23.7.11

Technology- an opportunity to reinvent our teaching


Finding hard to resist a few extra photocopies with transformations to supplement the exercise crammed grammar book? Are you trying desperately to find time to do what you’ve always done in class and now you can’t because on top of that you have to use the Interactive Whiteboard and the new software your school has spent a fortune on? Maybe technology does not live up to your expectations and it is to blame for all the extra pressure, after all. Is it really? Let’s sit back and think about it for a while. Allow me to express some thoughts and feelings aloud the way I would, over a cup of coffee at the end of long and hard working week when sharing views with colleagues. 

Technology- an opportunity to reinvent our teaching
In the past three or four years I was under the impression that I experienced a velvet revolution in the ELT field that would sweep old habits and give new prospects to our profession. Like any innovation to some of us it seemed like Pandora’s box that would unleash all evils and to some others, it was Harry Potter’s magic wand that would effortlessly transform  our classes into a teacher’s paradise.
Following the new trend school owners and directors of studies adopted new technology investing heavily sometimes despite the school’s tight budget. Yet, the question often arising  Is: “we got the technology. How do we make the most of it? How can we exploit it to the benefit of our students?”
Before dealing with this question, let’s demystify technology and define its potential. It can be a powerful tool that can combine picture, sound, text and animation. It can facilitate learning for the less privileged groups of students with learning difficulties and can open a window on the world bringing fresh L2 in the stagnant language used in the classrooms.  Another equally important factor is that it stimulates students’ interest using a medium that they are familiar with – more often than not feeling more comfortable with it than their teachers.
Panacea  or evil?
We tend to consider technology as the source of all good and evil. We tend to forget it is only a tool. It is clearly up to us how we are going to use it. Sophocles wrote 25 centuries ago “no warship or fortress is of any worth unless there are people in them” . The human element is the key factor to using technology efficiently.
Listening to Luke Prodromou at TESOL’s pita cutting event  in January 2011,I couldn’t help thinking that we as educators  need to ask ourselves the right questions.

What was the ELT landscape like before the advent of technology?
The main features of ELT teaching in Greece -  with a few bright exceptions – were endless meaningless drills, heavily grammar- and accuracy-oriented syllabi, lists of words to be memorized – often not in context- and an excessive bulk of homework,  possibly in an attempt  to make up for lack of exposure to L2.  The main aim was to pass the certificate exams so that students can apply to the state sector.

What is our goal now?
Now our students have to use L2 to communicate effectively so as to work and interact in a global economy. Have we redefined our syllabi and aims? Let’s reflect on how much we have changed them and our priorities in the classroom.

Are we willing to give up our role as authorities?
Technology’s main feature is the opportunity given to practically everybody to access information. That may be an online dictionary entry or a piece of real life language that is changing maybe faster than we like to believe. Ever been in doubt about the usage of a word and received your student’s reply : ”Found it on the Internet, sir”?

Exposure is the new element . Are we exploiting it ? If so, to what extent?
30 years ago we relied heavily on coursebooks and practice test books due to lack of material and the comparatively high cost of books.  Yet now, access to free or low cost learning material is practically unlimited.  Our students already use their mobile phones, mp3 players and computers to send texts, play games, read the latest gossip about their favourite stars. Do we make use of that? How often do we assign projects based on browsing authentic texts?

Do  we teach  our students to employ their text attack skills ?  Do we encourage them to listen to authentic or semi authentic dialogues  that can be found on short videos, dvds, radio programmes?  Some of them have already created blogs. Have we ever posted a comment or given them feedback and encouragement to go on?
Technology can be a powerful ally in our role as facilitators. If our role is to prepare them to deal with real life English, then we’d better open a window on the world and expose them to the L2 gradually. Train them to deal with difficulties, avoid pitfalls, use the correct register and communicate effectively their ideas. Encourage them to create, synthesize, compare and redraft. Web 2.0 tools, the Internet, interactive whiteboard software are there to facilitate a new approach to learning and exploit resources on an unprecedented scale.
Our new challenge is to develop the learners’ autonomy so that they can make use of this wealth of data selectively and to their own benefit. For most of us, this is a new experience. We were immersed in a book culture and we feel comfortable using books, journals, newspapers and magazines but feel uneasy when it comes to search engines, creating blogs, browsing the web. Most of us seem to be reluctant to make extensive use of multi-modality and the benefits of the combined use of audio, visual and kinesthetic elements technology provides. We retreat to our strongholds of meaningless drills and language taught out of context, focusing heavily on accuracy in a world that focuses on communication and fluency.
Who can help us?
Our students! Their IT skills are usually more developed than ours. Assigning them tasks such as downloading material, reviewing sites or explaining the use of some Web 2.0 tools to their classmates in English makes them feel responsible for their learning, builds their confidence and instills the notion that learning is not only competitive but can also be a result of synergy (experts from different fields joining forces to achieve a common goal). It’s OK if sometimes we are at the back of our class and we listen to other voices apart from ours. In fact, observing our classes can teach us a lot.
Greece, Europe and the world are changing fast. We have witnessed it over the last year. Our educational system and our approach to learning need a drastic overhaul. We talk a lot about it but have we realized we need to adapt our practice?

Old habits die hard… have we changed ours?
Dimitris Primalis

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