Teaching with Technology

Embracing the fact that he is teaching the net generation, Philip Lismore describes the technology-enhanced tools and methods he uses with his students. See Ke Xu's Communities of Practice column, "CALL, Convergence, and Worldwide Collaboration (Part II)," Essential Teacher, December 2007.

Every day we all teach with technology. To illustrate this statement, I begin by directing you to a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd1LQIr--6o. Just as the book replaced the scroll, the digital projector has replaced the overhead projector, and the computer is replacing the textbook. What was the preferred medium at one time inevitably gives way to something more advanced.

I use the blackboard and a textbook to teach and distribute photocopies of any additional exercises. It worked for me, so why shouldn’t it work for my students?

That would be true if both parties, facilitator and learner, had the same experiences and expectations, but they don’t. We teach to the net generation, what Prensky (2001) calls digital natives. Their preferred means of communication are not the same as ours. Whereas we might write letters or e-mail, they SMS, send instant messages, send photographs using their mobiles, or communicate via social networking sites. If we want to engage this always-on n-gen, we must speak to them in language that they understand, with the information and communication technology (ICT) or computer-mediated communication (CMC) that they use.

I am by no means a computer expert. I don’t have formal computer qualifications, and when my computer breaks down, I phone the technician, the same as any other staff member. I work as an EFL and English for specific purposes (ESP) teacher for the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. With thirteen campuses in the UAE, the HCT, has invested heavily in computer technology, and courses are either delivered entirely online (infrequently) or, more commonly, consist of a hybrid or blended approach. CMC is used to support classroom-based instruction. As such, it helps to be familiar with technology and, indeed, HCT is about to require that knowledge of technology and its use be a part of each faculty member’s professional development assessment at the end of the year.

For my part, I teach using a blended approach. I find that students respond well to exercises using the computer, though there are times when they prefer face-to-face teaching. All my course material is delivered via digital projector and smartboard, which makes things very visual (and occasionally tactile) and allows for colour coding, graphics, animation, and sound or video to be embedded in the teaching. This type of teaching offers the added benefit of archiving your notes and photocopies in an object the size of an iPod, which eliminates the need for filing cabinets and cargo expenses.. Also, notes can be easily amended to correct mistakes or be updated as needed.

So if all your notes and exercises are on the computer, how do students access them?

HCT uses a course management system (CMS) called Blackboard (http://www.blackboard.com/; formally known as WebCT). It is the platform from which most of the material I use in my teaching is delivered. With Blackboard, students are enrolled in an online course by the instructor. The course itself has been created either by that instructor or by someone else who has then authorized that instructor to use the course.

On Blackboard, I make interactive HTML pages with Hot Potatoes (http://hotpot.uvic.ca/index.htm). It allows me to create various exercises: multiple choice (for readings, listenings, and video comprehension), flashcards, cloze test, letter- or word-ordering exercises, and crossword puzzles. I also use Dreamweaver (http://www.adobe.com/products/dreamweaver/) to make other HTML pages to present and explain grammar, and Flash (http://www.adobe.com/products/flash/) to make interactive animation exercises.

Blackboard also enables me to create tests consisting of different styles of questions, which are graded by the software before storing the marks in a gradebook. There is also a calendar that can be used to inform students of impending exams, holidays, or projects. Other features include discussion boards, e-mail, a student-tracking facility, and perhaps most important, the ability to download and upload exercises.

Why most important?

The HTML pages are useful, and students like the interactivity and the ability to log onto them anytime, anywhere, but they are still in the transmission style of teaching. While I feel that the transmission method has its uses, I also believe it has limitations. The downloadable aspect of CMC enables the teacher to engage students in collaborative constructivist learning. An example of this was a project-based learning trial in which I was involved.

Groups of four students were assigned to design a schedule for a class trip to a foreign country. This task, which was delivered over WebCT, involved considerable ICT use. Flights had to be found, hotels located, daytrips to exciting places organised, and menus at neighbouring restaurants downloaded. Although the students used some paper-based resources such as brochures and good old-fashioned phone calls, the bulk of the research was done online. Once details had been gathered, the information had to be entered on a spreadsheet and the findings had to be typed and printed before being arranged onto a suitably decorated poster for a class display. Throughout the assignment, a daily reflective journal had to be downloaded from WebCT, completed on a word processor, and then uploaded again to WebCT for the teacher to access.

This type of project incorporates more critical cognitive skills such as analysis, interpretation, and design. Learners were asked to perform authentic tasks that required their interaction with the world outside the classroom. To design and develop these products, students were furnished with the tools that would be used to create such products when they enter into society at large.

Recently, I have also turned to blogs (see http://www.blogspot.com/) as another teaching strategy. I set up Web searches or other tasks on my blog, and students have to post their replies on their own blog. Essentially, this method becomes a form of digital portfolio. Videos can  be embedded into the blog as well, which means that after the transmission aspect of whichever grammar point/functional language has been covered, students can move to freer practice and engage in role-playing activities that can be recorded, uploaded onto YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/), and then embedded into their blog. A facility also exists for group blogs, so students can also engage in collaborative exercises.

What next?

I’m interested in distance learning and how games can be used to teach. This has led me to Second Life (http://secondlife.com/), which offers all the prospects for online learning from a campus in a virtual world. At present there are quite a number of established universities catering to the 9.25 million residents of Second Life, including Harvard, Stanford, Open University, and University College Dublin. By all accounts, it offers all the functionality of current distance learning courses but with a level of interactivity and congeniality that is missing from standard distance learning courses.

All I can say is, “What does this button do?”

Reference

Prensky, M. 2001. Digital natives, digital immigrants, part 1. On the Horizon 9(5): 1–6.

Philip Lismore (philiplismore@hotmail.com) has taught in England, France, Greece, and the United Arab Emirates.