The 1st International ELT Symposium at Yildiz Technical University, entitled Wired In or Out, focused on Web Technologies in ELT Classrooms. It brought together an international group of language educators over two rich days in Istanbul at the start of December, 2012.
In his opening plenary, The Heart of Education, Chuck Sandy stressed the need to bring together communities of people using online social networking and other tools. He reminded the audience of the E.M. Forster quote, “Only connect”, and suggested it can be updated in the digital era of personal learning networks (PLNs). But it’s about more than connecting: it’s about connecting on very deep levels, and about asking yourself what you can contribute. When you mentor others, you can learn yourself in the process.
In his follow-up plenary, Blending, extending and bridging language learning in the digital age, Gary Motteram spoke about the importance of the ‘digital turn’ in education. Drawing on activity theory, he mentioned that there are many different people and factors (extending to parents and the wider community, as well as learners’ motivations and expectations) involved in the integration of new technologies into learning. Zeroing in on the role of teachers, he referred to Shulman’s work on pedagogical content knowledge, and highlighted the idea that teachers often see their subject matter differently from content specialists who are not teachers. There has been discussion for years about the need to train teachers appropriately to use new technologies, but very frequently this still doesn’t happen.
The way teachers teach in the classroom is affected by numerous factors, including their beliefs about the interface between technology and learning, their beliefs about language learning itself (which may be different for different languages, with the communicative techniques typically used in English not always being suited to learning other languages, like Chinese), the institutional setting, and the expectations of learners and the institution.
In her talk, From curation to creation, Marisa Constantinides spoke about the need to deal with information overload through appropriate curation techniques. She defined curation as the process of selection, preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets. She observed that the teacher is by nature a curator. She focused on a number of digital tools which can aid teachers in this process, including social networking sites like Facebook, social bookmarking tools like Delicious, Diigo and Scoop.it, and social sharing tools like Pinterest or YouTube channels, as well as blogs and wikis. She also mentioned new tools like LiveBinders, MentorMob and Learnist. Having a variety of platforms allows teachers to choose the most appropriate ones for collecting different kinds of content.
Traditionally, she suggested, curation has not been looked at as something very creative. In Bloom’s digital taxonomy, the activities of recognising, listing, describing, etc, are shown at the lowest level, Remembering. However, she argued, this is wrong, because curation can be a very creative process, especially in the digital era, and one that involves higher order thinking. If you have an idea and want to explore it, then curating content about it can be a good way to develop in-depth understanding. It can also bring in a social learning element. Part of creation, she concluded, is building on other people’s ideas.
In the final plenary on the opening day, entitled Give the test a rest, Luke Meddings made the argument that we rely too much on standardised testing, and that there is a whole testing economy based around it. As we focus on what can be tested, we develop funnel vision that reduces the areas that are covered. He suggested that we should vary what we do in the classroom, engage in more unplugged/Dogme style teaching, and make use of new technologies where appropriate. He used the metaphor of a railway and a river to suggest that, rather than working solely with a linear syllabus, we can follow the flow of learning – heading in the same direction but allowing more flexibility. Web 2.0 tools can complement the latter. They offer us new ways to achieve formative assessment. Evernote, for example, allows you to take snapshots of students’ learning on a regular basis, rather than just conducting periodic tests and sending out periodic report cards. Teachers need to talk to colleagues about how to find alternatives to standard testing regimes which aren’t helping students’ learning.
In the opening plenary of the second day, with the lengthy title of Technology is a useful tool if used to create and enhance comprehensible input, a derailment if used to overemphasize conscious learning, Stephen Krashen spoke of the war between two competing hypotheses about language. The comprehension hypothesis says that grammar and vocabulary are the result of language acquisition. The skill-building hypothesis says that the grammar and vocabulary come first, and then eventually you will be able to use the language. It’s about immediate versus delayed gratification. Krashen supports the former hypothesis, and outlined the research evidence for it, but observed that for politicians and the public, the latter hypothesis is an axiom.
He made some key points about comprehensible input:
- With enough comprehensible input, all the necessary structures are present, so the best input is non-targeted.
- Input should be interesting, or ideally, compelling. Reading should be self-selected. It makes it easier for students to enter into a state of flow.
- Narrow input is best.
If the computer is used in tune with comprehensible input, it can be very valuable. We haven’t come close to making use of what we already have available; there’s no need for new tools. According to studies, the amount of book reading children are doing has changed little from 1946 to 2010, but magazine and newspaper reading has declined. Website reading is on the increase.
While the jury is out on social networking, Krashen believes that kids are reading and writing more than ever before thanks to Facebook, which is good for their literacy skills. Studies show that the more kids are online, the more they read in print. Several studies show that more internet use leads to more literacy. Krashen suggested that free, voluntary net surfing might well lead to improved language, along the lines of narrow, self-selected input.
He outlined the potential for narrow personalised viewing (including of stories created by children themselves):
- Comprehensible stories (aural and visual)
- Comprehensible discussions
- Series books > TV or movie series
There is so much we can do with storytelling, without any new technology, and without anything fancy. He gave the example of ESL Pod, a simple and straightforward approach involving stories, with materials being given away for free. He suggested, indeed, that it’s important for educators and academics to give away work as much as possible, to stop the rising costs of accessing materials and research. We can be part of a cultural change, he observed, by giving things away.
He concluded by running through what he called ‘bogus uses’ of technology, including many commercial language learning systems which make exaggerated claims but involve very traditional pedagogical approaches. These are skill-based schemes based on the public’s view of language learning.
In her plenary, Facebook nation: Social networks & ELT, Nicky Hockly started off with some facts and figures about Facebook, including the fact that 250 million people access Facebook on mobile devices, and mobile users are twice as active as non-mobile users. She noted that Facebook already contains public language sites, educator sites and institutional sites. She then focused on setting up class group pages and using them to provide feedback on students’ content and language, and allowing students to read and respond to each other’s work. She mentioned a number of issues that can occur with Facebook, and gave recommendations on how to deal with them:
- Teacher privacy: teachers can have two separate profiles, or use group pages
- Inappropriate use: teachers can set clear user guidelines, linked to official institutional policies
- Facebook as big business: teachers can suggest alternatives such as My Fake Wall, Pikifriends, and Edmodo.
There is little research on Facebook in language education to date. One study found that students preferred closed groups, but another study found that students liked the authentic communication in open groups. Hockly suggested that students could have both at the same time. Feedback was seen as particularly important by students; she recommended organising peer feedback, amongst other things. One study found that Facebook’s enhancement of the community feeling of a class can lead to increased motivation and performance. The research is listed on Delicious under http://delicious.com/nickyhockly/yildiz.
Mobile technologies, as always in conferences these days, made an appearance in numerous talks, and formed the main focus of several. Within a year or two, it will certainly be normal for conferences in the area of new technologies to focus as much on mobile apps and the mobile web as they do on the original web – and that trend was in evidence at this event.
In her talk, MLearning: More than an illusion of illumination, Işil Boy pointed out that mobile learning is about more than apps. If e-learning is beyond classroom walls, she suggested, then m-learning is beyond computer screens. She suggested that the Affective Context Model helps explain the value of mobile learning with its anywhere/anytime aspects, and its push and pull features. When integrating mobile technologies into our teaching, we need to prioritise the learning objectives and consider the ‘teacherware’, that is, ensuring that teachers are well trained.
After mentioning a search engine for apps, Quixey, she went on to recommend a number of apps:
- Speaking: TripAdvisor (project work, talking about holidays, planning a holiday); Dragon Dictation (dictation software); Audioboo (voice recording and adding pictures)
- Writing: Skitch (pictures with annotation – speaking, basic writing and vocabulary development); Google Docs (writing, presentations, etc); Lino (online stickies service)
- Listening: Stitcher Radio (radio shows, live stations and podcasts); Learning English Elementary (English learning podcasts with exercises)
- Reading: Zite (a personalised magazine that learns what you like); The Poetry App (over 100 poems with video and audio narrations)
After illustrating QR codes as a recent trend, she went on to highlight AR (augmented reality) as the new trend in mobile educational technologies, one which allows students to participate interactively with computer generated simulations. She also spoke about mobile storytelling as a new iteration of digital storytelling, illustrating the possibilities with a multimedia app called Storykit. Mobile storytelling and AR can come together with a simulated 3D app like ZooBurst, where you can create AR markers that allow you to use the simulations in a real-world environment like the classroom.
In my own presentation, From start to finish: Mobile technologies and language learning, I surveyed the terrain of mobile technologies in the teaching of language, beginning with simpler uses, many of which are oriented towards content consumption or behaviourist drills, and leading up to those which are more learner-centred, innovative and creative. The tools and techniques covered included podcasting, apps, polling, multimedia recording, QR codes, geosocial networking, and augmented reality.
In the closing plenary, A technological disaster (references at: http://atechnologicaldisaster.pen.io/) Lindsay Clandfield pointed out that a lot of current technology use involves traditional pedagogical approaches and strategies that simply incorporate new technology, but there has been little fundamental change. Teachers are sometimes blamed for this, and the digital native/immigrant distinction plays into this. Teachers do ask themselves questions about whether the technology fits with everything else they are having to do; whether the net will undermine their authority; whether the technology will work on the day in the classroom; and whether technology will add to rather than reduce time pressure. From a pedagogical point of view, the technology seems to lend itself to a behaviourist approach. Sometimes technological solutions are imported but not localised. Assessment still remains stubbornly resistant to the innovations and developments in the wider field of digital education.
There is a broader question about whether technology works: does it lead to better learning? One issue here is what we mean by learning. The No Significant Difference website documents 350 research reports which show that there is not much of a difference between technology-enhanced education and what we were doing before. There has been some suggestion that technology may deprofessionalise teachers. It may be that new teacher and learner roles are culturally bound; online learning may be in line with the American view of individualism and autonomy. Teachers, too, may be very restricted by the systems in which they teach.
There is also a larger ideological debate about deschooling society. For some, the end of schools could mean free education for all, with no barriers. For others, it may mean removing state control and repositioning education within the private sector. Another issue is the e-waste produced by the move in a digital direction. Yet another question is whether what is economically good for technology companies is always good for technology users. The NESTA Report says that the huge investment in digital technologies in UK schools over recent years has produced little measurable change, because these efforts have put technology above teaching, and excitement above evidence.
In short, there has to be space for educators to discuss with each other the issues and challenges of working with new technologies, as well as the benefits. A symposium like this one has provided space to do just that.