technologies, and mobile technologies especially, in Oman and the Gulf countries, and experimentation has begun with these tools in English language teaching. With the proliferation of smart devices in the region, the time is ripe for mobile learning to contribute in a major way to language education.

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