Friday, 16 March 2012

Brand New, Shiny New, Shiny Brandy New Tech in class: Worth it?

As some of you may know, I have a twitter feed (@pjgallantry, since you ask), and I follow plenty of my fellow educators through it. I'm also, as some of you may know, a bit of a tech geek - I love brand new shiny gadgets and websites and all sorts of electronic wotsittery. And I have a Vice-Principal in my institution who is eager, excited and and indeed deliriously delighted about all forms of e-learning. Putting all these things together, you would think I'd be happier than a dog with two dicks about being able to combine all the helpful ideas on Twitter, my own techno-enthusiasm, and having the support of a senior admin guy to help my students learn English, wouldn't you?
You couldn't be more wrong.
All I see is a hopeless mishmash of poorly joined-up enthusiasm with little actual thought of what it entails practically and pragmatically.
Let's start with the most fundamental of all - access. Not every student can afford an ipad, or an Android-driven tablet, or even a smartphone. Believe it or not, some students, especially older learners, don't even want a smartphone, or a tablet - and some find using computers difficult. Does this make them losers who don't deserve to learn? Hell it does. If learners are not at least beginning their learning from a level playing field, then neither true learning can occur, nor can the teacher honestly say they are teaching - all they are doing is playing at teaching.
point two: materials. The major publishers have, as we know, taken quite a long time to latch on to how e-materials can be produced. Some more tech-savvy teachers have produced decent materials that work on a variety of platforms, but even so, what is out there is horribly uneven in terms of quality and, pace the first point, accessiblilty. Currently, if any teacher is truly serious about offering equal opportunity of learning to all their learners, they need to have (near-) identical materials available online, as an app, in pdf, as a .doc or equivalent and as a good old bit of paper.
point three: just because we, as educators, get excited about a new piece of tech or a new website or whatever, it does not necesarily follow that a) our students will be equally excited or b) that the brand new shiny thing we have discovered is actually, genuinely useful or game-changing in the class. We might love Twitter or Vimeo or whatever, but unless we consider how pragmatic it is to use it, and how often, it is far too easy to overindulge ourselves to the detriment of learning - but because we're using the new tech or website, we can convince ourselves taht actually we're teaching well, or the students are learning well!
I'd like to suggest a few points that anyone who is getting excited about new tech/software should think about.
1) What does this do that the old method doesn't? If the answer to this is 'nothing' or 'I don't know', then don't use it. Either work out how it is different, or leave well alone. This applies to websites, software and hardware.
2) What does this do better than the old method? Answer as above, really
3) Will my learners benefit from some discovery that excites me? If the answer is 'no', the leave it out of class.
4) Do my learners have access to this online resource I want the class to use? If they don't, then you are the one disadvantaging them. Rethink your approach.
5) Can my students afford this piece of tech? If the answer is 'no', then why are you basing your lesson around it?
One thing I have noticed amid all the excitement over tablet technology - the students I have don't have tablets, but they are quite avid users of smartphones. However, it is glaringly obvious from their use that they see them as accessories to learning rather than necessarily portals for learning - in fact, they browse language sites and apps rather than rely on them. This is an important thing to note, as it means that they have do with language apps on their phones what they naturally do with the other software on it - use it in a casual, relaxed way. If I made them use their phones in a more concentrated 'LEARNING-STYLE' way, they probably wouldn't use them as effectively. Instead of making dedicated learning-rich apps, it might be better to create ones that encourage and support the natural way people browse their phones for information.

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