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Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction?

Smiling young woman on computer vs frustrated woman on computerZöe Handley, our resident EFL technology guru, considers the notion of the so-called “digital natives / digital immigrants” divide and whether such a divide exists between learners of English as a foreign language and their teachers.

Ever since I became aware that the digital natives / digital immigrants opposition is having a negative effect on teachers’ confidence in their use of technology in language teaching, the topic has frustrated me. In this post, I will explain why.

Where did the terms digital native and digital immigrant originate?

The terms first appeared in Prensky (2001). In this article, Prensky argued that an unsurmountable digital divide has developed between the young who have grown up with technology and older people who have become acquainted with technology later in life; and consequently between students and their teachers. Prensky coined digital natives to refer to the former and digital immigrants to refer to the latter and argued that, as a result of interacting with technology, digital natives “think and process information fundamentally differently” (Prensky, 2001: 1) to digital immigrants.  Digital natives, according to Prensky, process information quickly, enjoy multi-tasking, and enjoy gaming, while digital immigrants process information slowly, working on one thing at a time and do not appreciate less serious approaches to learning. This divide, Prensky argued, is the greatest problem facing education today and teachers must change the way they teach in order to engage their students.

In other literature this generation has been referred to as the Net Generation (Tapscott, 1998) and the Millennials (Howe & Strauss, 2000) and more precisely defined as those born on or after 1982 (Oblinger, 2003).

Prensky’s ideas have since influenced policy-makers and many researchers have adopted them as their point of departure. But, what evidence is there to support the native / immigrant divide?

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Harnessing the power of Web 2.0

Network cable connectors plugging into a blue Earth globeHaving considered the impact of Computer Assisted Language Learning and Computer Mediated Communication on the EFL classroom, Zöe Handley now examines how Web 2.0 technologies are changing the way students learn.

To begin, let’s look at the two main features which distinguish Web 2.0 from Web 1.0:

The first is the possibility for any web-user to create web pages for themselves without needing access to dedicated software and without learning to code in HTML. Wikipedia is probably the best known product of the ‘user-generated content’ revolution.

The second defining feature of Web 2.0 is its ‘social dimension’ – its ability to link together networks of users with common interests. Facebook is perhaps the most popular application of this type.

But what does it mean for teachers of English as a Foreign Language?

User-generated content

The ‘writable web’ (Kárpáti, 2009) has drawn attention from EFL researchers for a number of reasons. Firstly, it makes it easier for teachers and students to publish their writing, which means it is easier for teachers to set up authentic writing activities with “a real purpose and real audience” (Mak and Coniam, 2008: 438). Secondly, outside education, the ease of publication and the social dimension of Web 2.0 have encouraged users to communicate through writing; and in large quantities, too (Kárpáti, 2009). If this can be harnessed in EFL teaching, Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis, blogs, and fan fiction sites (e.g. Live Journal) have the potential to overcome one of the greatest challenges teachers face – getting students to write! Finally, technologies such as wikis, which keep a log of edits to an article, provide students with a ‘window on the writing process’ (Karpati, 2009).

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Computer Mediated Communication: Bridging the gaps between writing and speaking

Teenage girl typing on her laptopFollowing on from her first post about Computer Assisted Language Learning, Zoe Handley considers the technologies used by language learners to communicate with educators and other learners.

Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) is the broad term for technologies which allow language learners to communicate with other learners or native speakers through text or audio.

Including e-mail, discussion forums, text messaging, chat and conferencing, CMC has attracted a lot of attention because of its potential to break down Krashen’s (1982) acquisition/learning barrier. According to Krashen, there is a qualitative difference between the subconscious process of acquiring, or ‘picking up’ a language, through interaction with native speakers and the conscious process of learning a language in a classroom through focused activities. While acquisition results in learners ‘knowing how’ to use the language, learning results in learners ‘knowing about’ the language – and apparently it is not possible for learned knowledge to become acquired knowledge.

Chat – text vs oral

The potential to provide students with opportunities to engage in acquisition particularly applies to synchronous voice chat – the type of chat which allows learners to engage in real-time conversations with native speakers.

Consequently, research has focused on comparing chat and face-to-face conversations to assess whether chat provides learners with the right conditions for acquiring language. Does it provide opportunities to negotiate meaning, for example?

Research by Lee (2001) confirms that chat does indeed allow learners to engage in these forms of interaction. In fact, it has been observed that in text-based chat, learners are more likely to focus on form than in face-to-face communication (Warschauer, 1997).

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Evaluating Multimedia Language Learning

Young man working at a computer and smilingZöe Handley is an OUP Research Fellow in Applied Linguistics at the Department of Education, Oxford University, which has recently conducted a systematic review of the research on the use of new technologies in EFL, particularly at primary and secondary level. This post is the first in a series to introduce and examine that research. An accompanying video interview with Zöe will be available soon.

Multimedia has long been used in language learning to respond to students’ different learning styles, but what evidence is there for its effectiveness?

In our review, we identified nine studies involving multimedia. The majority focused on vocabulary. I will use three of these studies to illustrate the available evidence for the effectiveness of the use of multimedia in language learning.

All three studies present positive findings with respect to the use of multimedia, but to different degrees. Let’s take a look at each study in turn.

Broad media comparison

The first study is an example of a broad media comparison in which multimedia software is compared with traditional classroom instruction.

The study (Tsou et al., 2002) compared a word learning system which integrated graphics and animations to illustrate function words with traditional classroom instruction. It found that students who received multimedia instruction improved more and were more motivated than those who received traditional classroom instruction.

Single media comparison

The second study is an example of a media comparison which focuses on just one medium, namely video. It compares traditional instruction plus video with traditional instruction alone.

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