Here we go again… Spring is in the air and it’s time for another round of ‘ed. tech specialist’ versus ‘tech sceptic’. And we have recently had a couple of large-scale debates to further push the envelope of informed discussion: the ELTJ debate at IATEFL, and the spate of blog postings this past Sunday.
Let’s first start with ‘the debate’ – the one my colleague Nicky was involved in at IATEFL this year. This was the ELTJ debate on technologies in language teaching. Firstly it’s worth bearing in mind what this event was, and what it was about – since there seems to have been a great deal of confusion in some people’s minds.
This was, first and foremost, a debate in the UK style – for those who are not familiar with it, it is almost always adversarial in nature, and the two speakers are encouraged to argue two very polarised views. It is not a ‘nasty’ event: the two people know why they’re there, and what’s expected of them. It is done in good humour and with social drinks afterwards, and a dinner the night before – it’s friendly, challenging, intense – but nobody gets hurt, in any sense of the word.
Secondly, this debate was categorically NOT about Twitter, despite the fact that many people stopped reading when they finished the ‘pun’ part of the title and never quite made it to the abstract for the session, which quite clearly indicated that it was about technologies in language learning and teaching. I suppose it’s an indication of Twitter’s popularity that people got caught on the opening part of the title – sort of Twitter blindness…
Now most people who witnessed the debate – either in person or online – generally agreed that Nicky had won the day, and I’d go along with that (well, I would, wouldn’t I?). But to be honest, Alan’s heart was never really in the corner he was supposed to be arguing – he made that abundantly clear the day before (apparently) and also at the post-debate drinks. But he played along, did a stirling job, and took Nicky’s ‘gloves off’ approach amiably on the chin.
On a recent blog post it was suggested that the inclusion of a Twitter feed during Nicky’s part (I helped set that up on her request) was a bit ‘mean’, and that it gave her more fire power than she needed. Depends how you look at it, really – in my world it allowed the people watching the live stream to have their say, along with the f2f crowd, and that seemed fair enough to me. And, in a way, it exposed the weakness of Twitter in the face of a real debate: lots of strident views (get with the modern ways, daddy-o!) mixed up in a huge jumble, confusing people in the room and – in the case of one speaker from the floor – distracting her from Nicky’s well-researched and supported argument.
Twitter lost, then, as a tool for discussion, but it won as a tool for giving a voice to the remote participants, and as a sledgehammer to crack Alan’s resolve and in a way those were the two key reasons for doing it. And of course it’s not only Twitter that encourages trite one-liners and non-sequitors…. There was even a ‘get with the modern ways, daddy-o’ from the floor – which just goes to show that technology doesn’t have a monopoly on this kind of unhelpful reasoning!
But really the actual debate was not so much ‘won’ as it was ‘lost’. Lost because Alan’s heart wasn’t in it, lost because (as the majority of speakers from the floor showed) the majority of thinking people these days see a role for technology in teaching. The bulk of the audience was sympathetic to technologies, and why not?
Those technologies allow them to write and publish books, to research their work, to gain access to images and texts for their lessons, to communicate with other professionals, to attend conferences online and all the rest. And most of those will see that keeping their learners away from the same opportunities is ridiculous. Yet there are still some who think it’s all alright for them, for their learning and their careers, but not for the poor little mites who are in their charge…
And so we come to the second debate, the dull, unending debate which seems to polarise around dogme (or unplugged teaching) and ed. tech. The debate that keeps on giving. Personally I reckon we should just get together on the playing fields at some point and duke it out.
We tech people may be a little more out of shape than the ‘dogmatists’ (due to all those uncritical hours playing with our shiny knobs in dark rooms), but there’s strength in numbers, and a cursory glance at the IATEFL programme will show anyone that we have the numbers, still.
These days they call themselves ‘tech sceptics’ – and I admire their self re-branding because it puts them on the moral high ground, and is based on the single most important weapon in their armoury against those of us who work with ed. tech – the ‘you’re all a bit too thick, uncritical and seduced by shiny knobs’ attack, which is always at the forefront of their approach.
This week saw a resurgence of the tired, dogged ‘dogme versus ed. tech’ debate with a plethora of posts on ed. tech on Sunday. And I was struck once again at the assumption (sometimes stated, always implied) that those of us who work in ed. tech have somehow lost our critical faculties, or (please tell me this isn’t what they all think!?) that we never had any. The discussion is centred around Scott Thornbury’s ‘T is for Technology’ post, and I think he’d be disappointed (not really, obviously) if I didn’t respond, albeit on my own blog ☺
Perhaps we ARE the digital natives – savage, uneducated, unable to evaluate…. Perhaps the dogme acolytes come in shiny coracles to teach us the word of the Lord and to free us from our ignorance? I’m not sure, but I’d love one of those reflecting silver things, some beads and a fire stick if any of you are in the neighbourhood…
It wasn’t just me who picked up on this line of attack. Soon after the barrage of posts started, Emma Herod posted this tweet:
Does the “pedagogy must come before tech use” argument, not assume us teachers are a tad thick? Isn’t this obvious? Sorry…
And I realised that her succinct message was what had been bothering me all day. Reading a blog post that says something along the lines of “when I last taught in a school people used to show videos when they wanted a fag break. Don’t talk to me about ed. tech – there’s no critical thought, no evaluation, no pedagogy…” it implies that tech use is indeed uncritical, that teachers using technology don’t give a fig for pedagogy and – as Emma so correctly identified – it suggests that we are all just a little bit ‘thick’. And I’m not sure that is polite, fair or warranted. Not in my experience working with teachers, at any rate.
The inference, you see, is that unlike any other professionals in the world, teachers of English who engage with technologies in their teaching are permanently stuck in the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ section of Gartner’s hype cycle, and so blinded by the shiny that we never, ever get to the ‘plateau of productivity’. Too thick, you see? Can’t be done guv!
I’ll be the first to admit that I am an early adopter, but it gives me time to let a new tech bed down and think about it a little. As Tennyson said, it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. If you’re writing about things you’ve only heard / read about, then techn(olog)ically speaking, you’ve never really loved at all.
Of course ‘unplugged’ teaching can be done by anyone, from the teacher with classes of 200 in China, to the teacher who qualified this morning, business teachers (who, apparently, have no real need to know any ‘business’ vocabulary), teachers of young learners and all the rest. Truly it is the magic bullet of ‘approaches’ or ‘methodologies’ or ‘states of mind’ (what it is depends on the day, and the video you’ve chosen to watch). Nobody’s too thick for that, or so it would seem…
And, presumably it follows that unplugged teachers are all lovely, reflective people who spend all day thinking about their teaching and their learning, their learners and their needs and all the rest. Not for them the ‘thick’ world of the ed. tech enthusiast…
In the cold light of this Bank Holiday Monday as I sit in Gatwick Airport waiting to fly back to Barcelona, however, I’m beginning to like this ever-present inference a lot more. If that’s the best they’ve got, then I don’t see much of a bright future for the rest of the arguments.
But of course they mustn’t be ignored, so let’s take a closer look…
There’s Postman, of course – the current poster boy of the terminally unplugged. I won’t waste my time on him here, but if you’re interested in finding out why he’s irrelevant in the web 2.0 era, please see an earlier entry here. You’ll be amazed to hear that Postman has the same kind of disdain for our friends electric, from a similarly comfortable, woolly middle-class viewpoint. Witness his incredible lack of empathy for anyone other than himself, and his complete failure to grasp the significance of any technology other than ones he needs and uses. Sound familiar? It should…
Ponder his clever question: what is the problem which this technology was invented to solve? Help him formulate a reasonable question: how might this technology improve any aspect of my life (or indeed anyone else’s?) How might it contribute to teaching and learning? I do believe if he had lived longer and in a less rarefied field, he may have been able to identify with people of different social status, economic outlook, job requirement. Alas, alack, Saint Postman fails to ask the questions that the ‘tech sceptics’ would have we ed. tech people ask. He must be a bit thick, I reckon…
There was talk this weekend of ‘educational software’, and there I have some sympathy with the tech sceptics, for much of the software produced over the years has been a tad disappointing. The CDs, the DVDs, the IWB software and now the apps…. Lots of unimaginative exercises and gap fills, etc. However, there’s another underlying assumption there, and that is that ed. tech enthusiasts are actually using these products. It’s another Postman-era red herring, however.
In all my years of working with ed. tech and teachers, in all the courses I’ve run, on all the mailing lists I subscribe to, I’ve rarely come across a teacher who uses these products. Rather, the ed. tech people I know use web 2.0 tools and similar. You wouldn’t find a self-respecting ed. tech teacher working with CDs and the like. I think you may be confusing us with the degenerate form of the tech sceptic there…
As I argued in my talk on mobile learning at IATEFL this year, it’s transformative tech that we like. It’s the tech that encourages creation and production, creativity and communication. It’s the tech of the app, not the tech of the ELT app or the CD. No, we’ll leave the ‘software’ (quaint word…) to those who don’t know what they’re doing and are having a bit of a dabble before writing a damning blog post.
So no, I don’t think there’s a problem with the delivery model – some people are just stuck back in the nineties looking at the wrong one. And that will, of course, create a perception and an inference of a problem – which is not the same as an actual problem. We can see what you’re trying to do here, we’re not thick, you know! Oh no, wait a minute…
There’s also, apparently, a ‘theory vacuum problem’ that seems to have an issue with lists of uses for web tools such as Wordle, etc. The ‘theory vacuum’ states that the techno-tail is wagging the pedago-dog. But is that actually the case? And isn’t that again predicated on the notion of ed. tech people as uncritical simpletons?
When someone posts a blog post entitled (as an example) ’5 ways of using Wordle in class’, do the tech sceptics assume that those five ways are all based around the notion of making pretty pictures with words and stuff to make the students go ‘coo!’
Or could it possibly be that the writer has thought a little about the potential use of Wordle pictures for practising certain structures, revising vocabulary, pre-teaching key vocabulary for a reading or listening activity etc., etc.? Perhaps it’s a little deeper than it appears… And maybe the tech sceptics are imagining what’s on those lists, rather than actually reading the blogs? And maybe they just hate practical ideas from people who have tried them out.
The easy way to belittle these is, of course, to attach big critical labels to them and hope some of it rubs off and discredits everything. Indeed, someone tweeted about the ‘no smoke without fire’ approach. The Sun newspaper in the UK has been using this approach very successfully for years: ‘Prince denies having third nipple’ works a treat… That way everyone knows (or at least suspects) that he does have a third nipple. Otherwise, why would you ask?
When tech sceptics can prove that not using a coursebook / using a coursebook / favouring TBL over CLT / never using translation / adopting a GT approach or any other ‘method’ is effective / more effective than any other in all scenarios – when there is real evidence then perhaps the ed. tech people will join in and give you some. In the meantime I’d like to remind all the tech sceptics that it was my colleague Nicky who provided research evidence to back up her motion in the ELTJ debate, not Alan.
And what of the ‘attention deficit problem’? I was really, really interested in this, but then a bee flew in the window and before I knew it I was in Oslo with a pocket full of wooden birds and a Thompson Twins’ single. That’s the modern world for us. At the IATEFL conference Jim Scrivener talked of ‘hyperlink heroin’, and it’s a terrible thing, apparently. Not content with being devoid of any critical powers, we’re also addicted to the drug of information, or so they say.
Yet I can do a good solid morning’s research without nipping over to YouTube for a quick rickroll, and so can many of my peers. So exactly where IS this new attention deficit really taking hold? Is it in the new ‘digital natives’ (please – we ed. tech people have moved on from that term to the more reasonable ‘digital resident’ – come over to the dark side and join us)? Well, the tech sceptics would have you believe that they don’t exist, that they’re simply a marketing term to frighten we older folks and enforce the use of technology in education. So if they don’t exist, and we oldies can still pursue a relatively complicated argument or line of research, who exactly is this ‘attention deficit’ really effecting?
Saint Carr – the man who managed to eke out a one page particle of conjecture into a whole book called The Shallows is the new hero in this regard. And indeed there is some evidence to suggest that technology is affecting the way we think, but it’s scant at best. And there are many alternative viewpoints, as I tweeted recently with regard to a Guardian think piece about the book. Or maybe try the Telegraph article, ‘is the Internet making Nicholas Carr stupid?‘. Different points of view are important, I think.
We will, of course, need to wait a good generation and a half before we can really tell what this new connected world is doing to us, but the new science of brain plasticity clearly demonstrates that adaptation and re-configuration of the brain has been a constant in our development. And there’s no evidence as yet that our new world is going to generate a whole new species of human who get distracted by squirrels and can’t read more than a sentence without taking a break. So please don’t let them tell you otherwise.
And finally there is the ‘added value problem’, or so they tell me. Some people just don’t see the need to use technologies, apparently. But then we’re told to think of the learner, that it’s all about the ‘people in the room’. So how does this ‘teacher doesn’t see the need to use technologies’ fit into this comfy model of learner-centredness? See, if I was the person in your room, you’d be doing some solid grammar translation work with me, because that’s what I like, and it served me well when I was learning Spanish or French. And I’d be the client.
But then imagine if I pulled out my mobile phone and wanted to record myself for you to correct? Or asked if we could, maybe, do some email work with a native speaker in, say, Russia? Or if we could work on a wiki to improve writing strategies? Or…? Would it be alright for the teacher to ‘not see the need’? What happens then to the people in the room?
To play this against the issue of discarded technology and the environment, well, I haven’t got the time – but if anyone wants to play that game, then they should sell their microwaves, washing machines, fridges and all the other white goods. And stop using computers.
I’m not sure where I’m left here. I spend a large part of my time promoting balance and a critical approach to technologies. I am as happy in a classroom where people are not using tech as I am in one where they are. I just want to know what went into that decision – and in fact that’s the focus of a long-term research project I’m currently involved in in Russia. It’s less writing and talking about it, and more actual fieldwork to find out why.
If we are to be accused of being less than critical in our approach to ed. tech, then I think we can rightly accuse the tech sceptics of being less than open in their attitudes to tech. A lot of this is, of course, born from lack of experience. We can learn a lot from each other, but not if it’s as polarized as the ELTJ debate is. The trouble is, I do believe that the ed. tech people can teach effectively without technology, I just wonder if the tech sceptics could do the same with?