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!