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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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Oxford Teachers’ Academy 2012: Review

One of the attendees of the 2012 Oxford Teachers’ Academy in July, Marilena Angela Chirculete talks about her experience.

There is always so much that words can encompass when it comes to rendering the full extent of the enthusiasm and genuine delight that the Teaching English to Adults seminars have inspired us with. I will most definitely try, however, to present you with my own – perhaps subjective – take on the proceedings. I hereby invite you to take a trip down memory lane and follow the “yellow brick road” to the enchanted realm of a series of brilliantly carried-out sessions on teaching English. Alright, take a mental breath and jump on board!

Approximately a month ago “the Oxford 36”, the teachers to attend the course, were anxiously and full-heartedly beginning their journey through the shared knowledge, past experience and ever new ideas regarding the methods and strategies of turning the learning process into a pleasant, efficient and long-lasting one. Under the guidance of a highly skilled teacher trainer, Tim Ward, we came together as a team and debated various aspects and challenges concerning the art of teaching. And what a delight that was for all of us!

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The Digital Learning Curve: 3 ways school leaders can help teachers stay ahead

Meghan Beler is a full-time teacher trainer for Oxford University Press in Istanbul, Turkey. Here she talks about three ways school leaders can help teachers stay ahead of technology trends.

Regardless of whether we are thrilled with or terrified of the digital revolution that is sweeping our classrooms, the reality is that the decision to use technology in the classroom is not always left up to the teacher. In order to stay up-to-date (and in some cases, competitive), schools are investing more in interactive white boards, computer labs and laptops for students. Teachers across the world may walk into classrooms this year that seem foreign, filled with technological tools and applications that they may not even know how to use, let alone know why they should be using them.

Technology has the potential to revolutionise the way teaching and learning occurs, however this will not be possible without confident, knowledgeable and prepared teachers. What can school leaders do to ensure that their teachers do not fall behind the digital learning curve?

Training

Both teachers and school leaders need training in order to ensure that digital tools are directing learning towards educational goals rather than away from them. Firstly, teachers need training in the basic functionality of digital tools. Not knowing how to turn the page of an on-screen course book or embed a video into a presentation can seriously limit the potential impact of digital tools. Perhaps even more importantly, a lack of basic technological knowledge can be disempowering for a teacher and can lead to further fear and avoidance of educational technology.

Teachers need to be confident and knowledgeable not only about how to use digital tools, but how to use them in ways that lead to a better educational experience. Having learners watch a YouTube video without giving them any sort of task to do along with it will do little more than keep learners briefly entertained. And just because we have thousands of tools, apps, and resources at our fingertips doesn’t mean we should walk into class without an idea of what we want learners to achieve. If we do not think carefully about how to actively involve learners through technology, our lessons are at risk of becoming technology-centred rather than learner-centred.

Time

Even confident, tech-savvy teachers need time to understand how digital tools will best suit the needs of their learners, and this can only happen by using technology in practice. Of course, it is not only the teachers who need time to adjust; the same is true for learners. Learners may not understand what is expected of them and may simply be excited by the arrival of new technology. At first, this may be frustrating for teachers as activities may seem chaotic and unfocused. Both teachers and learners need time to adjust to new routines and ways of learning.

School leaders also need time to consider how (and if) new digital policies and programmes are helping teachers and learners reach curricular goals more effectively. This requires a great deal of patience and faith on everyone’s part; we may discover that what was a great idea in theory doesn’t work well in practice. We may also find out that a programme which seemed destined to fail in the beginning turns out to be a phenomenal success!

Support

Teachers need to know that they have the support and understanding of their superiors.  One way to do this is through departmental forums where teachers can have open dialogues about their digital experiences with learners. This not only fosters a better understanding of what is actually happening both in and out of teachers’ classrooms, but provides the opportunity for teachers to share diverse solutions to complex problems. The reality is that every teacher experiences both successes and failures in implementing new digital tools and programmes, and being able to discuss it openly is an important part of the digital learning curve.

Indeed, technology will allow us to provide a better education for learners, and school leaders play an important role in helping their teachers stay ahead of the curve through the right balance of training, time and support.

What do you do to help your teachers (or yourself) stay ahead of the digital learning curve?

[Photo by Brad Flickinger via Flickr/Creative Commons]

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Should teachers be paid to attend Teacher Training sessions?

Man opening walletJean Theuma, a freelance teacher trainer based in Malta, explores the controversial question of whether teachers should be expected to attend school-run training sessions without financial incentive.

How far can we expect teachers to pay for their own professional development? If they are employed with a school, where does the responsibility to pay for CPD lie? With the school or the teacher themselves?

I have recently started running in-house training sessions for a quite large school and I’ve stumbled on a curious situation. I was wondering if anyone else has come across the same thing. The teachers feel that, as they are staying at school after hours to come to teacher training workshops, they should be paid for their time. The school, however, feels that as the teachers are benefiting by becoming better teachers, they should not be paid anything for attending. It is a sticky situation and, unfortunately, one that could have a bad impact on the attendance to the sessions.

Unfortunately, some teachers do not seem to realise how much work goes into organising training. Schools have to organise and pay for trainers to hold the sessions. They probably have to carry out observations in order to find out the best topics to help their teachers. At the end of the course of training, they might produce certificates of attendance, so that if a teacher moves on to another school, they can take evidence of having attended the sessions with them. The whole thing involves administration and record-keeping, along with the preparation of facilities and materials to be used during the workshops. .

It is all quite a lot of work to organise and it would be a shame for the training to trail off to nothing if the school does not get buy-in from the teachers. If the school does not pay for the teachers to attend, the teachers are not obliged to come; all schools can do is “recommend strongly” that they do.  So, what they decide not to go? Financially, schools cannot afford to run poorly attended training sessions. The training department would be hard pushed to justify that to the Director of Studies or whoever is in charge of the purse-strings.

Some teachers tend to think it is the schools which benefit with more satisfied customers and less complaints for the Academic Department to deal with. Also, in Malta, most teachers are paid at an hourly rate which they feel does not really cover their preparation time, let alone compensate them for staying a couple of extra hours per week for training.

Money issues aside, some teachers are not very keen to participate on the programme to begin with. They see the proposal of training as a criticism of their teaching methods. Some say that if they have been doing well so far, they do not see why they should change – The ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’ attitude. They are, therefore, not very motivated to come and not paying them for attendance seems to be the final straw to many of them.

I can see their point of view but I also know how much time and energy goes into organising courses of training!

What do you think? How does it work in your school? Does your school pay for training or do your teachers invest time and energy on CPD without any financial rewards?

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