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Technology Conversations to Have With Multilingual Learners of English

by Brent Warner |

Technology plays an essential role in modern education and daily life, shaping how we communicate, work, and even think. Our multilingual learners of English can particularly benefit from technology, but it can also present unique challenges. At the peak of COVID-19, many teachers learned to lay out their expectations of how students should use platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, but much of that has fallen to the wayside as we return to physical classrooms or as we assume that students have “figured it all out” over the last few years. (Hint: Have you yourself “figured it all out”? I certainly haven’t.)

As teachers, we can’t assume that students understand the ins and outs of technology. In fact, it’s part of our job to teach them not only what various tools can do to help them out, but also how to use them responsibly. I know our schedules are packed and our teaching time is limited, but let’s take a look at some of the conversations we should be having with our students.

Understanding AI — How It Can Help and How It Can Hurt

I’ve been writing blog posts here for TESOL, podcasting, and giving presentations to teachers across the globe on the topic of AI in English to speakers of other languages, so I’m certainly an advocate for its use, but I can also understand why teachers are still hesitating or hiding from our new reality. Like it or not,  we are in an age of free and open access to AI in a way that even the most tech-savvy teachers thought was a decade or more away. This technology came at us without warning, at light speed, and without apology. And make no mistake — your students are using it.

So here we are. As teachers, we can help our students lean into the positive aspects of technology and learn to use it in ethical and appropriate ways.

How students will use AI will vary depending on their courses, learning objectives, and so on. I’ve found that one of the fastest ways to get students to understand the ups and downs of bots like ChatGPT is to have them experiment with it, then have them analyze the outcomes. A simple example is to have them drop in the following prompt:

Write a self-introduction for me. Make sure to include that I like [Interest A], [Interest B], and [Interest C].

Certainly any chatbot is able to write this very well in a matter of seconds, but when you ask students to analyze things like what’s missing, what was added that might not be true, and what words the bot used and whether those are all words the student is comfortable with or would use in their own speaking, they will quickly get an idea that AI can be a great way to help them, but not a good tool to replace them.

Of course, not all students will care. Bots are getting the job done, and that’s enough for them. Here we need to start guiding the conversation about why students are even learning in the first place. It’s absolutely the case that students are forced to take classes that they don’t want to take, but in the case of an ESL class, it’s important to help them evaluate (and possibly rediscover) why English is important to them. If it’s not, that’s fine too, but they need to recognize the fact. They may be of the last generations of learners in a system that isn’t fully customized to their own needs, and that can present its own challenges, and all of these are points worth discussing together.

How to Deal With Tech Overwhelm

There’s a false myth that modern students are tech savvy. In fact, any given student’s likelihood to be good with technology has less to do with when they grew up and much more to do with how they grew up. A student who grew up in a rural area with inconsistent access to the internet will be very different from a student who happened to live in a neighborhood where their government funded a “high-tech” primary school. In other words, issues like socioeconomic status, race, gender, and even just plain chance will all have a bigger impact on their likelihood of being good with tech than their age alone will.

Because of this, we need to have conversations that guide students to understand the tech they are expected to use in class. Some schools are lucky enough to have trainings that help students learn how to navigate their Learning Management Systems, like Canvas or Blackboard, but in many cases you shouldn’t be surprised to find that it falls on you. Many of your students will inevitably be overwhelmed by how much there is to learn about tech before they can even learn the contents of your class.

Here you have the opportunity to open up that conversation and share with them about your own struggles with tech. Students shouldn’t feel shamed by their lack of tech knowledge, but rather empowered by the fact that there’s so much out there to help them better succeed. It’s our job to help them shift their perspective. They may just find joy in a place where they only felt anxiety before.

Digital Citizenship: What Does It Mean?

In the English-speaking world, digital citizenship is being more and more integrated into the curriculum, but many of our students come from countries where there is little guidance about what it means to be a digital citizen. Wrapping the concepts of digital citizenship up in a unit about American online culture, for example, can help students process the expectations of your class in a much better way than it would be to say “Don’t use anime pictures in your profile pic” or “The LMS isn’t a dating site.”

Alternately, you might tie in individual lessons on digital citizenship that you can use as one-offs and build language skills around the lesson. Common Sense Media has a wonderful selection of research-backed lessons that you can use to get started. Keep in mind that being a digital citizen, just like being a world citizen, is a lifelong navigation, so these conversations should develop over time.

As you were reading the suggestions in this blog, you may have remembered a lesson you built over the last few years that you can dust off and reuse again. We all expanded our depth of knowledge on tech and learning, so let’s not let it fade away. Regardless of how you run your classes today, your students will only live in a more and more digitally enhanced world, so opening up the conversation and letting them know that both you and the technology you use in class are there to help them succeed is not only a great way to clarify your expectations, but also a great way to show you care.

About the author

Brent Warner

Brent Warner is a professor of ESL at Irvine Valley College in California, and an educational technology enthusiast. He is co-host of the DIESOL podcast, the only podcast with a specific focus on EdTech in ESL. He frequently presents on the crossroads of technology and language learning, focusing on student engagement and developing learner autonomy. Brent likes his coffee black and his oranges orange. He can be found on LinkedIn at @BrentGWarner.

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