Robert McLarty, Publishing Manager for Business English and ESP at Oxford University Press, explores the increasing use of digital media in education, the effect it has on students, and how it will affect teachers in the future.
A couple of years ago a group of schools in California decided to pilot a new approach to the teaching of algebra. Providing the students with iPads along with an interactive full curriculum app, the year-long pilot was to compare the results of a print-driven approach and a tablet-led one. Both groups had experienced teachers but the results were convincing. Over 78% of the “digital” students scored A or B compared with 59% using the “old school” approach.
Let us not worry how similar algebra and English are – they are both subjects which most students will need at some stage in their careers. They are also both subjects where some students “get it” immediately and others don’t. They are also often taught by experts who find it hard to understand why learners struggle with some basic concepts. Why is a tense continuous? When do we need to use brackets?
What the application clearly does is help the teachers explain, illustrate, practise and correct in a more effective way than print materials. It hasn’t replaced maths teachers, it has actually enhanced them and made them more effective, interesting and, probably, productive. Obviously the gadget itself has more immediate appeal to most sixteen year olds than a book would have. What we cannot deny, however, is that the modern generation of both learners and new teachers are used to the richness and range which digital offers us. If we can harness that technology and marry it to an efficient teaching methodology then surely we will have moved English Language Teaching on in much the same way the OALD, Headway or Practical English Usage did at different times?
The algebra app offers a personalized learning experience; in other words, each student doing an appropriate task for their level at the right stage of the lesson. It offers video tutorials where the new point is explained so that those who didn’t get it, or missed the lesson or want to go through it again, can do just that. It offers step-by-step examples and quizzes to test learning. It offers homework tasks with instant feedback prescribing remediation or intervention as required. It also offers a community approach to learning where you learn from your peers as much as from your teacher. Its three stage approach is based around teaching, review and assessment, a very similar methodology to our standard direct method approach. So what will it take to provide a similar course for English language learning?
A lot of good content has been developed for English language practice and reference but there is less which can be effectively used by teachers actually in the classroom during the teaching stages of their lessons. I don’t believe this would actually be a book on screen. It might well borrow the aims, objectives, activities and syllabus of a book but would probably deliver them in a way which suited a modern digitally equipped classroom where the tablet will replace the book.
Some weeks ago I asked a group of teachers what they would do if they were trying to teach a language point but there were no books. The stages they opted for, and the methodology they chose sounds very familiar. First select an image, video, dialogue or text which contextualises the language. Next engage the class, check their current knowledge and introduce the new items. After that they would provide useful extra practice at a variety of sub-levels before encouraging the students to experiment and find further opportunities, texts or examples to help them personalise and remember.
A lot of great content is available on the internet but there is too much for a busy teacher to deal with and most of it is raw and unedited. What a good teacher of the future will need, and can then provide to their learners, is enough coherent learning objects to suit the needs of their learners, to keep the class engaged, to help them learn and practise new language all within a well-tested and graded framework provided by an expert in the provision of learning materials. These objects will be for use both in and out of classroom, allowing us finally to arrive at the ultimate course, designed to fit each individual learner with the perfect combination of print and digital publishing.