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Does technology work? | Nicky Hockly

Teaching with technology

In todays’ wired world, technology is an integral part of our work and personal lives. As teachers, we are often expected to use a range of digital technologies in our English language classes.

These expectations come from a range of quarters: from educational technology vendors, Ministries of Education, school directors, students, parents, and often from teachers themselves who feel they ‘should’ use technologies, especially with younger students/teenagers.

But in our rush to use technology in the English language classroom, the question of whether a chosen technology ‘works’ or not is frequently ignored.

What does research say?

Let’s start with a short quiz. Are the three following statements true or false?

  • Younger students (e.g. teenagers) are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.

Do you feel confident about your answers? Let’s see what the research says about each of these statements.

  1. Younger students are naturally better users of digital technologies than older students.
    Many people believe this to be true, but the myth of the ‘digital native’ (Prensky, 2001) has been thoroughly debunked by research. Young people are not automatically effective users of new technologies, although they may be confident with these technologies and use them for a range of (primarily friendship-driven) purposes. Young people may appear to live on Instagram, but they are often not good at evaluating the source and veracity of information they find online. They often don’t know how to write an email with the appropriate structure and tone. In short, younger students tend to be confident but uncritical users of technology. A large-scale research study (Fraillon et al.) carried out with 60,000 13 to 14 year olds across 3,300 schools in 21 educations systems/countries found that the ICT skills of young learners and adolescents were fairly low, and depended on a wide range of factors. These factors included: the impact of students’ home and school contexts, students’ individual characteristics, parents’ educational level and profession, the number of books and access to ICT resources in the home. Whether students received ICT instruction in school was another factor that affected their digital literacy. The bottom line is that younger people are automatically digital literate.
  • Contributing to blogs can help language learners improve their writing.
    Blogs have long been considered good for helping students develop their writing skills. When writing blog entries, students write for a real audience and with a communicative purpose; students can also interact with blog readers in a blog’s comment section. These are all good things for writing. Research shows that blogs can increase students’ motivation to write in English, although the research is less clear on whether the quality of their writing improves through writing blog entries. For example, it has been found that students with a lower level of language proficiency may benefit less from writing blogs than stronger students do (Secru, 2013). Nevertheless, the research into using blogs to develop EFL and ESL students’ writing is positive overall.
  • Digital technologies can help students with special educational needs.
    So-called ‘assistive technologies’ are used in inclusive learning in different disciplines, not only in English language learning, so much of the research has taken place in a range of subject areas. Overall, the research is promising. Tablets, for example, have been enthusiastically taken up by teachers working with special educational needs (SEN) learners because of their multimodal and tactile assistive qualities, as well as the ever-growing range of educational apps available for SEN students. In the field of English language teaching, research suggests that, depending on the learning materials or apps used and task design, learners’ engagement with language learning materials can increase (e.g. Cumming & Draper Rodriguez, 2013). The research also suggests that language teachers usually have a positive attitude to the use of assistive technologies with their SEN language learners.

Whatever the technology and whoever the learners, one thing is clear: it is important to review the available research in order to take an evidence-based approach to using technology with English language learners.

To what extent do technologies support language learning, and lead to improved outcomes for students? Join me in April for my webinar where we’ll take a critical look at digital technologies research and ask: Does technology actually help English language students learn better?


Nicky Hockly is the Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an award-winning online training and development organisation. She has worked in the field of English Language Teaching since 1987, is an international plenary speaker, and gives workshops and training courses for teachers all over the world. Nicky writes regular columns on technology for teachers in ETP (English Teaching Professional) magazine, and in the ELTJ (English Language Teaching Journal).


References

  • Cumming, T. M., & Draper Rodriguez, C. (2013). Integrating the iPad into language arts instruction for students with disabilities: Engagement and perspectives. Journal of Special Education Technology, 28, 4, 43-52.
  • Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Gebhardt, E. (2013). Preparing for life in a digital age. The IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study International Report. Springer Open: Springer International Publishing AG Switzerland.
  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 5. MCB University Press.
  • 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.


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Artificial Intelligence | ELT EdTech

AI in the classroom.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has actually been around for decades. But only recently has it become an accessible tool for day-to-day tasks on our smartphones, picking strawberries, predicting crimes, and even English Language Teaching!

What is Artificial Intelligence?

A good working definition, which applies to the general understanding of AI, is Artificial Intelligence involves machines or computers that work and react like humans do.

The AI that is prevalent in current technology is what we’d call Narrow AI. That is to say it has a narrow focus and is very good at one or two jobs. For example, Shazam is very good at letting you know what song is playing, by listening to a snippet of the music, but it can’t tell you how many tickets are left for the theatre tomorrow night, or how tall Charles de Gaulle was.

An easy mistake to make is to imagine AI as machines that can think like humans do. This is called General AI, where a program could theoretically turn its hand to a variety of problems and, after a bit of observation, take up the task itself, as a person might be able to.

This kind of multifaceted intelligence isn’t replicable in computer programs (yet.) As Dr. Hadar Shemtov, Director of Research at Google, said in response to a question from the audience at an OUP dictionaries summit, “Computers are actually a lot dumber than the average guy thinks… they still need to be told what to do in the vast majority of cases.

How does it work?

There are two basic ways AI can work. The first is rules based – the program is given a set of rules and it keeps applying these to the problem to find an answer. The second is learning based – the program observes, finds patterns and matches patterns independently.

The difference between these two is that one is taught, whilst one is learned.

This is why AI is mentioned with such frequency in recent years. Previously, AI was all rules based – meaning its capabilities were restricted by the rules that could be defined by programmers. Modern AI has shifted to learning based, making it exponentially more powerful and opening up many more exciting implications. This has become possible because the vast data sets, and the computing power to analyse them (required to help a program learn) are now available with modern technology.

So what is Machine Learning?

Machine Learning is when AI programs learn how to complete a task. Machine Learning involves a computer analysing large quantities of data, recognising patterns in the data, and drawing out conclusions or solutions from these patterns. Often, in order for patterns to become apparent, huge quantities of data need to be looked at. The more data available, the more likely the AI is going to produce an accurate answer.

The initial algorithm for how to use the data is written by a human programmer, but the computer then applies this to vast data sets. This means that AI can notice patterns and provide answers far faster than any human – and sometimes provide answers humans would have been incapable of ever producing. But, it also means that the quality of the data needs to be good. If you input a poor data set into AI, you’re only going to get poor output. If you want to see Machine Learning in action, Teachable Machine is a great free tool developed by Google.

 What can we use AI for?

Well, just about anything. Uses of AI have already done great things to make our modern and connected lives more efficient and personalised. But there are also numerous potential benefits for education, which could improve the working lives of teachers and the learning journeys of students.

To date, Oxford University Press has already built products that make use of AI to personalise learning materials, we’ve partnered with Edwin to create an English tutor chatbot, and with Mobilinga to create interactive adventure stories, delivered via Alexa. We’re excited to continue exploring how we can make use of AI in education with our partners, using it to create new learning materials and content to help the world learn English.


Harry Cunningham is a Partnerships and Innovation Manager at Oxford University Press in the ELT division. He’s focused on enhancing and bringing OUP’s English Language Teaching content to life with the latest and best technological solutions.


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#IATEFL – The digital classroom: change of medium or change of methodology?

shutterstock_198926996Stacey Hughes, an Oxford teacher trainer with 20 years teaching experience, joins us to preview her upcoming talk at IATEFL, ‘The digital classroom: change in medium or change in methodology’, held on Friday 15th April at 3.30pm.

Today’s e-coursebooks and e-readers offer learners a range of tools that can enhance the learning experience, but is using an e-book really different? Does it require a different methodology? Does it have an impact on classroom management?  What are the benefits an e-book can offer?

First let’s think about a fairly standard lesson that uses a coursebook. You probably spend some time with students paying attention to you or to a listening track or video, some time with students working in pairs or groups, some time with them working alone. E-books don’t change that dynamic:

digital1

If we are happy with the scenario in the left column above, why should we bother changing? Why introduce e-books? Firstly, e-books can add flexibility: in the above scenario, teacher could choose to allow students to listen to the audio track on their own with headphones or in pairs.  Secondly, e-books have some features that can be beneficial to students. For example, students could listen to a graded reader and read along. They can speed up or slow down the audio or pause it and rewind to listen to a section again. Some students might even replay a section again and record themselves at the same time in order to compare their intonation or pronunciation of words.

digital2

Another reason for using e-books is that they are on tablets where students can also keep other learning resources: a learner’s dictionary, all their e-readers, and educational apps are a few good examples. Of course, with tablets and a wifi connection, students can use the internet to do webquests for projects that really open up and contextualize learning.

What about classroom management? Of all the fears that teachers say they have regarding introducing technology into the classroom, classroom management ranks highly.  However, managing a class with e-books need not be any different from managing a class with more familiar tools. The same management principles apply.

At my workshop at IATEFL, I’ll be asking teachers to think about some of the things they do in their class now before looking at some of the functionality of e-coursebooks and e-readers on Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf. We will talk about classroom management and think about how a class might look using an e-book. I hope you can join me!


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#IATEFL – Look out! It’s the future!

Villemard

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

David Pearce, a Digital Learning Manager at Oxford University Press, looks at the issues surrounding the implementation of digital technology in the classroom. David will be presenting on this topic at IATEFL 2015 on Sunday 12th April.

A charming image created in 1910, by the French artist Villemard, attempted to depict what a classroom would look like in the year 2000. To the right of the image stands a hand-cranked machine with a feeding chute at the top. A boy stands over the handle, cranking it round as the bewhiskered school master feeds books into the chute. Wires run from the machine to the ceiling of the classroom, leading eventually to headsets worn by the attentive pupils. Knowledge, ground out of the pages of the books and metamorphosed into some kind of energy, is transferred directly to their brains.

The scene says as much about the theory of knowledge at the time as it does about the imagined labour-saving transformations of technology. We are now less inclined to believe that learning is about the passive reception of knowledge. These days we think of knowledge as something actively constructed by the learner, and of knowledge as being only one part of learning, with skills like collaboration, communication and critical thinking forming as big a part, if not bigger, of what students need to learn. As for the technology portrayed, part of the charm of the image lies in how naïve the machinery seems to us, reflecting a time when the electrification of life was starting to become commonplace, it’s possibilities apparently boundless.

And yet Villemard was surprisingly accurate. A lot of the features of the 21st century classroom are as he depicted them. The classroom itself remains, there are still children seated at desks, and there is still a teacher presiding over events. And of course there are still lots and lots of books. We may not be grinding them into energy to beam straight into our students’ heads, but we are grinding their contents into data to go online, or into e-books, or onto interactive whiteboards. And perhaps we still hope that technology will somehow make the job of learning effortless – this is what the picture seems to say to me.

The centrepiece, however, is the machinery itself: for the time it is modern, bizarre, and a little bit fantastic. And isn’t this what a lot of us feel about the technology we’re expected to use with our own students? Although the technology depicted seems strange to us, is it any more bizarre than the actual technology we’ve ended up with? Just as Villemard was an artist working when electricity had become an everyday reality with boundless potential, we live at a time when the same thing is happening with digital technology. Making sense of its potential is not always straightforward.

My workshop – “Digital or Analogue: Making Choices About Technology in Lesson Planning” – is intended for those educators who want to bring modern technology into their classrooms, but who may be unsure about how or when to use it. There are lots of reasons why using technology might be difficult: a lack of expertise or confidence, inadequate equipment, poor internet connectivity – and sometimes simply not knowing where to start. In the workshop we will explore together how simple principles can be applied in our everyday teaching, and how small changes to our practice can build technology into what we do. Learning with technology may not be as effortless as Villemard suggested it might be, but teaching with it needn’t be a grind.


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Technology Enhanced Language Learning 

DeathtoStock_Medium10Aisha Walker, Associate Professor of Technology, Education and Learning at Leeds University, introduces her webinar, Technology Enhanced Language Learning, hosted by Oxford University Press on February 25th and 26th.

As I lead an MA programme in TESOL and ICT I frequently see draft student assignments that open with a sentence such as: “Technology is increasingly important in the world today.” The student may then go on to say that today’s learners are ‘digital natives’, that technology motivates and engages students and that all teachers should be using more of it.  Luckily, because we offer students the opportunity to get feedback on drafts before submission, I can catch these broad statements and ask students to be more measured and more critical in their approaches to concepts such as the ‘digital native’ or ‘technology for learner motivation’.

So why should language teachers make use of digital technologies?  I see two main reasons although there may be other pressures such as institutional policies (if a school has spent a lot of money on a new online learning environment, for example, they will want teachers to use it).  The first reason is that digital media are part of the way that we use language in the real world.  Much of our day-to-day communication is mediated by digital tools including email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, What’s App and much more.  These tools are normal sites of language use and it is as important to explore these with learners as it is to explore older media such as newspapers and radio (now often online, of course).

The second reason is that technology can provide solutions to some of the problems that we encounter as language teachers.  For example, in the context of a single-language classroom there is little reason for students to communicate in the target language except that the teacher tells them to.  Digital tools may enable them to communicate with an audience outside the classroom, for example by posting blogs or videos either to a general audience or in partnership with a class of learners elsewhere.  Whilst I do not believe that technology is intrinsically motivating, novelty and variety do engage and motivate students.  Technology offers plenty of novel possibilities from new ways of presenting material to new games for language practice.

In summary, digital tools and media are part of everyday language use and should, therefore, be part of language learning.  In addition, the range of possibilities offered by digital tools mean that there are many ways in which technology can enhance language learning. But… ‘learners are digital natives’? It’s more complicated than that!

To explore how using everyday digital tools and media can be part of language learning, join us for Aisha’s upcoming webinar Technology Enhanced Language Learning.