There’s an interesting phenomenon which has been unfolding in the ELT world in the past few months, perhaps since the end of last year, and that is the rush of ‘bigger names’ (and you can measure that in any way you want) to enagage with their audiences by setting up websites, starting blogs and getting into wilder things such as Twitter and Second Life.
Now as a technologist I thoroughly applaud this, of course – I’m pleased that they’ve finally come to realise that part of their lives revolves around technology and that technology can be useful to them, and helpful for engaging with a more extensive audience, sharing their ideas and initiating dialogue. I await, of course, with baited breath for some of them to show the same courtesy and care to their learners by recognising that this is also the case for them, and consequently taking some of these technologies into class with them, where appropriate.
In the same vein I look forward to the moment when those who speak of the uselessness or unreliability or danger of technologies in the classroom (usually on their own blogs – or in Yahoo Groups – rather than on slate tablet or by carrier pigeon) realise the absurdity of their views and take a step back for some self-examination and de-hypocriticisation (you shall permit me this word…).
But there is always the question of where this desire to communicate using new-fangled technologies comes from, and what the attendant problems and challenges are for the new user…
In terms of desire, this seems pretty obvious to me. Experts using traditional diffusion methods (plenary, talk or workshop at a conference, article in a journal or newsletter, book) have a severely limited audience: small readership for printed materials (generally), and a limited anount of opportunities to speak at conferences, if for no other than logistical reasons. Clearly then, in the face of much more visible ‘amateurs’ who have been blogging and the like for some time, those not using technologies in this way face becoming less well-know and less discussed in certain circles – and, perhaps, ultimately less bankable…
Equally clearly to me is that there are brilliant teachers and trainers out there without publishing deals who are as prolific, creative and popular as some of the more visible (at least at conferences and in bookstores) names in the profession. This is a threat, I suspect, for many parts of the profession – not simply ‘expert speakers’, but also publishers, who run the risk of losing control of the primary knowledge distribution channel, and therefore the content and the income.
So, in many ways there is no choice – if you wish to expand your potential audience and engage with the ‘common man/woman/person’ you really have no option but to seek them out where they are – and that’s often online, and that’s often because most of them can afford an Internet connection on a monthly basis, but most cannot afford a large conference or a regular supply of books.
There is also – at least in the case of the plenary, talk, article and book communication approach – no room for discussion or debate. One does one’s thing and people either mutely listen or read and move on. The expert there is very much the expert – no questions asked. And so ‘new’ forms of communication not only keep you up there in the public eye with lots of others (both ‘big’ and ‘amateur’) but also allow you to engage more fully with everyone else in the profession. It’s a step towards democratisation.
But there are other attendant issues involved here – time, challenge, dispute… How do you find the time to engage sufficiently with everyone on a blog, Twitter, etc., without everyone thinking that you’re either rude or not interested? How many replies and direct messages can you send on an average day? Because if you’re a ‘big name’ chances are people have questions for you. Are you committed enough to answer them thoughtfully? Because clearly you can’t have one without the other, or your cake and eat it, as it were.
And the challenge – write an article and it’s unlikely anyone’s going to be so het up that they’ll write back and wait two months for it to be published. We don’t work like that these days – as an advert I saw for a mobile phone company in Pakistan said ‘impatience is the new life’ (for good or bad). So you’re generally pretty safe with articles, and plenaries, and books because there’s very little chance of a comeback.
But a blog posting? Or a tweet? Totally different – everyone’s watching everyone else, we’re all reading each other and if you post something I don’t like or agree with, you’ll find out pretty quickly. Equally, if you annoy me by Twitter you’ll know it soon enough. And so there’s that to contend with too – if you engage, you really have to engage, and that means thoughtful responses and time, and lots of people will claim to have very little of the second.
But, as I say, it’s not a cake and eat it choice… Some people are doing it very well, engaging in all sorts of places and really becoming fully paid-up members of these new fora (I’m not going to name them because you’ll know who they are if you follow them, and they’ll know due to the amount of time they’re spending on it, and the lack of time they now have for other things!) and many are doing it badly (again, I won’t name them because it’s obvious).
It’s a good thing, mostly – but there’s no resting on laurels to be done anymore, and I for one think that’s a good thing – bring on the discussions…