A Dinosaur on Barriers & Panaceas

Not so long ago there was an online consultation on the ways in which digital technology can be used to develop ESOL learning, or rather on the politically convenient conflation of English, Maths & ESOL. As ever, this tendency to treat the old Skills for Life triumvirate as aspects of the same thing (they aren’t and never should have been) is likely to lead to the comments about some of the positive uses of e-learning in Maths and English and for international EFL learners as arguments in favour of e-learning models for UK ESOL provision. Yes, ESOL is different, but then so is English and so is Maths. As a result they require different classroom pedagogies, and so they require different e-learning pedagogies.

I am quite up for a bit of technology, although more for personal use than professional. Overall, the great digital dream of one day having smooth, intuitive, non-clunky, non-time and energy consuming technology has not yet come to pass. I don’t mind this, but I have learned wariness in recent years. I’ve taught too many lessons, and observed them, where 25 minutes of useful time has been wasted by trying to get the learners to engage with a piece of tech, the overall impact of which on the learning in the classroom (and in subsequent classrooms) has been minimal. I realise, of course,that this mindset makes me a crusty dinosaur overly wedded to outdated methodologies of learning, and if that’s what you are thinking then nothing I am going to say here is likely to change your mind.

The problem with e-learning is the blanket “it’s a good thing” mindset, and this is the problem I have had with it. Indeed, the problem I have with many such pronouncements (cf. setting targets is good practice”) is that it assumes very simply that one size fits all, that one approach, one methodology can be applied to all learners all the time.

E-learning enthusiasm is generally founded on the assumption that all learners have equal access to the necessary technology, and the reality remains that they may not do so.

You want data? try this, from the Office of National Statistics, based on 2010 data. Simple blanket averages put internet connection at home at 73% and computer ownership at 77%, a pretty high figure, no? Quick, let’s get our stuff online. However, the data then breaks down into income group. Almost all of the top 10% income group, i.e. those with the most money, have a computer and access to the internet. At the other end of the financial scale, with the lowest 10% we are looking at only 46% with computer access and 39% with the internet. That’s a lot of people without. And before you start down the “ah yes, but they all have a powerful computer in their pockets, let’s not get carried away. Yes, Smartphone ownership is on the rise but then have you tried getting a featurephone recently? It’s not that the old style phones are not out there still, but they are not often promoted by commission hungry mobile phone salespeople. And if as the same information suggests, only 49% of those owners are using the phones for internet browsing, this suggests that therefore about 47% of the population regularly go online with a mobile. What these figures don’t show you, of course, is how many of those people are the same people – the people with expensive smartphones on juicy data contracts are surely likely to also be those with a home internet connection? And of course, none of this tells us anything about usage, the simple fact remains that ownership of a smartphone and indeed even a data contract does not immediately imply usage.

Into which group do basic English, maths & ESOL learners fit? My instinct, and I must emphasise my lack of data here, my feeling, is that they would be the bottom 10%, suggesting that more than half of any given cohort of ESOL learners is going to be unable to access the internet using their own devices. It seems more likely that an ESOL class is going to consist of digitally shy learners with limited, if any, internet access, than it is of fully digitally literate learners with all singing, all dancing access to the internet via computer, smartphone and tablet.

This is, of course, disingenuous of me: the sneaky rhetorical trick of using clear cut, black and white options to force a polarised opinion. Between the top and bottom income brackets there will be a whole bunch of variations. Indeed, this is public data (there are a couple of spreadsheets which I was genuinely tempted to download and look at in detail, but thought better of it) and we could, as the expression goes, drill down into it in much more detail and be able to suggest exactly how many learners in a college, and possibly even how many ESOL learners will have easy access to the net. This is, however, uncomfortable reading for those who love their technology unconditionally. It’s a bit like saying “there are a whole bunch of people in your class who don’t have access to a pen and paper.” E-learning has the potential to be, indeed, arguably, e-learning is deeply non-inclusive, as it excludes those learners without the easy access to technology.

The answer to most of this is around ensuring learners know how and where to access technology in their own communities. It’s a bit cheeky, not to mention incredibly divisive and patronising, to say to a learner who doesn’t have home or mobile internet, “oh, you can always come all the way into college to access your e-learning.” Rather defeats the object, surely? I’m not saying that that’s not one answer, but there are others. Community links would be my favourite. Many learning providers have some small community linkage still, although successive government austerity measures and 16-19 focus are discouraging the bigger providers out of extensive community based adult provision. Yet community centres and libraries are the only viable answer to getting all learners, including those very valuable 16-19 year olds, on the e-learning juggernaut. In the same way that learning resource centres (AKA college libraries) are given over to e-learning support, providers need to look at the equivalent links in communities and supporting engagement there through some sort of induction process. There are still issues with this as an answer: even a ten minute walk to a local library, assuming it hasn’t been closed down, is a barrier. It’s not just the travel time either. You need a certain amount of confidence to get yourself to go there, confidence which can be hampered by, for example, not being able to use English well enough to ask appropriate questions, or have the literacy skills to understand log in screens, not to mention VLE pages, or the numeracy skills to know how long you have left based on the computer clock in the corner. These are barriers to e-learning in any context, of course, but without dedicated tutor support, effective induction and support, they become potentially insurmountable.

The issue, then, is not that e-learning is bad, or that it can’t enhance learning. Not at all. The issue is that the barriers are there and need to be recognised, and dealt with. But also it also needs to be acknowledged that these barriers are not going to go away, and until they are dealt with and resolved, then e-learning simply won’t be the universal panacea that it is too often assumed to be.

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