Tables, Technology and Countless Bits of Paper

From a research perspective, I’m quite lucky. My level 1 class use three different rooms across the week. The Monday room is probably the most balanced: about 15 PCs around the edge of the room, and a U of tables in the middle. There’s an interactive whiteboard and a huge regular whiteboard. It has the best of both worlds: where the PCs are there if you want them, but the room has a basic classroom structure which works. It is fixed, and there’s not a lot you can do with the tables.

The Thursday room is closer to what we might call traditional, just about enough room for my group of 18, but free and open and has a flexible layout with small square tables so all sorts of possibilities are there. There’s no technology at all, apart from the OHP gathering dust in the corner, and the mysterious presence of a (fully functional) sink in the corner.

The Friday room is a language lab. Three parallel lines of tables with PCs on top running perpendicular to a desk and an interactive whiteboard at the front.

So, the question is, which room do I prefer? If you’d asked me five years ago, or even in August, I would have probably said the first. And don’t get me wrong, I do like it. It’s very flexible. You can do a lot with it. And the language lab has its benefits, not least a nifty piece of software which enables you to nosy in on what learners are doing,

But what I’m finding at the moment, ironically, is that my favourite room is the tech-less one.

Here’s why:
It’s very flexible: the nature the of tables mean that I can have a U, two interlocking Ls, and variations on the theme of islands. I’m liking the groups of four at the moment, but this could change. And what’s weird is I don’t miss the PCs. Not just the obvious reasons, like waiting for the damn things to boot up, log in details working, half working, websites being blocked by security software, and (in the case of the language lab) huge great screens splitting the room up. I meant things like waiting for learners to develop the necessary IT skills to make good use of the PCs (yes, there is a role for developing IT skills, but sometimes you just want the learners to, well, develop their English skills and not have the barrier of doIng it using via unfamiliar technology.

And I have been much more creative: assorted sizes of slips of paper, flip chart paper, pens, post-it notes, dictionaries, and, for me, I think, more productive and freer somehow.

Computer based learning seems to lend itself most naturally to very much teacher dictated content and teacher led work generally. I’m not saying this is always the case, but when your learners’ IT skills are a chunk lower than their language skills (yes, I know about the importance of developing their IT skills…) it sometimes adds an extra layer of complexity to the task where the tech gets in the way of the language, and teacher led becomes easier. The computer, in effect, is a teaching tool and not a learning tool.

I think if learners are more comfortable with IT than my group, by which I mean “fluent” computer users, for whose basic controls and functions are second nature, then IT can be more flexible than this. And I do need to, and will continue experimenting and playing with IT.

But I’ll say this. I’ve loved the low tech stuff. I really have. There is a flow to developing an entire lesson on slips of paper, as I did with my beginners this week. The language and the content and the ideas all came from the learners and their lives and ideas, and PC technology would have got in the way here. My best, my very best lessons this year so far have been without PCs. Or have started on PCs but become offline classroom interactions. Because the challenge of working online and the skills needed to do so have not got in the way. Even when you get all the learners logged into the PCs and the VLE, as I do on a Friday, there’s always some sort of hiatus or lag caused by the learners not being sure. Not to mention the pace that IT can suck out of the lesson.

Can I say this again, before someone points it out to me: yes, learners get a lot from developing their IT skills. I genuinely believe that. All I’m saying is that sometimes, or even often, the technology swamps the language, which for a language teacher is no good thing. Like any resource, you just have to ask yourself what, exactly, does it add to the experience for the learners? And it doesn’t, not always.

But what is even more crucial in this particular class is the presence of one particular bit of technology. Actually, about 15 bits of tech – the learners almost all have Some sort of smartphone. I did a count: about 5 iPhones (3 &4), the same number of Blackberries, and a general assortment of Android powered phones. These are phones which now almost all have dictionary apps on, have been used as cameras to take photos of the board (a regular occurrence after I started doing it). One interesting strategy that one learner brought to the class was to check spellings by simply writing a word into a blank text message on her iPhone and seeing if the word got underlined.

The difference between these bits of tech and the great lumps of black plastic is the ease with which they are used. What initially struck me was the availability of them: ESOL learners are not often wealthy but many of them have a need for, and can justify £20+ contracts which usually means a smartphone of one sort or another. We talked about this as a group: one or two of the Android and Blackberry users were very non-“smart” users: it was just a phone as far as they were concerned, for talking and texting, but many of the learners, particularly the Apple users, were aware of the possibilities and made use of them. Age also wasn’t an issue here: the youngest learner in the group, the one who is on Facebook at every available opportunity or busy watching videos on YouTube, is the owner of probably the least up to date phone in class: an old plastic Samsung “dumb” phone from about 6 years ago.

These devices were present in the room from day one, and we quickly agreed a code of conduct. Ringer on silent; no calls, unless pre planned or unavoidable (I’m not about to give a student a rollicking for taking a call from her child’s school, for example, these are adults, after all); no texting; only online activity relevant to the class; and don’t download an app unless you’re using wifi (again, a flexible rule, but there for the less aware smartphone users). So far no-one has taken any liberties with these rules: I may just be lucky, but in the last 5 weeks there’s been one emergency call from school, two doctor’s calls and two from solicitors. I’ve had a couple of rings, but these have been silenced with embarrassed apologies and unanswered. This, by the way, is in a class of 17 learners.

They work well because using them doesn’t interrupt the flow of the non-tech classroom, and learners know what to do with them. We have iPod touches at work and I can use these to supplement the smartphones, and overall the use has been a success. In the Monday room, with the PCs round the edges, I tend to prefer these to the clunk of black plastic, although its hard when the PCs are thrust into your face as they are on a Friday. I’d still love the low tech stuff more, I think, but the mobile devices make it better!



  1. I’m interested in this line “The computer, in effect, is a teaching tool and not a learning tool.” Perhaps inside the classroom, but definitely not outside. Thinking about myself – the computer is probably my most influential learning tool – I learn pretty much everything from using it!!! Internet, blogs, google, email, chatting to others, and recently, language learning! Crazy how much I rely on the computers maybe. But you’re right, not all students have the same approach or accessibility to it.

    That’s great about the phones – definitely a good learning tool. If some students started using the phones for personal stuff as well as a learning aid during class, what would you do? 16-18 wise, i’m not sure if the learning would outweigh the socialising…..

    1. I think I’ve yet to meet an ESOL class with fluent computer skills, in the same way that, say, some of my teacher training courses have used computers, in which interactions flowed much more naturally from PC to classroom, and back again.

      If we could remove the IT skills barrier, which mobile devices often do, then there is a much more fluid and natural movement from device to interaction.

      One more question though: how easily could you learn from the internet if you were using an alien keyboard, and an alien language. Imagine an Amharic internet…!

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