The Teacher Development and Learning Technologies SIG Joint conference in Istanbul in May, entitled “Developing with and without technology”, explored the role of technology in our development as teachers. Gavin Dudeney referred to the innovation cycle where a period of frantic enthusiasm is followed by acceptance and even disillusion. This is where we are with technology. Now we know how the Internet, IWBs, social networks and so on work and have been duly excited by the possibilities they appear to offer, we seem to be entering a reflective phase—what exactly is the point of it all for learners and teachers in their classrooms and for teachers outside class in their personal and professional development?
Workshops and plenaries inevitably offered a range of perspectives on this question.
The event benefited from the combination of the two SIGs, which brought diversity and some controversy as unplugged dogmatists and tech fans came together for an event hosted and organised brilliantly by Burcu Akyol and her team at Yeditipe university in Istanbul. Over 500 delegates were present as well as some excellent plenary speakers including Scott Thornbury, Gavin Dudeney , Lindsay Clandfield and JJ Wilson.
The incorporation of an Open Space Technology (OST) option, which attracted about 40 delegates, was a highlight for me, bringing together as it did international speakers and local teachers in discussions of key issues relating to the theme of the conference.
Open Space Technology, by the way, is a kind of discussion forum where delegates table and debate issues of particular interest to them, relating to the conference theme. The law of two feet says you can move around freely leaving and joining the multiple discussions that develop as takes your fancy. Interestingly, this is a pretty much replication of what happens with discussion forums and blogs where we lurk and post online according to our fancy. An example of the two-way relationship between technology and human behaviour.
The great thing about OST is that it can take you somewhere you didn’t expect to go. What I learnt from this particular OST discussion was that, for the Turkish teachers I spoke to at least, the main issue is not technology at all; it is assessment. The challenge they have in their work is that their teenage students are focussed on passing a discrete item grammar test at the end of the course. Success in this will help them move forward in the education system. Their interest therefore in developing an ability to speak English, which is what their teachers would like, is either limited or compromised by the fact that it will divert them from academic goals.
The Turkish Government has recently promised every child a tablet as a signal of their commitment to education, as Brendan Wightman pointed out in his closing plenary. Buying technology may help governments impress their electorates but how much this investment will contribute to language learning is less clear if it only entails moving gap fill exercises from paper to electronic format. And its not just Turkey of course. I have heard similar stories in Spain, China, Latvia, Italy… just about most places where English teaching happens.
One rather bold solution might be to kick English off the assessed curriculum altogether. The law of two feet. This might free up teachers and students to spend time learning to speak the language or choosing to do something which interests them more. In any case, until we deal with this elephant in the room, the choice between an interactive whiteboard and a scratch in the sand seems relatively unimportant.