Saturday, April 20, 2013

Not Tech for Tech's Sake. Not an Experiment.

I've just read a very interesting post on Kevin Stein (@kevchanwow)'s blog The Other Things Matter entitled Tech for Tech's Sake, which got me reflecting on a similar recent experience.

This quote from Kevin's blog post will put this into some context:
Lately there have been a number of presentations at conferences and blog posts about how technology is a tool, how it should meet the needs of the students and enhance what happens in the classroom.  Most people seem to be of the opinion that tech for techs sake isn’t very useful.  But what if you really have no idea how students are going to react to a new web site or novels ways to explore English with their smart-phones until you give them the space to try it out in class? 
Kevin's post recounts his use of Quizlet for vocabulary development.  In my case, I wanted to provide more opportunities for individual speaking practice, and at the same time get students used to hearing themselves and to start to self-evaluate and self-correct.

When I first introduced VoiceThread (VT) to my beginner-elementary students I was wondering if it was worth it.  I had spent a long time setting up a VT in advance of the lesson, then, in the first lesson I had a similar experience to Kevin with setting up accounts taking up most of the allocated computer lab time.  Fortunately, some students had got in quickly and easily and helped me help others.  By the end of the lesson, every student had successfully recorded something, but most of that first session had seemed to be just me running around helping them get into VT - it didn't feel much like a language lesson.  Though in retrospect I realise there was an awful lot of authentic communication occurring.

In the second session on VT (a week later), we had a few students who had forgotten their password, or which email address they had used, so I spent a bit of time patiently showing them how to get into their accounts or recover their passwords.  But this time a lot more students got in quickly and there were many creative responses to the photos and questions I had posted in the new VT.

We still had a few problems in session 3, but it was much smoother, and by the 4th week it almost went without a hitch and nearly all the time was spent on recording, listening and commenting.  I was able to login myself during these lessons and respond in real time to the students' recordings and throw out further prompts to encourage more input.  In week 3 the students used VT to practice for their assessments and in week 4 I asked them to comment on VT about how useful they had found it for their speaking practice.  The responses were all positive, and some elaborated on how they felt it had helped them. So I felt it had all been worthwhile(*).

My only disappointments were that I didn't continue with this group, so couldn't extend this into what I had planned next, which was to have them create their own VTs; and that only a couple of students ever accessed it out of class time, though a few had downloaded the app to their smartphones or tablets.

In a way, this could have been viewed as 'tech for tech's sake'.  I certainly have the reputation at my college of experimenting with a lot of different tech tools.  While I sometimes set out unsure if an idea will work, I never feel like I'm using my students as guinea pigs, or that I'm using the tech just for the sake of it, or just for fun.  I'm usually not the earliest adopter (well, perhaps I am at my college, but I'm following in the footsteps of many adventurous teachers from around the world), but instead I carefully research and consider each new tech tool I use, watch what others are doing with it, and develop some understanding of how it supports the learners in particular tasks, in learning specific skills.  Sometimes I shelve ideas for a long time until I see the right opportunity, an ideal task, activity, theme, or group of learners suited to that idea for that tech tool.

Harking back to Kevin's blog post which inspired this post, in my 'experiment' with VoiceThread, tech did enhance what happens in class and also complemented my goals.  Once we got past the signing on issues, it also engaged the learners and they could see the benefits for their language development.  They didn't see it as tech for tech's sake and, for some of them at least, (this use of) tech did mean learning.

(*) PS: It wouldn't have been worthwhile for a one-off session - we achieved very little in that first computer lab session!


Rose Bard said...

Thanks so much Lesley for writing this post. It really put into perspective two points that are worth remembering when using tech tools to enhance learning:
1) Students need time to understand how to use it, to use it and reflect on it to maximize the benefits of the tool.
2) the authentic use of language during interactions is valuable.

I relate to much of what you said. I'll keep this post in mind while I am planning to use a new tool.

Thanks a lot.

Lesley said...

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

Your second point is important to remember, especially in a multilingual classroom. All of the interactions around getting into and using VoiceThread with this class between the learners and me (and most of that between learners) was done in English. The only thing to keep in mind, is that usually the learners themselves don't see this as part of their language development. I try to point this out (when I remember) but I think they might go away thinking it was a waste of time. That's why it's also important to use what they've learnt in later lessons. That's also hard, as sometimes it could be tempting to give up on a particular tech tool because of the difficulties of using it in the classroom.

All of this has reminded me that I had planned to make a case for my institution getting a site licence for VoiceThread and having it integrated into our Moodle. That would overcome many of the frustrations, for me and the learners. I'm onto that now!


Sophia said...

Hi Lesley - great post, a lot to think about and learn from this, eg is it worth implementing giving your time, student attendance etc., if you do is it worth keeping a teacher's list of names & passwords, the importance of setting up with the students what will happen in each session and trying to emphasize the useful language angle in set up...Very useful, thanks!

Lesley said...

Sophia, thanks for reading my post and commenting!

Yes, it may have saved some time if I had got students to tell me their VT usernames and passwords, but I am hoping to instil in students a sense of ownership, independence and responsibility for their learning, so feel that would kind of undermine that.

I didn't mention in the post the difficulty I had in the first week getting some of the students into our LMS (Moodle) even before we started on VoiceThread (I had embedded the VT into Moodle). The default password for students is their date of birth and I discovered that lots of them didn't know their date of birth! Fortunately they all had their passports with them. Just serves to remind us that we can't make any assumptions!


Anonymous said...

Hi Lesley,

I enjoyed reading this. The process you'd describe is just like the one I described in my series on getting going with Twitter. I'm utterly convinced (though I can't prove it quantitatively) that the the authentic interaction in writing and speaking that went on while setting everything up was much more valuable than my typical 1st and 2nd days of class have been. Anyway -- here's a link to one of my posts if you're curious:

I'm enjoying your blog -- keep it going!

Lesley said...

Hi Tom

Thanks for the comment and words of encouragement.

I'm also convinced about the value of these interactions from my own experience. I'm very curious about your experiments with Twitter and writing and will follow your series with much interest!