I got a Kindle for Christmas, and so I now have an iPhone, an iPad, a Kindle, a laptop and a netbook, not to mention access to no end of bits and pieces at work, and I love them all. I can play with them, experiment and use them, and I have a great time doing so. This mass of gadgets rather got me thinking about e-learning and why I probably use it differently to how I think I use it.
I’m confident with technology. There’s not a lot which can faze or panic me when it comes to gadgets, up to and including deleting and entire course from a VLE or working out which manky piece of software is crashing a PC. I can find and rescue files from a dead PC using a small Linux distro on a USB stick, or install bits of hardware onto a motherboard. I know what cloud computing is, what a router does, why some web animations don’t run on an iPad, and have a rough and ready working knowledge of HTML. IT departments can be technical with me and I can understand them. Printers and copiers have always been a bit of a technological black hole for me, mind you, but by and large I am a confident and largely lucky user of IT.
There is a flip side to this confidence, or rather there are two. The first is that I can be terribly impatient with people who don’t get IT. I can be the epitome of patience with beginner ESOL learners, for example, but hopelessly impatient when they struggle to log into a computer. Go figure. I am, in essence, a terrible IT teacher: I have to fight the urge to grab the keyboard and say “oh just let me do it!”
The second is that doing technology stuff has long since ceased to be novel. New stuff is very cool, and I enjoy finding out about it, etc, etc. But it’s just new stuff, and once my own excitement has passed, it gets assimilated and just becomes a thing that I do. And for me, this is where the tech receives its acid test: do I use that tech systematically and regularly (as is the case with, say, a VLE, or mobile phones) or do I only use it sporadically and not necessarily very well (like, say, an IWB).
A lot of this is not because I can’t: I can very easily do lots of things with an IWB, for example. But like any resource, I weigh up the impact of that resource against the level of hassle it is to create and use it. (I have nicknamed this the Rinvolucri Effect after an activity in a book by Mario Rinvolucri (Grammar Games, I think) I saw once which involved about three-quarters of an hour of faff and copying and so on for an activity which would have taken about 10 minutes in the classroom.)
Take a simple drag and drop activity matching words and pictures: how much more useful is it to do it with, say, volunteers working on an IWB, as compared to learners working in groups with cards? Which is likely to create the better learning? And yes, you could use it as an assessment tool to make sure all the learners have got the right answers, but again, what about getting the learners to move around the room peer checking, with brief teacher input on the few remaining inaccurate answers? Surely this again promotes learners engagement and focus, and in an ESOL class lots of opportunity for talk?
I hold my hands up here: an interactive whiteboard is an easy target in this respect, so let’s not get carried away. After all, quite often using IT can really add something to a lesson. My learners and I had a great lesson recently which was much better facilitated through IT, using a collaborative document on sync.in and reading and question texts provided through the VLE. A number of my level 1 learners use their smartphones for dictionaries. and apps for independent study, as well as accessing the VLE for independent work at home. My beginners class have access to about eight PCs and thoroughly enjoy working with them for simple word processing, or using sites like the wonderful esolcourses.com to practice language from the lesson. In fact a PC can be a wonderfully freeing device for a beginner learner, as it takes away the relative complexity of holding and manipulating a pen, and allows them to produce clear, legible, owned text.
Even an interactive white board can be a brilliant piece of equipment for when you get learners to cluster round the boardand mark aspects of a text, or as a teacher led presentation tool so you have the same on the board as the learners have in front of them, or for getting some learners to do an activity on the interactive whiteboard while the rest do it on paper, then using that version as a means of checking learning.
I think (or hope) we have all got away from the idea that the inclusion of technology automatically makes for better learning. Instead it is about effective use of the most appropriate technology for the situation, whether that is a smartphone, a VLE, a tablet or a pen and paper. Getting a large group of learners to come up one at a time to mark something on an IWB is not the best use of that technology (what are the rest of the class doing?), but getting a small group of learners to cluster round and work on it could be.
So technology, then, is no longer the saviour of teaching as it probably was for the middle 5 years of my career to date, back when broadband Internet was just becoming reliable and commonplace in the UK. Actually looked at in those terms, I reckon the move from “awesomely exciting” to “yeah, just a thing” probably coincided with my first smartphone (an awful Nokia X6, in case you were wondering), and was finally compounded by the arrival of an iPhone in my life, and my first tentative steps with this blog. Go figure.