There was a good deal of whooping and hollering after the ELTJ debate at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. And, in the face of Alan Waters’ well-argued, but somewhat lacklustre critique, Nicky Hockly deservedly won a healthy round of applause for her feisty defence of educational technologies. But many of the comments from the floor seemed to reflect a wilful misunderstanding of the nature of the debate (admittedly, the motion – Twitter is for the birds… – was not helpful). Instead of arguing about the merits of integrating technology into (language) education, it became a free-for-all about technology in general (“I wouldn’t have been here if it hadn’t been for Twitter”, “If you are unable to follow a Twitter-stream you are soft in the head…” etc). Comments like these seemed to be largely irrelevant to the matter in hand, i.e. the uses (or abuses) of technology in language education.
There are good reasons for integrating technology into language education, and there are bad reasons. But the debate never seriously addressed them. Instead, the general view seemed to be that, if technology is good for laundering clothes or photographing Mars, it must, ipso facto, be good for education. QED.
Moreover, by framing the issue as an either/or one (inevitable, unfortunately, for a debate), the event served only to perpetuate the division between so-called technophiles and so-called technophobes, obscuring the wide range of possible stances in between. One of these stances is that of the technosceptic. Technosceptics, like me, happily embrace technology in our daily lives, but are nevertheless a little suspicious of the claims made, by some enthusiasts, for its educational applications – claims that frequently border on the coercive: If you don’t use technology in your classes you are unprofessional/ irresponsible/ old-fashioned/ in denial, or even (as one blogger put it) “a tad rude”. And, as Hal Crowther (2010) wrote recently: “Coercion is not just interpersonal but societal, and pervasive. The word ‘Luddite’ which we used to wear with defiant pride, has become an epithet like ‘Communist’ or ‘reactionary’” (p.109).
Uncritical acceptance of any innovation, whether it be interactive whiteboards or multiple intelligence theory, needs to be subjected to a dose of level-headed scrutiny. And, as far as I am concerned, until the following four problems have been satisfactorily addressed, an ounce or two of scepticism regarding ‘ed tech’ seems well advised.
The delivery model problem: Despite the enormous potential technology has both to facilitate communication and to foster creativity, a lot of educational software still seems to be predicated on a delivery model of education. I.e. the more information learners have – and the quicker – the better. As a consequence, many publishers seem to be responding to the demand for language learning apps by simply re-issuing existing reference works in mobile-friendly formats, a well-known grammar self-study book being a case in point. But, to paraphrase (the sainted) Neil Postman, if learners are having problems learning to speak English, it is not through lack of information!
The theory vacuum problem: In a review of the film ‘The Social Network’, Zadie Smith (2010) commented to the effect that, “in France philosophy seems to come before technology; here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves”. As evidence, not a day goes by without someone tweeting to announce a blog or website that offers ’20 things to do with Wordle’, or ‘100 ways of using Twitter in the classroom’ and so on. Rarely if ever do you see ‘7 tools to help students with listening skills’ or ‘100 apps that facilitate vocabulary acquisition’. That is to say, rather than the learning purpose determining the technology, it’s the technological tail that seems to wag the pedagogical dog. What theories of learning underpin the claims being made for educational technology? We deserve to know!
The attention deficit problem: A good while back, Aldous Huxley warned against the dangers of ‘non-stop distraction’. More recently, commentators have noted that a state of ‘continuous partial attention’ characterises the kind of engagement that digitial technologies induce. As Nicholas Carr writes (2010), “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It is possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards” (pp. 115-16).
If you accept that a degree of higher order thinking and sustained concentration is a prerequisite for learning, then you have to be worried about these effects. (Do those who deny that multi-tasking is a problem also condone the use of cell phones while driving?)
The added value problem: At a recent presentation on the educational use of mobile technology, the presenters quoted a survey of teachers in which the majority said that they didn’t anticipate using mobile technology in their classrooms. The presenters glossed this as meaning “…because they don’t know how”. Was I the only member of the audience who was thinking that the more likely reason was “….because they don’t see the need”?
As long ago as 1966, Pit Corder warned that “the use of mechanical aids in the classroom is justified only if they can do something which the teacher unaided cannot do, or can do less effectively” (1966, p. 69). This would still seem to be a useful test of the value that technology adds to education, not least when one factors in the costs – not just in terms of the initial outlay, but in terms of training, maintenance, upgrades and eventual disposal. (Crowther, op. cit, notes that “Americans alone discard 100 million computers, cell phones and related devices every year, at a rate of 136,000 per day” and adds that “it takes roughly 1.8 tons of raw material… to manufacture one PC and its monitor” [p. 113]). Confronted by any new tool or application, the discerning teacher should be asking: Is it really worth it?
Coincidentally, while preparing this blog, I discovered that at least two other bloggers were addressing the same theme. Here’s how Luan Hanratty , for example, responds to the added-value problem, a good deal more eloquently than I can:
My own philosophy of teaching barely includes technology because if teachers understand the proper principles of language learning, informed by psychology and other fields, then technology is mostly superfluous. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I don’t really need it. There is more immediate stuff out there in the collective consciousness and more beneficial techniques to employ than the more-is-more approach of jumping on the latest bandwagon.
Of course, I ought to say what I think technology is good for, but this post has already exceeded the word count, so I’ll reserve that discussion for the comments.
Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: how the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. London: Atlantic Books.
Crowther, H. 2010. One hundred fears of solitude: The greatest generation gap. In Granta, 111.
Pit Corder, S. 1966. The Visual Element in Language Teaching. London: Longman.
Smith, Z. 2010. Generation Why? Review of The Social Network. New York Review of Books Nov 25 2010-12-09.