Techno techno techno techno

Some of you older folk, or perhaps early nineties crap dance music revivalists, may remember the chorus to the lyrically-challenged and grammatically agonising “No Limit” by 2Unlimited. You know the one. No no, no no no no, no no no no, no no, there’s no limit. No? OK, this might jog your memory.

Anyway, this is by way of a musically sarcastic follow up to my last post, where I listed all the problems I have with the use of technology in teaching. Not long after I wrote that, however, I saw about technology, and it said something like this: “Even though they might not have books, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t learn to read.” I am probably misquoting and feel terribly guilty for doing so, so if anyone can track down the tweet, do let me know, because it’s a corking quote.

My first, knee jerk action was to want to tweet back quickly: actually, what is the point of being able to read if you don’t have anything to read? But my finger paused before pressing send, because, well actually, the speaker (tweeter?) was right.

Technology skills and computer skills are useful ones to have. There is, for me, absolutely zero doubt about that. The universe is moving online, if it hasn’t already done so, and online resources like http://www.gov.uk and http://www.nhs.uk are phenomenally useful for ESOL learners who can access all sorts of incredibly important information. Not to mention job centre plus now asking that people use universal job match online, a process which requires users to register with an email address. Indeed, if we can finally sort out the identity confirmation issue, we can see a future quite easily where we move online for pretty much every part of public sector registration, and that for many of us, that would be tremendously convenient and useful. The world is changing, indeed, it has changed, for better or worse, and being able to move with that change is an important skill.

It’s also worth noting that the huge throbbing jelly monster of language that is the internet is the richest fairly easily available source of language and language practice for learners. Let’s face it, there have been interactive online grammar quizzes for pretty much as long as I have been a teacher (15 years in October!), and it remains that English is pretty much the de facto first language of the Internet. So as a source of practice and of authentic text, the web is brilliant. Not only which the internet has evolved beyond the simple text based quizzes of yore to included fairly naturally responsive and attractive animated quizzes, huge swathes of information about grammar and vocabulary, articles and ideas for learning and teaching, and, perhaps most crucially of all, opportunities for genuine human interaction through social media. Let’s not get carried away, because none of these can replace the need for the spoken interaction and the benefit this brings. For all the YouTube clips and social media chats, a face to face interaction is arguably still the primary means by which learners develop language skills. Skype and FaceTime of course allow spoken interaction but for me, personally, I find my video based communications stilted and uncomfortable! and I’m not sure I would respond to a learner, in terms of spoken error correction, for example, in the same way. Now, this may be just me, of course, and I concede the point that younger folk may be more comfortable with this. There remains, however, the issue of the cost of this. Skype-based lessons to develop speaking skills are essentially one to one lessons, and an hour of interaction like this would have to be repeated across a whole class. This type of interaction also severely restricts, the opportunity for oral learner to learner interactions, peer support and assessment, and all the other linguistic benefits the physical language classroom can bring.

I think there’s a danger wary of conflating the value of digital literacy with the value of digital learning. Yes, we should be developing these skills with ESOL learners, in order to expand their learning possibilities and to support them with wider aspects of their lives outside of college. Yes, technology can play an important part in effective teaching and learning. However, while the former is definitely and, for me, inarguably true for all learners, the latter remains questionable: there are situations for a proportion of learners where technology use can become an unnecessary barrier. The old dance track was wrong, and not just musically: there are limits and boundaries in technology use and we have to work within those.

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