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What ICTs allow English teachers to do (which they can’t do with pen and paper)

16 Sep

IMG_20150909_105424Larry Cuban has famously observed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that when the computer meets the classroom, the classroom always wins. ICTs have often been touted as disruptive agents of change in an education system which clearly needs an overhaul, but change has been slow and classrooms today look much as they did when I was a child. And yet it is not true to assert that the influence of ICTs has not been felt, or that subtle changes have not taken place – they have. An Interactive Whiteboard may be used in the same way as the blackboard of old, but it may also be used in radically different ways as well, and increasingly teachers are finding ways of using technology effectively and innovatively.

My own feeling is that if technology helps us to do something more effectively and efficiently, or if it helps us to do something worthwhile that we could not do before, then it is worth using. Otherwise it is not worth it simply to do change for the sake of change. The question for me then becomes, can my students do this with pen and paper? If so, they probably should. If not, then does the technology allow me to do something that I can’t otherwise do as well?

English teachers have been amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of ICTs in the classroom. Take writing, for example. Teaching writing is one of the key areas of concern for any language teacher. Writing is concerned not just with form: the different formats of transactional writing, conventions such as spelling, punctuation, and of course grammatical correctness. It is also concerned with genre, tone, register, lexis and of course meaning. How do you structure an argument? How do you communicate effectively and develop your own style? How do you inject a certain flair into your writing? All of these are really questions of process rather than product. There are teachers who simply get students to write an essay and then grade it with allegedly helpful comments in the margins, but most language teachers see the need to address writing as a skill to be learned.

One of the problems with pen and paper is that it cannot readily be subjected to review during the process of writing, and is difficult to edit. Writing a draft, then editing multiple times until you have a final product is physically challenging with a permanent medium such as pen and paper. Some teachers used to duplicate a student’s first draft and give copies out to peers for editing, so that a piece of writing could be discussed in class and the editing process made visible. Other teachers would form students into writing circles, where peer editing could be more easily facilitated. But again the medium itself gave scant affordance to the process.

Google docs, on the other hand, allows student to share a piece of writing with peer editors, or a teacher synchronously or asynchronously. Editors can leave comments, or even do collaborative editing. The affordances of this technology not only assist the teaching of writing as a process, they make it possible in ways it was not conceivable previously. In tandem with an Interactive whiteboard, or a visualiser, and any text can be visibly dissected and discussed in a similar way. These technologies give a flexibility to the process that was absent before. If you wanted to discuss a poem it had to be available in book or handout form, both of which take planning. Now you can respond as a teacher to the cut and thrust of discussion and bring up any text onto the IWB for immediate discussion.

Another classroom routine in the language classroom, the analysis of text, is also revolutionised by technology. When you are discussing a text with a class, a poem say, one important didactic move is how to make difficult concepts or words accessible to students. I used to draw pictures on the blackboard often so students could see what a particular archaic object looked like, to help make it more concrete. Google images considerably aids this process, and youtube videos can be found which immediately demonstrate to students what a Dickensian poor-house might have looked like, or how a paddle-steamer works – or whatever it is that you need to make visual in order to bring a text alive and make it accessible.

As a teacher I have thus found ways of using ICTs in ways which considerably enhance what I could do before, but this is hardly revolutionary. To misuse Larry Cuban’s maxim then: when ICTs meet the classroom, the classroom slowly absorbs them and is in turn somewhat transformed.

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