The Economist Debate on Technology in the Classroom

ESL computer programs and Computer Assisted Language Learning

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The Economist Debate on Technology in the Classroom

Unread postby AskOlliDamon » 21 Oct 2007, 01:37

The Economist started an online debate today (October 20) on technology in the classroom that anyone interested in CALL should read.
Proposition: The continuing introduction of new technologies and new media adds little to the quality of most education


The two opening statements both make compelling cases and some of the many comments are very thoughtful. The votes for and against the proposition are very close too. The debate and voting closes on the 26th.

I wrote a blog post about how some of the issues brought up in the debate on technology in the classroom relate to online language learning, which is my specialty. Rather than repeat myself, you can read about it there.
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Unread postby Chopvac » 21 Oct 2007, 06:16

Experience as a teacher and as a student (both self-taught and without a teacher) tells me that technology is nothing more than a tool for teaching, not a solution, and at worst it can be a distraction. Remember that of Einstein, Pascal and Newton, none had computer assisted learning, and only Einstein had chalkboards in his classroom.

The most important part of learning is the instant feedback one gets from a teacher knowledgeable in the topic or language. Without that feedback, incorrect information learned will be reinforced and remembered. With the instant correction of a teacher, students often better realize not just what the correct answer is, but why. Learning requires the spontenaity of question and answer, of drill, of customized teaching that improvisation will allow, and computers alone cannot do that. In class teaching also allows the students to test their knowledge instantly, to form questions and sentences in an improvisational manner, something that is impossible with books only and very difficult on computers without highly advance AI programming. And last, testing should be done to check for correct information, not to reinforce it. If teachers are required to use technology to teach, some of it can become the focus of the students instead of the teachers' words, and that's counterproductive.

Myself, the only two pieces of technology I would like to have in a room are:
(1) An overhead projector, the old "acetate over a light onto a wall". It allows the teacher to face the students while writing and talking, especially important when working with young learners who are easily distracted. As well, acetate slides can be easily replaced with pre-made images, rather than the slow process of writing on a chalkboard or whiteboard.
(2) A tablet PC with good visibility in many directions. The ability to present a slideshow or "flashcards" on screen would require far less materials on hand, allowing one device to replace them all.

In my college, one classroom had both combined - my computer programming instructor could type in his examples, run them and the instant response could be displayed on the screen for all students to see. It reduced the necessity of one-on-one teaching while allowing students to learn trial and error without having to use a separate computer for each of them.
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Unread postby AskOlliDamon » 21 Oct 2007, 06:54

I don't know if you read my blog posting or not. But I largely agree with you--technology is not essential in a efl classroom, or any classroom except for a technology classroom.

Your example of an overhead projector is an excellent example of what I meant by technology being used to "solve problems." You use the overhead projector because you can prepare acetate slides ahead of time which makes the class faster.

If I used the overhead projector as an analogy for other technologies, then I would summarise my opinion this way:
Too often teachers use the overhead projector to get students interested in the lesson. They use the overhead projector because students find reading from the overhead projector more fun than reading from the chalkboard. What these teachers miss is that reading does not become inherently interesting because the teacher is using an overhead projector. However, if the teacher is willing to prepare acetate slides before class, overhead projectors do speed up the class because they can be quickly replaced.


Sorry for quoting myself, but it seemed like the best way to present the idea.
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Unread postby Chopvac » 21 Oct 2007, 07:51

The main reason I use boards is not to write material to read, but to write down the answers they give - to get them to say _their_ words and ideas, then show how to correct it, what the minor flaws are. The kids become interested because it's their words up there, not mine. As well, I also like to draw pictures, to present ideas visually. Just drawing stick figures and arrows is enough to make abstract concepts comprehensible (eg. "come/bring" versus "go/take", "lend" versus "borrow", and time and tense).

One thing that young students love to do is write the answers on the board themselves, they see it as a treat. My EFL classes have a white board, so these short kids cannot write very high on it. An overhead projector would be ideal because kids could participate in writing and write at a natural size (.5cm letters) rather than the oversized writing necessary on a white board. I also keep two individual white boards handy (40cm by 30cm) in case I want them seated instead of walking around, or if I want to write something hidden and have them guess.

To go on a bunny trail for a minute, one thing I love about whiteboards is the high visibility of the colours. I keep as many markers and colours (up to eight) around as I can for drawing distinct pictures, but also for writing sentences. When writing sentences on the board, I write them in alternating colours - 1/3/5 are green, 2/4/6 are black, etc. This makes things easy to see and less likely for a student to mixup which sentence to write. The students really appreciate this.
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Unread postby Peter Easton » 22 Oct 2007, 03:19

AskOlliDamon wrote:I largely agree with you--technology is not essential in a efl classroom, or any classroom except for a technology classroom.


Text books aren’t essential either but they sure make it easier on the teacher. Computers do the drilling and repetitive stuff, freeing up teachers to concentrate on communicative-based activities. Computers should be used in language learning as a substitute for text books.
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