Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Hand it in or Email it in?

We've gone all Google at my place of work. I'm still not quite sure if this necessarily a good idea.
On the one hand, it does mean that things are incredibly easy to share - colleagues can work simultaneously on worksheets, photos and resources can be sent with the click of a button, and it's child's play to create communities and websites, AND there's even the new Google Classroom app to play with.
On the other, it's incredibly easy for well-meaning people with all the spatial conceptualisation of a loaf of wet bread to create huge, arcane and functionally useless hierarchies of folders and subfolders that take one down a dizzying maze of technological befuddlement. Google Classroom is a nice idea, but it's even less feature-rich than Edmodo at present. And, perhaps more importantly, do I really want to be at the beck and call of my students at the ping of a button?
One of the problems if technology in class is that it can make it all too easy, in a way, and what can end up happening is that the technology becomes the object of the lesson rather than a resource to deliver lesson content and the learning objectives. I've had scheduled IT classes in the past where the learners may well be writing something on a blog or wiki, but the reason for writing is obscured by the act of typing and negotiating menus and buttons on a word interface.
Now, don't get me wrong - I love it when students email me their homework. I find that I can mark it and give feedback faster (and, I think, better) when I have a nice pristine electronic sheet in front of me than a sadly tattered piece of A4 torn from a notebook. The question is this: should we insist that all homework is mailed in rather than handed in?

I think that it very much depends of several factors. The first is the language level of the learner. In my Advanced groups, emailing work in is pretty much the norm, and in fact I think that it's appropriate. A lot of these learners are working full time and using English in professional correspondence electronically, so the medium of communication and practice is appropriate. But for lower level learners, it can be a more complex picture. As a rough rule of thumb, I'd say that the lower the level of English, the more handwritten work should be done. Quite apart from avoiding the temptations of spellchecking, it also helps the teacher analyse issues with the way learners engage with the language as they write - all kinds of errors and mistakes are apparent in handwritten work.

The next thing to consider is the learner's native writing system. Clearly, if someone has Arabic as their L1, writing in latin script provides its own challenges - not merely the formation of the individual letters, but also writing in the other direction, ensuring the text is left margin justified, and so on. I also wonder what the act of writing in an unfamiliar direction has on a learner's thought processes.

Two further factors are the age of the learner and their exposure (and attitude) to IT. Younger learners are far more likely to either be proficient users of tech, or adapt quickly to using it. Adult learners, on the other hand, may present challenges in the way they approach computers. for some, it's quite clear that they have a motivational issue with many kinds of technology - very similar, in fact, to the affective filter that some people have ramped up to high levels, leading them to be ineffectual language learners.

So, for example, broadly speaking, if I had a 40-year-old Georgian student in a pre-intermediate class, I'd probably want him or her to hand in a handwritten piece, while a 20-year-old German in an FCE class would be better off emailing their work.

Of course, we could compromise and ask students to write out their work, then scan it and email it.

One more point to consider though: Language is not merely an act of mind and ear and tongue: It it an act of the whole body. I feel that learners who make notes, who write things out, who copy things down off the board, are more likely to be better users of English. Put simply, the act of writing actually consolidates the language in the learner's mind - using the hand confers, as it were, a shape to the words and the grammar. Words and syntax are given tangibility and (literally) made palpable by the application of pen to paper, by the subtle movements and pressures of fingers grasping the instrument. And that is a skill that may be in danger of being lost by solely relying on technology.

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