Kristin Sherman, co-author of Network, OUP’s first adult course book to use social media, sits down with us to talk about using social media and technology in the ELT classroom. Kristin is the author of several ELT materials including the hit series Q: Skills for Success, and has extensive teaching and training experience.
1. What do you think is the greatest challenge ELT teachers face in the near future? How can they prepare to overcome that challenge?
I think definitely one of the greatest challenges that ELT professionals face is trying to adapt to new technology. So many changes have been created by technology, and trying to figure out what it means for our teaching is the biggest nut to try to crack. The way that people communicate and access information has changed dramatically which has a lot of implications for both language teaching and learning.
Students and learners can be exposed to a greater variety of English with new technology. For example, if they are using online discussion forums or using social networks they’re going to see not only American English or British English, but a wide variety of English. That’s good because it’s authentic and the learners are going to be exposed to the kind of language that they will need to practice in their professional careers and so forth. But on the other hand, all of this input is a considerable challenge for them and for the teacher.
In addition to exposing us to a greater variety of language, technology is also changing our brains and the way that we learn. Research shows that all kinds of things are changing from how we read to how we process information, and even our learning style preferences. I think that teachers are really going to have to take these changes into account, and if they’re going to be successful and effective they need to adapt their teaching to address what’s happening with learners.
Another big challenge with technology is bridging the gap between younger learners – who are much more skilled at using the internet and who have grown up with it – and the instructors who are a maybe a bit older and are not as tech-savvy. Bringing these instructors up to speed is an interesting challenge because if they don’t adapt they’re not going to be as effective as they could be as instructors.
Something for instructors and publishers to think about is if we’re to deal with technology and use it in our teaching, then we have to avoid gimmicks – things that just use technology because technology is available – and really think about the ways that it can be used in an intelligent fashion.
2. You mentioned that bridging the gap between younger, more tech-savvy learners and older teachers who are still getting used to using technology in the classroom is a challenge. Do you have any advice for those older teachers who want to use technology in an effective way?
Well what I’ve found being an older teacher [laughs], is that I am not an expert in social media. My students often know far more than I know. So what I recommend is that you figure out where you are and where your students are, and realize that you don’t have to be an expert. In my classes, I like to find out what my students are using and that helps me choose which social media or digital tools might be most effective for me. You don’t have to learn everything; you just have to know what’s going to make sense for your students. You don’t have to be a master of all trades. And I think if you can start small and take into account what your students like and what works for them, then you too can learn bit-by-bit and be a more effective teacher who uses technology.
3. Both of your presentations this year are centered around social media and networking. Why do you think this is such an important issue for ELT?
One of the benefits of using social media, as we’ve already talked about, is the fact that if your students are online, then they’re getting exposure to a lot of authentic input. But there are many other crucial benefits. Social media is a very good way of building community among your learners both inside and outside the classroom. It also engages students through practising English because, as research suggests, when we get small bits of information, the chemical that is released in our brains is the same as when we are doing other pleasure providing activities like eating chocolate for example. Because of that, it’s incredibly rewarding to get that small burst of information. Students are getting this pleasure chemical every time they see a status update, or get a text message, etc.
Because of these changes in the brains of our students, we can’t simply go back and rewire them, so the best thing for us to do as teachers is to try and harness social media in order to help our students learn English. It’s going to be very difficult to undo everything that’s happened in the last twenty years in terms of how we learn, how our brains work, and how we process information. And so, I think we should base our use of social media, not on gimmicks and not simply because it’s available and it’s trendy, but instead, on some sound pedagogy and use it in a very judicious manner.
4. You’re travelling a long way for your first JALT National conference this year, anything in particular you are looking forward to?
You know, I always like to travel to other countries and I really like to see how teachers teach and how learners are different, etc. However, here’s an interesting fact: I was born in Japan. And I haven’t been back since I was a toddler. So I really hope that I’m going to be able to go to Kamakura, which is where my family lived.
My father often tells me stories of when he and my mother were there, living on the street that goes up to the main shrine. I think it was a really hard time for my mother because she had never been to Asia before and there she was in Kamakura, in a very different environment and rather isolated. So, naturally, she became very lonely. My father actually hired a Japanese woman who spoke some English to come to their house to help my mother. In the process my mother learned a little Japanese and the other woman learned more English. It turned out to be a great learning experience for her. Also, because my mother was pregnant with me at that time, I like to say that that’s why I went into this career; I was predisposed to going into language learning and teaching.
Anyway, I really just can’t wait to visit, I’m so excited.