David’s post discusses how he managed to implement an extensive drive to include more technology in his classes and how the arrival of netbooks, IWBs and video feedback has impacted both his own work and that of his students. He has also kindly provided some videos of his students talking about their experiences with the new technology as well as an example of his feedback. Plenty of food for thought here and we look forward to your comments!
When considering where we are now at a crossroad for change in ELT, I am reminded of the opening line of a classic piece of English literature, A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens,
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope...Dickens wrote this more than a hundred years ago with an aim to inform through narrative commentary about the terrible state of affairs with social deconstruct, authoritarian regimes, huge gaps between rich and poor and a general sense of little hope for the European peoples at that time. However, if we look at his narrative there seems little change in the general world scheme of things since that time, and it is with that I would like to parallel his observations into our world of ELT.
I believe that we have had the worst times, and the best times are upon us when we, as ESL educators and ELT practitioners have the opportunity to make serious and fundamental changes in our teaching practices to make a difference to the students we face every day and give them hope. I write of course about how better teaching practices and the embracing of ICT can help us all to move out of the Darkness and into the Light.
My allusion to Dickens nearly ends there, although always on my mind, so that I can give forth a reason to believe that we as progressive educators can move with the (best of) times and develop as tech-savvy teachers in order to engage our students in quality lessons that include the wonders of ICT and web 2.0 applications.
But before I can tell of my eureka moment, and how I changed my approach to teaching, I would first like to give some background to my own situation. I moved to Turkey in the Spring of 1996 with my CELTA firmly in hand hoping to change the way ‘foreign’ students adopted and learned English. I had the course books, the grammar books, the realia prepared in CELTA projects and, of course, the buzz-methodology at the time: Communicative Approach with the focus on the PPP paradigm of methodology as my main tools for the job. I felt good. I believed in myself that “I could not fail”(!) Well, in fairness, that self-confidence and over exuberance did bode me well for the first few years. But increasingly I could see that the method was flawed in many respects and that students more often than not baulked at its very core, since they had grown up in a school system that did not cater to such “whimsical” notions of pedagogy. Students became disengaged and disenchanted with my style, and more alarmingly for myself I became less and less of a teacher as I simply could not fully engage my students, thus becoming disengaged myself. I recall the five stages of grief to further illuminate my point: DENIAL, ANGER, NEGOTIATION, DEPRESSION and ACCEPTANCE. I was going to work stuck in variations of the first four states of mind and practice. The fourth stage ultimately taking over and making me a very unhappy teacher. It was not until the summer of 2007 that I finally came to the decision to change; it was either make the change or give up teaching for good. I enrolled in the Aston MSc TESOL Distance Learning programme, and it was then, throughout my R & D, that I saw the extraordinary opportunities for us as teachers to embrace the use of technology and start to make changes in our teaching practices.
By sheer definition of a distance e-Learning programme I was involved in working alone (for the most part since the Aston programme was set up in such a way that people enter at various times of the year and course, therefore, the collaboration for different modules at different times meant it was difficult to find study-pals), which, yes meant that I did feel very isolated and vulnerable (boohoo), but it also meant I had to dig deep and find the resolve to make it work (I know now that Aston has set up an Istanbul office to reduce this trauma). But it was who had chosen to make a change; I had decided I needed to be a better teacher, and I had realised that if it was going to work, I had to do it. This sense of ‘I’, autonomy and self-motivation can not be underestimated in the human framework. It is something for me that I have experienced and which has taught me that in order for students to do the best work they can, they have to want it themselves. Without it we are raging against an indestructible machine; thus it is imperative that we as teachers transfer the learning to them; instil in them the need for autonomy and ownership of their own progress and learning curve.
David at his Masters graduation - there is light at the end of the MA tunnel!
The school where I am now currently employed has a strong and clear vision for the future. The IT department is intent on getting to grips with technology for the classroom. So much so that it was decided to set up a pilot-program for the floundering Hazırlık (preparatory) program. I say floundering because of the lack of a properly structured curriculum that allowed students to develop and grow for the year that they were involved doing twenty hours of English a week. After much deliberation, we came up with one student - one netbook, and IWB for both classrooms, surround sound and projectors. This was supported by an online ESL software package that would allow me to use both e-learning and classic styles of teaching, in and out of the classroom. The time was extremely exciting and full of nervous energy. I went into the classroom in those first few days of semester one, 2010, with a passion I hadn’t felt for years. Could we make the Hazırlık students more engaged? Could we get them to further develop their English skills and learning curve? Would the investment and effort be rewarded with success and a fruitful learning environment? Well, the answer: Yes, and No! (at least at the beginning)
The initial feelings of dismay from the students still sticks clearly in my mind. They simply could not believe that they had been given a netbook that they were allowed to use in class at all times. They were in shock that a teacher and school would simply hand over the hardware, software and transfer of educational ITC-knowledge to them; students who had gone through a system where they had been criticized for failure, criticized for not learning and criticized for not wanting to participate. Other students passing the room with everyone involved busily on their netbooks was heard to say, “Yaa, Hazirliklar, şu eğitim, internet café gibi!” (Urgh! This prep program is more like an internet café). I instructed them on what was allowed and what was not, i.e. proceed with the work on your netbook and focus on the tasks in hand. First Mistake! I had naively assumed that since we were giving them this opportunity to work with technology, and full internet access that they would simply follow suit. THEY didn’t! I was increasingly finding that Facebook and other social interests were infiltrating their workspace. Even students who would normally be engaged anything up to 100% of the time in classwork would be directing their attention to the ‘fun’ part of the internet and not doing the ‘fun’ classwork I had assigned. After one month of this disappointment I called for a meeting with the administrators warning them of my observations and insisting we had to put in more structured policies and directives for the students. Note, dear colleagues, this is a major warning to those of you out there considering a switch to technology. Make sure you have all your bases covered. It is imperative that the students know what, why and how they are expected to use the technology. Of course, I warned them from day one what was expected, but teenagers as they are, rarely listen at the outset. So, please take my experience as a lesson, have the students gradually introduced to the concept, let them get their heads round it, and then further integrate the technology. For this year I aim to only give one period a day over to the netbooks for the first month until they see it is a benefit for their learning, not as an excuse to surf the net for their very different means, thus disengaging from the lessons: the very thing I was fighting against.
That was the downside. Now for the upside, and what an upside it is. Having watched and observed Hazırlık classes for fifteen years I have seen lack of interest, disengagement of all students, lethargy, boredom and of course serious discipline issues as a result. I can honestly say that apart from minimal discipline issues (and these would have happened no matter what, with the personalities concerned) all of the above were completely eradicated by the use of technology in the classroom. Not only were the netbooks an overwhelming success in getting students engaged for the whole year, but also with the daily use of the IWBs. Even if people reading this cannot get netbooks to the students, please fight to have IWBs in your classrooms. This is something that has so transformed the atmosphere and interactivity of my classes that observers have been amazed. I was probably observed twenty times this year as news filtered through that what ICT and IWB, netbooks and technology were doing to this student-demographic. Traditionally, Hazırlık has been viewed as a place that only the most robust of teachers can deal with. However, it is a place where those experienced teachers amongst us will do anything to avoid. I know, I was one of them. Even as an HoD, I remember allowing teachers to do whatever they had to do in order to survive. Now, it is different. Teachers now want to be a part of it. Teachers from primary through to high school are coming to observe the dynamic environment; administrators are walking away with smiles on their faces knowing that they have made the right choice to invest in the tec. Of course, I know that it takes a teacher with enthusiasm to drive such a program, and it also takes a teacher who knows a bit about the technology. But that should not put anyone off. It is there for us all to adopt and adapt to so that each year group can have the same experience as my Hazırlıkkers (sic). However, I must stress that it is no good for schools to simply buy in the equipment and hope for the best; believing that teachers will simply make the leap. It is imperative that substantial professional development workshops are put in place before the technology can even be remotely considered.
It is with this final point that I come to the importance of getting it right, before you can get it right. I learned a lot from my experience last year of simply putting the equipment in place and software to boot, in the hope it would work. It didn’t! It took a readdressing of the issues after the initial month to set it right on track. This year, I will be implementing classic styles only with a leaning towards the technology (primarily in respect of netbooks) at the outset. On the other hand, I will be using the IWBs from day one. I will be using the ESL-software daily, but only for one hour until the students are used to the concept. I will be introducing Moodle, Edmodo and a wiki (to be called Wikilık), Triptico, Visual Thesaurus, and Video Feedback via Camtasia plus a plethora of wonderful ICT tools acquired via Twitter (btw, the greatest ELT platform that I have yet to find and use). I believe that with the experience of one year doing this at the classroom level, and still a novice for sure, I will continue to make changes in respect of further engaging my students and making them see how technology can make their learning experience a truly ‘fun’ one. Alluding one final time to Mr Dickens, I do strongly believe it is a time of hope for us all, and if we simply decide to make a personal change as teachers we can make a difference and accept that if we are to succeed it is entirely up to us to take us out of the dark and into the light.
David Mearns MSc TESOL
David Mearns is originally from the north of Scotland and has spent the last 15 years in Turkey as an English teacher. He is married to a great woman from Izmir who has supported him through it all as he tries to convince people of the need for continuous change and personal growth.
David doesn’t have his own blog at present but he is considering it (and I think you’ll agree he definitely should get started!)
In the meantime, you can follow him on Twitter: @davidmearns