This morning’s blog post is slightly different in that it is aimed at fulfilling the assignment requirements of E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (EDCMOOC) from the University of Edinburgh (https://www.coursera.org/). The task is to provide a “Digital Artefact” which reflects our thoughts on the course and the questions and challenges it has stimulated.
The course aimed to examine the utopias and dystopias that surround technology and secondly, what being a “human being” in a digital age may mean and how all this applies to education. Those of you familiar with this blog will know that these themes are found throughout my postings as I mull over the tools we can use in our Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) classrooms, the tools students can use at home and how it all fits together, or doesn’t. I am constantly sliding on the see-saw between utopia and dystopia! Following the stimulation and input of the EDCMOOC here are my thoughts on how the balancing act is going at the moment.
The impact of any technology seems to be difficult to gauge until we have the benefit of hindsight. Socrates thought writing would reduce our ability to memorize, reason and ultimately diminish education. A prediction about as accurate as the paper-less office. Edison thought motion pictures would revolutionize education completely but the reality is often that the entertainment value of a movie clip in class is usually of more value than the actual content. This is possible true of much technology in the EFL classrooms I see. One clear example is the use of Interactive White Boards (IWBs) which, when the financial department allows, have become “essential” tools in our classrooms. But essential in what sense? Media determinism or audience determinism? Or simply a question of business, as companies sell the latest technology without really considering if the impact actually makes it of any real pedagogical value. As far as I know there are very few statistics that really prove technology is improving student results in the world of language learning: it may be facilitating access to information, language etc. but its use in class, I would argue, is still limited and very often not far removed from a level of entertainment: this may be motivational but is that the limit of what technology can offer EFL? Are we facing utopia or dystopia?
One point from the background readings that particularly caught my attention was that a key principal in using technology in education should start from learner’s needs and not the teacher’s needs. I would expand teacher’s needs here to include political, business and educational authorities “needs” also. The question is what do students want and, breaking that down, what do they want in the classroom and outside of it: there is an important distinction here and perhaps a key one when discussing technology in education.
I primarily teach kids and adolescents and they have grown up with all sorts of technology and can use them fluently, complete digital natives in Prensky’s vision. Nevertheless, in my classes I have reduced my usage of technology as I felt that increasingly it was becoming a “toy”, light entertainment which was actually using valuable class time pretty poorly. More importantly, I felt my students viewed it much in the same way. These kids are hooked to technology but don’t necessarily want to be logged on in class. To my mind, it is possibly a dystopia to presume that getting students to take out mobile devices and start working on them in class time is automatically stimulating, useful and productive.
On the other hand, being positive, optimistic and even dreaming of utopia, the potential for flipping our classrooms around is enormous. Encouraging students to use the technology available outside of class to research, present, explore and then use the class to discuss, analyze, talk through what we have found is enormously rewarding. And challenging! We are talking about new roles for both teachers and students, ones that we will all work out as we progress in that messy world technology is.
Socrates got it wrong, so did Edison. No one ever gets it completely right when predicting how technology will change how we function and I am not sure if that is a statement reflecting utopia or dystopia. Being optimistic I prefer the former: that is what makes us human and will keep us in charge of the machines. Of course, belief in human ability to determine rather than technological determinism does have the downside of whether or not we believe in utopias or dystopias when it comes to human nature and social development. The word and concept of Utopia was coined by Thomas More and his book was recently described as “a tall story about a nonexistent island, told by a confessedly unreliable witness.”* At the end of this course I think that remains an accurate description of where we stand when attempting to analyze the impact of new technologies on TEFL.
After that quite dense text here are two short cartoons as a summary:
Cartoon 1: UTOPIA
Cartoon 2: UTOPIA TOO
* Alan Ryan, On Politics (2012:312)