ELT and the Crisis in Education: Technology in the Classroom

Sunday 9 January 2011

by Nik Peachey

In my last posting ‘ELT and the Crisis in Education: Digital Reading Skills’ I took a look at how I feel the process of reading has been impacted by digital technologies and suggested that we need to address this and change or at least expand the way we deal with developing reading skills in ELT.

In this article I’d like to question how effectively we can attempt to do that in the language classroom as it appears in its present state.

One of the most common criticisms leveled at teachers who do attempt to integrate technology into their classroom environment, is that this often results in a lot of ‘faffing around’ or time wasted while struggling to get the technology to work properly. To some extent I feel that this criticism is fair, but I don’t think it’s a criticism that should be leveled at teachers, but would be better directed at the people who control the way technology is layered onto the classroom environment, so lets look at that.

These are two of the most common ways I see technology injected into schools. The first is the multimedia classroom / computer lab.

Computer lab

Computer lab

I’m sure, many teachers who have no computer access for their students will look at these images with envy, but is this really an effective way to implement technology into our teaching practice? You may ask what’s wrong with this kind of arrangement and this would be my answer.

* Having booked a time slot, teachers have to take the students out of their usual classroom environment and get them reorganised in a new classroom with a new seating pattern. Once in the media lab teachers feel pressured to fill all the time there with computer use, after all why take 5 – 15 mins getting students reorganised, getting computers turned on and students logged in, only to leave and go back to class again a few moments later?

* Many computer / multimedia labs aren’t in fact multimedia. There are computers there which are capable of delivering multimedia, but in many cases they don’t have headphones or speakers, there are no microphones and very few have webcams, so much of the multimedia capability and more importantly the part that supports oral / aural communication and audio visual creativity has been rendered ineffective.

* The arrangement of most computer rooms, with computers in long rows, makes it very difficult for teachers to manage the class, get students attention and create any kind of off screen communication between students as their attention is dominated by the computer.

* Most computer networks are jealously protected by IT managers who do their upmost to make sure the computers are kept free of viruses and not used for ‘unsuitable’ purposes. This often involves disabling any kind rights to upload, download or instal programs, software or applications and also often disables many of the browser based plugins that can be so useful to teachers and students. So in short the protection of the network takes priority over enabling teachers and students to use the computers effectively.

The second common scenario for technology integration into schools is the interactive whiteboard / single computer and data projector in the classroom.

IWB image

Interactive whiteboards


Again many teachers would welcome the opportunity to have these kinds of tools, and they do solve the problem of having to take students out of class and into a new environment, but they do also create problems of a different kind when it comes to developing students digital literacies.
The interactive whiteboard puts complete control of the computer in the hands of the teacher. This may make the teacher feel good and make classroom management easier, but there is no way for the students to develop their digital literacies in this kind of environment where they don’t have hands on access to the technology.

So what’s the solution?

There is a third alternative and one that is becoming increasingly more common and that is the wireless classroom. As more schools are becoming wirelessly connected, this opens the opportunity for much greater flexibility in the way technology is used in class and which technology is used. Providing classrooms with wireless access can enable students to use their own devices in class and allows for a greater range and diversity of devices. It solves some of the problems of keeping school computers up to date with software and plugins and shifts responsibility for protection from viruses etc. It means that teachers and students don’t have to leave the classroom or even their seat to access the internet. Schools do however have to be prepared to provide adequate bandwidth to make it possible for reasonable numbers of students to start accessing media rich sources such as YouTube without bringing down the network.

Despite the fact that wireless networks are becoming much more common place in schools and at educational conferences I’m still surprised at how little utilisation these networks get.

Over the last year I’ve attended a good number of conferences and done workshops in a number of schools most of which have a wireless network, and yet still most teachers and students turn up to classes or sessions with pen and paper and only use the network for checking their email or Facebook between classes. The fact is very few tutors and trainers take advantage of the network during their sessions. This is something we desperately need to change. We must try to change the culture of our educational training at conferences and workshops and start to build the expectation that if students in classes or teachers at conferences bring along an internet capable device they will have the opportunity to use it in a way which will enhance their learning and participation in that event.

So what do you think about this?

* How is technology being integrated into learning in your institution?

* Are teachers’ efforts to use technology in your school being supported or obstructed by the  institution?

* Is there a wireless network and do teachers and students use it in class?

* Do you have a computer lab? Does it get used?

* Do the computers in your school have microphones, headphones and webcams?

* Is technology something your students use in the classroom or just outside of it?

* Do you take your laptop or mobile device along to conferences and actually get to use it?

Best

Nik Peachey

19 responses to ELT and the Crisis in Education: Technology in the Classroom

  1. All interesting questions! So many times I would encourage students to follow up my lesson using websites with interactive material at home because it was a nightmare to try to use the sites in the school (not enough computers, slow speed ,in fact all the issues you mentioned). Having said that, I felt that most students did have access to online materials at home; what they didn’t have access to was the face-to-face communication and practice with a teacher which they had in the classroom.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Virginia

      Yes, technology should make life easier not more difficult, but using tech in most schools is a really high risk activity. This is totally wrong and doesn’t need to be the case.

      I agree about the importance of face to face interaction time in the classroom, but I feel that technology can be used to enhance the face to face experience and make lessons more useful for enabling students to use teachnology outside the classroom too.

      Best

      Nik

  2. Phil says:

    We have a few old labs and wireless but we don’t use it enough. I think many of us are still stuck in the old ‘lang lab’ mentality of use X program for 30 mins. I’ve had some success with DOKEOS and WHITEBOARD but the students still find it strange as it really needs to be a whole school movement. I also did a DISTANCE course myself which could have been more interactive with webcasts and interactuve exercises.

    We need to keep up with the times so the more of us who incorporate IT in the class the better for the students who use it out of the class.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Phil

      Yes, it’s surprisng how many teachers still have the impression that computer based learning is about those kind of digital work book type tasks such as gapfilling, drag aand drop matching etc that characterised a lot of CALL software of the last century. That seems to still be reflected in the way computer rooms / media labs are designed. We need to get a way from that a bit and see the computers as a means of real communication.

      Best

      Nik

  3. Phil says:

    Hi Nik

    Exactly. In fact, thaks to you I am trying out a class project which students accessed on their mobiles and set to work on in class. It seems more natural to them as this is how they access info normally and communicate with their friends. I’m going to try more of your ideas next term but using the net constructively has really freshened up my classes, even TOEIC which seems impossible.

    Thanks for all the tips and keep up the inspirational ideas.

    Phil

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Phil

      That’s really great. I’d love to hear a bit more detail about the kinds of things you are doing, particularly with mobile.

      Best

      Nik

      • Phil says:

        I uploaded a document with details of a team task/project to the Uni online platform which I then asked the students to access as the intro. Within 5 mins there were mobiles, notebooks, blackberries and strawberries (?) being pulled out and battling over who could get a signal first. I then answered any questions and told them that near the end of the class there would be a recorded presentation based on a single PP slide. They then recorded and perfected their talks onto voicethread, emailed around links and commented with 1 min speeches on each video. finally I opened up the Chat page on the Uni platform and I began a discussion on the videos. It worked well as it was like messaging but actually has icons for ‘ask permission to speak’, ‘hand over the floor’ etc.

        I came up with this following what I’ve read on your blogs. It is the same lesson and activities as I normally use but using integrated technology. However, my hi-tech lesson clashed a bit with the blackboard and chalk I had to use to write with but you can’t win them all.

        Thanks again for the inspiration.

        • Nik Peachey says:

          Hi Phil

          That sounds like a great response from your students and it also sounds like you have a lot of support from your school / Uni.

          When your students accessed the online platform through their mobile devices, were they doing it through a local wireless network or through their own mobile network?

          Do you have any resistance from students who don’t want to use or haven’t got a mobile to use?

          Thank you so much for sharing your experience here.

          Best

          Nik

  4. Phil says:

    Hi again

    We have Wifi and the learning platform but as you have noted few people venture down that road. The old lamp projector, chalkboard and VHS tapes are still in use.

    Resistance?
    Well, some connection problems but most students have a laptop which was easier for project work. The mobile devices are a bit eye straining after a while but good for quick messages.

    In one place we changed the delivery method of weekly tasks. Students were emailed, SMSed it or even called by the teacher.

    One thing I have noticed is that with this kind of integration the boundaries of the class shift. It is no longer 2 til 4 then finish as the devices and communication means match their outside actvities. What I mean is that the lesson becomes alive and when it finishes students are willing to continue a homework chat or voicethread. If we can create this passion and interest then the next lesson will also tap into it. We will then have a living breathing course rather than just a series of classes.

    How would you encourage other teachers/depts to embrace WIFI and mobile devices? Especially given that many may have been doing the same classes for 50 years?

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Phil

      You asked, “How would you encourage other teachers/depts to embrace WIFI and mobile devices? Especially given that many may have been doing the same classes for 50 years?”

      This is a really tricky question and one to which there is no simple single answer. There are going to be some people in that situation who never will and I think you have to be prepare to accept that, but for the ones that can change I think you have to start very slowly and gently and look carefully at the way they already teach and the things they feel comfortable doing in the classroom, then look at how and where technology can help to make things easier for them or help them accomplish the things they do in a more effective way.

      One thing to avoid is trying to use technology too much and to do every single thing using a clever app or website. Technology should enhance, support and enable learning.

      One thing I’d like to pick up on from you comment is the shift in the boundaries of the classroom and how technology has enabled you to extend the lesson / learning beyond the time spent in class. I think this is really important and it’s a shift we need to make in the way we think about education both as teachers and students. Learning needs to be a constant and ongoing process, not something that ends with the bell, but for this to happen I think that schools need to rethink the role of teachers and how this extends beyond class time and into being ‘constantly available’ to their students and I think teachers need to be supported (and I do mean financially) in this extension of their role.

      So I think that goes back to your original question. It’s not just the teachers that need to change it’s also the schools and the way they think about the role of the teacher and how and where learning takes place.

      Hope that goes some way towards answering your question.

      I wrote an article a while back called “The Web 2.0 School of the Present
      http://quickshout.blogspot.com/2009/11/web-20-school-of-present.html

      This goes into a bit more detail about how to transform the language school environment. I also wrote a short article about tools that can be used to exploit wirteless “3 Tools for Exploiting the Wifi During Presentations”

      http://nikpeachey.blogspot.com/2010/05/3-tools-for-exploiting-wifi-during.html

      These might also help.

      Best

      Nik

      • Tracey says:

        Nik, Phil,

        I have been reading your thread with great interest. I am currently in the second year of my PGCE course. I teach ESOL but at the moment just 2 evenings a week due to time constraints of a young family. I am writing a conference paper as part of my course ‘ A study of the efficacy of a class blog in my ESOL class to extend the teaching and learning beyond the weekly session’. I, too, am excited about the opportunities and possibilities to continue the learning outside the time constraints and physical boundaries of the classroom.
        It’s been great reading your comments and thoughts, really interesting and inspiring.
        Tracey

        • Nik Peachey says:

          Hi Tracy,

          That’s great. Which blogging platform are you using? What kinds of things are you getting your students to do? Are you getting them to do any of the blogging?

          Tell us more and share what you are doing. I’m sure other people are interested.

          Best

          Nik

  5. Phil says:

    Hi Nik

    Thanks for the links. Some great ideas, as always.

    I really agree about ‘going overboard’ with IT which is tempting as there is so much great stuff available. The British Council and BBC to name just 2 sites.

    I also liked what I read about student blogs and wikis where we visit their sites, not the other way round. In my current school (probably the same as many), students access our links/sites so just ‘rent’ the knowledge rather than interacting with sites and linking them to their blog etc. This opens up new dynamics such as “let’s all do a chat on X student’s blog” or “write a blog post to X student about today’s topic”. I suppose this harks back to the teacher as facilitator idea.

    I will certainly try more interactive and open lessons which move away from the’ 2 til 4 books open page 22′ style. Personally, I am happy if the students achieve my lesson objectives. This could be in a class or via a web conference or even through an adapted blog/wiki exercise. For this reason schools and higher ed need to embrace the more open view of education you talk about. Why isn’t an interactive video-based listening and grammar activity from the net as good as a dull teacher’s grammar lecture? I know which I’d prefer and which I’d remember.

    Oh, that last site is http://www.english-attack.com which is still being tested but looks great.

    Thanks again.

  6. Tracey says:

    In my teaching establishment we encounter many of the problems outlined by Nik above.
    In order to counteract the negative attitude sometimes expressed by managers regarding the use of technology in the language class, it is in our best interests to do our research first to ensure that we use technology in the best way possible in order to win over these people. Geoff Petty made a very salient point about efficacy when he remarked along the lines of it not being about what the technology does, but what the student does.
    Tracey

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Tracy

      That’s very true, but we also need to start hassling administrators and managers to make sure they provide the right tools and sufficient connectivity so that when we get students doing things they aresuccessful. When things fail because of bad connectivity or poor hardware, it’s the teacher who is in the firing line and the perception is that the teacher has got something wrong, and this shouldn’t be the case. Teachers should not have to put themselves on the line everytime they log in to a computer.

      Best

      Nik

  7. phil says:

    Very well put.

    A Russian student recently told me that at his school everyone has ereaders and he was shocked that in Europe we are far behind. The French students responses were that they liked real books and they would never use ereaders. They also said they print their emails as they are easier to read and they can collate them. For them the internet and computers are nothing to do with learning English, just for checking email and for facebook.

    With these kinds of opinions from students how can we move them into using technology, especially when their only experience in school/Uni is often of old computers and slow internet access?

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Um. Yes I was recently at a meeting of quite high level educators. Out of about 12 people I and one other had iPads, the rest were carrying around large bundles and stacks of paper. Have to say I felt a bit conspicuous.

      Best

      Nik

  8. David says:

    Hi Nik,

    I’ll just throw this thought out there – given the proposal that students have their own devices (but not dealing with the issue of how this might cause inequality in the classroom).

    Why even bother going to school? If online is “the meeting place” or the “device” is the meeting place – why the need for school at all?

    David

  9. Nik Peachey says:

    Hi David

    To some extent you have a point, but I don’t think EVERTHING is best done a device. I’d prefer to see a shift in the nature of schools and classrooms into much more social learning areas that foster much more autonomous guided learning.

    Best

    Nik

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