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Do learning technologies actually help students learn?


shutterstock_198926996Do learning technologies actually help students learn? Nicky Hockly’s latest book,
Focus on Learning Technologies, takes a look at research that has been carried out with primary and secondary school learners using technology, and weighs up the evidence.

Although digital technologies in the field of EFL may feel like a recent thing, they have been around for a while. We have a rich research tradition in CALL (Computer-Assisted Language Learning) going back several decades, and teachers and researchers have been trying to find out whether technology actually supports learning for some time. However, although we are mostly in agreement upon the question – Do learning technologies actually help students learn? – the answer is less clear.

The short answer is ‘it depends’. It depends, because 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.

For example, imagine a US study carried out with a group of primary students that examines whether using blogs improves their literacy and writing skills (1). Imagine a study in Iran that examines whether a group of university students learn academic vocabulary better through regular SMS texts rather than with dictionaries (2). And imagine a research project in China and Scotland based on a computer game that provides adolescent students with oral prompts in order to develop their speaking skills (3). These are all real research projects, and they have widely different aims, tools, and research methodologies. They take place in very different teaching and learning contexts with very different students and teachers. Some seem to show technology supporting learning but others don’t. At the same time, trying to generalise results from what can be very small-scale, one-off action research projects that may be underpinned by more or less robust research methods, is questionable.

Each of the three studies described above had very different objectives, followed different research procedures, and yielded different results. The blog project used a case study methodology to look at the writing skills development of one English language learner in a class of elementary students in the USA. The researchers found that the blogging curriculum developed her writing skills, increased her confidence as a writer, and improved her written language. So a positive result (for one student) overall.

In the Iranian SMS vocabulary study, a class of 28 EAP students received 10 words and example sentences twice a week via SMS, and were exposed to a total of 320 new words. A control group studied the same vocabulary using a dictionary. Post-test scores showed an improvement in vocabulary learning for all students, but there was no significant difference between the two groups. But a later test showed that the SMS group were able to recall more vocabulary than the dictionary group. So a partly positive result, although one wonders how much vocabulary the two groups would remember a couple of months later.

The study in China and Scotland compared the uptake and response of two separate groups of teenage students to specially-designed game software for speaking practice. The two groups showed different levels of motivation. The group of Chinese EFL students reported increased positive attitudes, whereas the Scottish students learning French reported increased anxiety levels and decreasing positive attitudes during the study. A follow-up study (4) highlighted important limitations in the software. So mixed results overall in this study.

Sometimes studies on exactly the same area (such as learning vocabulary via SMS) show differing results – in some cases it appears to be effective, while in others it doesn’t seem to make any difference. 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 ‘regular SMS texts help university students learn academic vocabulary better’.

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 learners.

References

(1) Gebhard, M., Shin, D. S., & Seger, W. (2011). Blogging and emergent L2 literacy development in urban elementary school: A functional perspective. CALICO Journal, 28, 2, 278-307.
(2) Alemi, M., Sarab, M., & Lari, Z. (2012). Successful learning of academic word list via MALL: Mobile assisted language learning. International Education Studies, 5, 6, 99–109.
(3) Morton, H., & Jack, M. (2010). Speech interactive computer-assisted language learning: A cross-cultural evaluation. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 23, 4, 295-319.
(4) Morton, H., Gunson, N., & Jack, M. (2012). Interactive language learning through speech-enabled virtual scenarios. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction. Available at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ahci/2012/389523/


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Using smart devices in class – challenge or opportunity?

smartdevices1Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. A full time instructor, he presents regularly on how to adapt traditional classroom materials to meet the needs of the Selfie Generation, and how to use widely available and easy-to-use digital tools in language learning.

In a survey of Smart Choice teachers conducted by Oxford University Press this year, 55% of teachers reported that they use smart devices regularly in class. In addition, 84% of teachers said they encourage learners to use the devices to extend learning outside of class. While the use of mobile technology in class is becoming more accepted, it is not without its challenges. Many of these challenges relate to practical matters of classroom management. How can we engage large classes, and make sure everyone is participating? How can we keep students on track? Can we use the devices in places without Wi-Fi?

When to use a smart device

I always feel that the challenges that I face in class, rather than just a decision to use digital devices for the sake of it, should be the determining factor whether I use smart phones in my class or not. With some classes it’s an easy decision, particularly in classrooms without any installed technology. Learners’ own devices enable me to incorporate videos, illustrations, and even texts into every lesson. Before class, I upload the content that I want students to view onto our Learning Management System- I use Facebook for this – and I can have students access the content during class.

If I am concerned about the focus of a particular class, I’ll have students use their devices for relevant parts of the lesson only. The rest of time, I’ll have them turn off their devices, or even better, put them away. With other classes, often smaller groups were I can be surer of each individual’s level of engagement, I’m more comfortable having learners use their devices at any time, especially to access online dictionaries. In this case, am I absolutely sure what a learner is doing online? No, but I know now that lack of focus demonstrates itself quite rapidly, and I can take appropriate action.

Keep it focused

For me, the key to keeping learners focused when working with smart phones is to [1] have time limits, and [2] insure that they have to create or complete something as part of the activity. Students, therefore, do not just observe something: they must do something too. This might mean commenting (for example, in the comments section of where I’ve posted a video) on what they’ve seen. My favorite activity is to have learners write something in their notebooks in a response to some online content, and then take a photo of their notes and share it on our LMS. This has several advantages. Firstly, knowing that they have to share their work with the class, students are more likely to complete an activity properly rather than engaging in inappropriate online behavior. I’m often concerned that if they don’t regularly write with a pen or pencil on paper, their basic writing skills, including handwriting and spelling, may suffer. In addition, the shared writing samples are very useful for peer reviewing and self-analysis. Videos of presentations and classroom discussions are equally useful to share. Content that has been uploaded by me or by my students in class can be accessed later. This is a very efficient and easy-to-implement way of extending the classroom into the virtual world. Activities like giving feedback to presentations can now be done outside of class. Additional activities can also be uploaded to provide specific practice for individual learners.

smartdevices2With the availability of mobile-optimized online practice materials, such as the On the Move material that accompanies Smart Choice Third Edition, online dictionaries and a whole range of English Language Learning apps, encouraging our students to use their smart phones outside of class is something we should all embrace. Having activities in class that involve the devices provides us with an opportunity to assist students on how to use them successfully. What, for example, do students do once they’ve looked up a word or phrase online?

I recommend that students make flashcards, either with apps such as StudyBlue or homemade cards which students can make by screen capturing the target vocabulary item in a sample sentence (together with a translation in L1) and an image. This approach is based on I.S.P. Nation’s meta-analysis of the use of flashcards and vocabulary.

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Make learning relevant

Another advantage of smart phones is the potential for bringing the real world into the classroom. Students have an abundance of photos of places, people, food and activities that we can readily link to the content of our textbook. Students can show images and videos to their classmates, and this content allows us to extend and personalize the target language in a way that motivates students and makes learning sticky. This kind of activity is ideal for settings without Wi-Fi.

As I figure out how to use mobile technology in class, I’ve become more interested in exploring the basic features of the devices, rather than using apps. For me, the ability for students to access content online, and their ability to record, share and comment on work that we’ve done together, provides an invaluable opportunity to extend learning beyond my classroom, to have content-rich lessons in every room, and to encourage students to learn by analyzing their own and their peers’ output. In doing so, I’m hoping to create an environment that reflects the interactive, collaborative and networked world which has become their natural habitat. In time, I’m hoping that smart devices will become indispensable tools for them in their English language acquisition process, both outside of the classroom and long after our shared time together is over.

Want to find out more? Join Thomas for a live webinar on how to use mobile technology in class on 12th or 13th October.

In this free-to-attend webinar you can expect to:

  • Learn practical tips and ideas on how to use smartphones purposefully with your students in the classroom
  • Look at ways in which students own smart devices can make every classroom a technology enhanced classroom
  • Bring along your own questions to ask Thomas

webinar_register3

 

References:

  • Smart Choice teacher survey, Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Nation, I.S.P. Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques Heinle ELT, 2008.

 


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The potential of smart devices in the EFL classroom

DeathtoStock_Medium5Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. A full time instructor, he presents regularly on how to adapt traditional classroom materials to meet the needs of the Selfie Generation, and how to use widely available and easy-to-use digital tools in language learning.

Are smartphones a classroom management problem or a useful tool for language teaching and learning? Discover how smart devices can become a key part of the learning experience for your students with Thomas Healy.

In a series of video tutorials and three live webinars, Thomas will be presenting strategies for how teachers can use smart devices to enhance what students are learning in class, to provide meaningful opportunities for independent learning and to connect the English they are learning with the world around them.

Thomas’ first webinar – the potential of smart devices – will run twice and take place on September 7th (1pm BST) and September 8th (12am BST).

In this free-to-attend webinar you can expect to:

  • Explore smart device based activities that you can use to reinforce students learning
  • Look at ways in which students own smart devices can make every classroom a technology enhanced classroom
  • Bring along your own questions to ask Thomas

Thomas’ webinar will draw on content Smart Choice ‘On The Move’ activities, brand new smart phone optimized content available with Smart Choice Third Edition.

register-for-webinar


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Easy, motivating and meaningful ways of using digital tech in the classroom

shutterstock_287594936James Styring taught English and Spanish to students of all ages and levels. He also ran teacher-training sessions and was an oral examiner for the Cambridge PET, FCE and CAE exams. James worked for ten years in editorial roles at OUP before becoming a freelance author. He has written more than 50 ELT titles. He joins us today to preview his upcoming webinar, ‘Easy, motivating and meaningful ways of using digital tech in the classroom’, taking place on August 24th and 25th.

How do ‘screenagers’ learn?

Everyone born in the last 15–20 years (AKA Generation Z) has grown up in the digital age. Tablets and smartphones are not an add-on but an essential part of daily life, something Generation Z has never lived without. Generation Z expects wifi and 4G as a basic need, the same as an expectation of running water and electricity for older generations. Trying to engage a classroom of Generation Z students doesn’t always hit the mark if a vital component of their life is missing: their digital side. ‘Screenagers’ and young adults miss the devices through which their life is mediated. Success with this generation depends on appropriating the students’ digital world and deploying it in valid ways in the classroom.

As teachers, what’s of interest to us are the character traits of Generation Z. What do we know about Generation Z and their learning style? They may have less-developed social skills than older generations, as they stumble along the pavement catching Pokémon. They like communicating in bite-sized messages and they’re masters of multi-tasking. This means they respond well to classes which involve a variety of inputs and a varied pace.

How can teachers help screenagers?

The webinar looks at how teachers can vary interaction patterns and pairings, mimicking students’ everyday communicative experience of flitting between Instagram and Twitter and WhatsApp within seconds and without missing a beat. Mimicking these patterns in class can stop itchy feet and dispel boredom. One way of achieving this is bringing classes to life digitally. Most teachers know this but many feel overwhelmed by the proliferation of ‘digital’ in TEFL. The blogosphere is alive with talk of LMSs and MOOCs and big data. ‘Digital’ can quite quickly start to feel alienating and off-putting, not to mention time-consuming and expensive to implement, as you imagine your school spending thousands on tablets or on access to a digital platform.

Well, the good news is that you don’t need any of that. There are lots of classroom activities that you can do for free and often with zero preparation utilising the phones or tablets that most students already have in their schoolbags. You can achieve meaningful outcomes from students taking out their tablets or smartphones (or even older ‘feature’ phones) and using them as a natural part of the lesson. All you need is an open mind and a little imagination. The reason for doing this is not some sort of gimmick. It’s a reaction to who we’re teaching. On average, Generation Z-ers reach for their device every seven minutes during the day to check status updates, to read messages, to post comments, and so on. There are pedagogically worthwhile reasons for having students get their phones out during class for a range of activities. So rather than battling through lessons with students feeling twitchy because they’re desperate to look at their phones, free the phone instead.

To hear more, join my webinar on 24th and 25th August. I hope you’ll also feel comfortable in sharing your own experiences of digital and contributing ideas for making it work.

register-for-webinar

 


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25 ideas for using WhatsApp with English language students

shutterstock_287594936Philip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  Today he joins us to provide 25 engaging and useful classroom activities for language learners using WhatsApp.

There are three main obstacles to the use of technology in ELT. First is the availability of technology and internet connection in the classroom. Second is teacher techno-phobia. The final, and perhaps the biggest problem, is knowing how to use it for language learning purposes.

WhatsApp or similar messaging services can help overcome these obstacles. If our classrooms are not well equipped, we can take advantage of the technology that students have on their phones, even if there is no internet available in class. Many activities can be set up by the teacher and extended beyond the classroom when students later link to Wi-Fi. Alternatively, students can show each other their phones at different stages of activities.

Many self-confessed, techno-phobic teachers that I know use WhatsApp on a regular basis in their private lives, so already feel quite comfortable with it. However, the trick is to set up activities that make students do all the work without the teacher needing to share contact details. Each student need to have a WhatsApp buddy in the class who they communicate with via WhatsApp and carry out the activities.

Here are 25 ideas of how to make good use of WhatsApp for language learning. WhatsApp was the starting point for these ideas, but teachers will see that other applications and messaging services will work just as well. For these activities I make use of the following five features: text, photo, video, audio and emoji.

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