Nicky Hockly has been involved in EFL teaching and teacher training since 1987. She is Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an online teacher training and development consultancy. She is the prize-winning author of several books about language teaching and technology, most recently Focus on Learning Technologies (OUP, 2016). We look forward to hosting Nicky’s talk at this year’s IATEFL conference in Glasgow.
Children and teenagers today can mostly be found staring into screens. Mobile devices, PlayStations and Xboxs, even the occasional laptop… today’s youngsters spend a significant amount of their time interacting with and via a range of digital devices. And because of this, the argument goes, digital technologies should be increasingly present in the English language classroom. The general feeling is that teachers should be using these technologies to enhance their teaching and to increase their students’ motivation, both in and outside of class. However, one essential question – Do digital technologies actually help students learn? – is not always asked. Arguably this is because the answer is less than clear.
Why is this? One reason is that it is very difficult to make comparisons across studies, when research is carried out in different contexts with very different groups of students, with different teachers, using different technologies and tools, and with widely differing aims and task types.
Sometimes studies on exactly the same area (such as using blogs to improve teenage EFL students’ writing skills) show differing results – in some cases blogs appear to be effective in doing this (1), while in other cases it doesn’t seem to make any difference (2). But it’s worth bearing in mind that research studies tend to be self-selective. Researchers will often only publish studies that show positive results – those that show negative or contradictory results may never make it to publication. And although researchers try to avoid it, they are inevitably biased towards positive outcomes in their own studies. All of this means that it’s difficult to make sweeping generalisations such as ‘Technology helps students learn English better’ or even more nuanced statements such as ‘Blogging helps adolescent EFL students improve their writing skills’.
Where does this leave us? For me, the important point is that we need to be critical users of digital technologies, and critical readers of research in the field. We need to be particularly wary of techno-centric views of technology that claim that the latest hardware/software/game/app/program will somehow magically help our students learn English ‘better’. In short, we need to be critically aware consumers of new technologies – both as users ourselves, and as teachers interested in using digital technologies with our own young learners and teenagers.
(1) Raith, T. (2009). The use of weblogs in education. In Thomas, M. (Ed.). Handbook of research on web 2.0 and second language learning (pp. 274-91). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
(2) Sercu, L. (2013). Weblogs in foreign language education: Real and promised benefits. Proceedings of INTED2013, 7th International Technology, Education and Development Conference, Valencia, Spain, pp. 4355-66.