A Considered Evaluation of Technology Use in the Classroom: The 1st YTÜ ELT Symposium

Adam Simpson

A Considered Evaluation of Technology Use in the Classroom: The 1st YTÜ ELT Symposium

by Adam Simpson

When I first started regularly attending conferences in the middle of the last decade, critical evaluation of the use of technology in a classroom environment was not something that I regularly encountered. What I did see were plenty of presentations on how to use technology, but very few if any looking at the why, or indeed what type of learning was taking place.

How easy it is to forget just how far we have come. Discussions about the considered use of technology, while still not universal, are becoming much more commonplace. With this in mind, the standard set by last weekend’s ELT Symposium at Yıldız Technical University in Istanbul should be that by which all other events focusing on the use of technology should aim to replicate. Every presentation moved beyond the simplistic ‘how’ to the more meaningful ‘why’. All in attendance were left with a strong vision as to the role of technology in our classrooms, thanks to the excellent range of talks and workshops.

In order to highlight the focus of each presenter, and indeed the change in mind shift that I have alluded to, I will be using the framework for the typical process of technology adoption discussed by Marc Prensky (2008):

1.Are people merely experimenting, i.e. is the technology being used ‘Just because it’s there’?

2.Is the technology merely letting the teacher / learners to do the same old things in equally old ways?

3.Is the technology doing nothing more than allowing the teacher / learners to do old things in ostensibly new ways?

4.Is the technology providing new and different learning experiences for the learners?

All of the presentations, from the plenary talks to the concurrent keynote sessions, will be addressed according to these stages of adoption.

1) Those who addressed the issue of whether technology is still being used ‘Just because it’s there’

In her talk entitled ‘Technology in the classroom: Friend or foe?’, Cecilia Lemos addressed this issue from the perspective of a considered analysis of the pros and cons of classroom tech. Noting the vast array of tools now available, Cecilia noted the possibility of backfire if tech is not used in a considered way. She also suggested some appropriate courses of action.

In contrasting a no-tech lesson with the same lesson delivered through tech tools, Burcu Tezcan Ünal and Özge Karaoğlu Ergen highlighted the need to consider how tech will help us to realize our aims at particular stages of a lesson. ‘Practical tips for effective language teaching’ also gave ideas about how to ensure effective use of technology.

Ken Wilson also had us questioning the role of technology in ‘Put the lights out’. Drawing an analogy to a band which performs the final song of their concert without any electrical enhancements, Ken’s music-based session focused on the joys of getting back to pen and paper.

2) Those who wondered if technology is facilitating our ability to do old things in old ways

The plenary speakers in particular raised the question of whether or not technology is actually being used to do anything that wasn’t already being done.

In focusing on the comprehension hypothesis in ‘Technology is a useful tool if used to create and enhance comprehensible input, a derailment if used to overemphasize conscious learning’, the wonderful Stephen Krashen was particularly scathing towards technology that focuses on skill-building as its pedagogical foundation. Citing a number of well-known consumer products, Stephen suggested that the research backing these up was flimsy and not justified.

Lindsay Clandfield was another plenary speaker who brought into question the use of technology.  In a talk entitled ‘A technological disaster’ Lindsay noted that we have – apparently – been on the constant precipice of some astounding technological breakthrough for decades, without the ‘Promised Land’ ever having been delivered.  Lindsay went as far as to suggest that this period will be looked back at as having been the era of the technological disaster.

This torch of questioning was then passed on to plenary speaker Luke Meddings, whose ‘Give the test a rest’ was a critical examination of the continuing dominance of formal assessment in language teaching. Luke noted that technology had thus far failed to break testing’s icy grip on ELT, but also suggested that the technology currently being developed may yet allow teachers to unplug from the clutches of assessment.

Michael Stout’s case study, ‘Evaluating web technology integration in Japanese EFL classrooms’, looked at how the use of technology in his context was something of a challenge and had in some cases led to student demotivation. Michael pointed out the role of normalization in the use of technology, with students who don’t necessarily see the point, if teachers are to overcome student reluctance to be taught with technology.

3) Those asking whether technology is allowing us to do old things in new ways?

A big indicator that technology is being used in an increasingly considered way in ELT is the fact that the majority of presentations were based on the notion of leveraging tech in the classroom in order to carry out the activities we’ve always done well, just in new and better ways.

Gary Motteram tackled this head on in his plenary ‘Blending, extending and bridging language learning in the digital age’ when he discussed the idea of digital immigrants, people who later on in their lives started with technology, and digital natives, those who were born with technology. Gary then provided the audience with a visual representation of the relationships between the teachers, learners, their parents and the tools involved in their learning. Teachers need to be encouraged in their efforts in using the various electronic tools in the learning process. Basically, technology plays a role in language teaching but the teacher makes it happen. Depending almost entirely on teachers’ beliefs, the things work or don’t work in class.

Plenary speaker Nicky Hockly also examined this issue in ‘Facebook nation’. Discussing the fact that Facebook is now a completely integral part of our students’ lives, Nicky asked the question of whether we should be allowing this to encroach into our language classrooms and, if so, how should this be handled? Her talk looked at ‘Students Connected’, a Facebook space designed to help learners of English aged 17+ get in touch, practice and improve their English in the most natural of all ways – by communicating with each other.

In ‘Teaching and Learning Beyond the Walls’ Burcu Akyol started off noting how today‘s children are continuously exposed to many stimuli, so their thinking processes are also extremely different to ours. To illustrate this point, Burcu showed us an example of a paper boat she could make when she was a little girl, then going on to show us a paper laptop her son made last year, when he was 6, thus illustrating the world in which young learners now live. The talk continued with an examination of web 2.0 tools and how they have impacted on classroom practices.

Adam Simpson’s talk ‘Engaging Generation Y in the language classroom’ aimed to address the shortcoming in research into this generation from a language teaching perspective by enlightening ELT professionals as to the nature of Generation Y, while presenting a few teaching strat¬egies aimed at engaging this age group in the English classroom. The talk culminated in a list of ‘10 Commandments’ for teaching Generation Y with technology:

1.Thou shalt not be afraid of technology

2.Thou shalt teach them how to use search engines properly

3.Thou shalt get them using video clips

4.Thou shalt handle multitasking with care

5.Thou shalt use visuals, visuals and more visuals

6.Thou shalt encourage interaction and opinion sharing

7.Thou shalt tap into their collective intelligence

8.Thou shalt require them to type their work

9.Thou shalt give them opportunities to create their own content

10.Thou shalt let them know what you think

David Mearns was another examining the notion of doing old things in new ways in ‘ICT in ELT and its connectivity’. David particularly focused on the fact that technology wasn’t damaging the student-teacher relationship and indeed that many of the things we were doing before technology have been enhanced or facilitated by its presence. David shared activities he has used with such tools as Edmodo and QR codes.

Other presenters who examined if technology was effectively reinvigorating effective practices were Şirin Soyöz, Pete Sharma, George Chinnery, Jamie Keddie and Marisa Constantinides. Şirin’s ‘Video: use it; create it’ highlighted ten ways to use video to facilitate the creation of student generated materials. Pete’s session entitled ‘Enhancing language learning through technology’ offered a snapshot of teaching in the early 21st century, with a critical analysis of learning technologies. George’s ‘CALL me… maybe’ discussed how the internet might be implemented in the classrooms of teachers and institutions who were not already doing so. Jamie’s session, ‘Withholding the image’ investigated ways of using the abundance of images available to us through sources such as Facebook and YouTube and how to combine these with the tool which we all possess: our own imaginations. Marisa’s ‘From curation to creation’ delved into the ways that we can now collect and organize information online, with examples of how we might go about it and then share it with others.

4) Is the technology creating new and different learning experiences for the students?

Many teachers find this level of technology use the most challenging, as it requires a new way of looking at learning. Such technology use necessitates the asking of questions such as:

•Are we using technology to enable students to learn from people they never would have been able to without it?

•Is the technology allowing students to interact with information in a way that is meaningful, yet could not have happened without the technology?

•Does the technology allow students to create and share their knowledge with an audience they never would have had access to without technology?

Perhaps the greatest thing to come out of this conference was the fact that so many of the presentations were now looking into this stage of the adoption of technology in the classroom.

Chuck Sandy, the cofounder of the International Teacher Development Institute, opened up the symposium with an inspiring examination of these issues, mentioning how he had opened up his communication channels through his use of Facebook. He described Facebook as his hammer to connect people. To him, the word ‘connect’ has a different meaning; Chuck told us that he wanted to connect people deeply. Technology, therefore, is a vehicle that makes this possible for him in a way that was not previously possible.

Mark Pegrum’s ‘From start to finish: mobile technologies and language learning’ also tackled such issues, examining the notion of mobile, handheld technologies while showcasing innovative, learner-centred, creative web tools and applications. These web tools and applications ranged from podcasts to QR codes, geo-social networking and augmented reality. Mark’s session also provided the audience with suggested in class tasks that could accompany this wide array of mobile technologies.

Beyza Yılmaz delivered ‘Lurking in the Interconnected World’. Noting how time management is one of the challenges that teachers face in the contemporary work environment, Beyza highlighted how this issue is exacerbated by the fact that we are nowadays bombarded by a constant stream of information. A consequence of this, noted Beyza, was the increasing prevalence of ‘lurking’. In Internet culture, a lurker is defined as a member of an online community who has no direct active participation. In order to indicate the positives of lurking, Beyza delivered examples of the strategies she has used to foster learning through lurking in online environments.

Kristina Smith’s ‘Deconstructing a MOOC’ looked at the new online learning phenomenon that threatens to change all educational paradigms. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a fairly recent development in the area of distance education; consequently there is no commonly accepted definition of a MOOC. Nevertheless, two key features seem prevalent. Firstly, they are open access: MOOC participants do not need to be a registered student in a particular school to take MOOCs. Secondly, there is scalability: Traditional courses depend upon a small ratio of students to teacher. Kristina highlighted her own journey into MOOCs. She looked into the workings of a typical MOOC, how resources spring up via its participants to support and enhance the course contents, and looked at how they represent incredible opportunities for learning.

Heike Philp’s ‘Machinima in the ELT classroom’ was an exploration into how second life, and in particular the videos taken in this 3D environment, are providing a never before seen opportunity to easily create multimedia resources for the language classroom. Heike also discussed how this was being investigated in the EU funded project CAMELOT. Osman Çeviktay also looked at the notion of doing the previously impossible in ‘Establishing online learning communities’. Osman’s session offered a number of tricks and tips for utilizing the internet and other tech tools in the classroom to foster a technology based communal learning environment. Işıl Boy’s ‘MLearning: more than an illusion of illumination’ delved into similar themes, noting how MLearning is enabling students to overcome the physical barriers that we have seen imposed in the past, so that they can now learn anywhere and anytime they please.