Technology: friend or foe?

How are advances in technology going to impact on teaching and learning?

At the IATEFL conference in Harrogate last month I attended a talk given by Mark Osborne, whose company, L2, is dedicated to developing and publishing innovative language learning solutions using new learning technologies, as we also do at Go English. Mark’s observations were pertinent to the debate as to how technology is impacting on our teaching and learning behaviours.

The tablet, be it i-pad, Samsung or Tesco’s, is here to stay, and it’s changing the way we access information and how we communicate with friends, colleagues and the outside world. Last week I was given a tablet by my bank simply for agreeing for my monthly pay cheque to go into my current account. That’s how ubiquitous they are now. Even I’ve got one – free! These tablets are really powerful devices. They can and should be harnessed as language learning devices.

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Obviously, if you’re following an online course, you can access the content and study from your tablet. That’s great! But there’s much more to it than that.

Mark Osborne makes the point that data-mining (think Google and how they serve up ads to match your searches) is now allowing us to track what students have done. A new company has hit the scene: Knewton. They are already working with major publishers like MacMillan, CUP and Pearson applying their technology and experience in adaptive learning to ELT.

What we are likely to see coming in is the individual learning path where content is served up to the student adapted to their performance and progress as they advance through a course.

This is what we might call ‘data assisted learning’

Now I can sense many teachers recoil at such terminology, and many may be wondering what the future holds for the teacher. Well, one thing is for sure: technology is changing the way we teach, and the pace of that change is only going to increase. But is all this new technology actually a threat to the teacher and his or her livelihood? I would suggest not. Or at least it doesn’t have to be.

What it does mean is that teachers will require a different skill set to that required a few years ago. Most technology is only widely adopted once it has become easy to use. There are not going to be lots of technically challenging skills to learn. What will be required is a willingness to adopt new teaching practices to accommodate technological advances. However, the teacher as motivator, guide, mentor and facilitator is still going to critical in the learning process. It’s just that the interaction with the student and the means of communication with learners is inevitably going to develop in directions we cannot entirely predict.

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Lots of teachers now use Apps from their smart phones and tablets in the classroom. Many teachers encourage their students to do the same. Some teachers are already spontaneously setting up online communication spaces via such open source programmes as Edmodo. I think it’s really important for teachers to let new technologies into the classroom and experiment. Students can already record their own presentations and post them on You Tube, Vimeo and, if they wish, on their Facebook Page. Let them play with this stuff. Let them bring it into the classroom and use their own creativity to explore language and communication. Because, let’s face it, how we actually communicate in this fast changing world is increasingly digital. The language we use to do that is bound to adapt to the medium. The English language itself is being impacted by technology. So it is logical that the way we teach English will be similarly affected.

If you’re interested to hear more from Mark Osborne you can see an interview with him here.

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