8 assumptions you need to make about using classroom technology

Assumptions, in handwritten notes, explained below (just in case… 😉 !)

In July, I teach two face-to-face technology courses for local secondary school teachers working for the Education Department of the Generalitat de Catalunya, the dates of which have just been confirmed for this summer.

In doing the spring cleaning here on my blog, partly in preparation for the summer, I came across the image above, of handwritten notes I made about this time last year, on the assumptions I make about using — or rather not using — classroom technology.

For anyone struggling with my handwriting (!), here's what the list says, with the notes expanded and commented on:

  • It's NOT the teacher but the learner that's using the technology which, among other things makes it less stressful for the teacher and puts the focus on the task and interaction not on the technology. In other words, as far as possible, technology is something that should be used for language learning rather than language teaching
  • There are lots of things that technology has NOT changed, for example you will still want linguistic aims  and language practice — lots of language practice! If the use being made of technology induces a lot of clicking and passive watching, but not much communication and active use of language, then technology isn't moving us forwards, in other words!
  • All classrooms should be creative spaces — and because technology, including mobile phones, allows us to do things like create text and images (both photographs and video) and audio [see the posts on podcasting here on this blog], we should exploit those possibilities and have our learners create such things
  • Simple is better — by which I mean that I never attempt to do, or ask my learners to do, anything complicated with technology. I never edit audio or video (at least not for class), for example, and never ever waste class time having my learners do that. It's far better — from the learner's point of view — to rehearse properly and, if necessary, to re-record as the return on investment is so much higher

It's wrong to copy and paste!

  • It's wrong to allow  students to copy and paste from Wikipedia [etc]. In designing tasks for my learners to do that will require them to use technology, I try to ensure that the answer is ungoggleable and not to be found on Wikipedia. I also always point out that copy-and-pasting from Wikipedia (or anywhere else) is an automatic zero for any assessed work. Copy-paste-cut-quote-and-cite is fine, copy-and-paste is not — because it requires neither thought nor understanding, nor any manipulation of the language, which is where learning occurs.
  • It's wrong to steal images from Google Images — both for the teacher and the learners, that is. As far as the teacher is concerned, I believe we should use fewer, better images; and as for the learners, they have the technology in their pockets to take (and find) their own images, which are of far greater interest to them than 99% of what you could find for them on the Internet. Again, I always try to design tasks that cannot be illustrated with the aid of Google. A pet hate of mine: an imaginary webquest trip to London or New York, illustrated by theft.
  • Creative Commons images are also not a good idea, for the same reasons. A Creative Commons licence may solve your problem of copyright, but it's not making your classroom a creative space and, though it may provide a modest amount of pride in our search skills, is not providing the learners with any real sense of pride in their own project work — an essential ingredient of motivation ("We made all this!")
  • It's impossible (and counter-productive) to attempt to correct every mistake. One of the most frequently-asked questions I get: how do you correct all the errors learners make on places like blogs and Edmodo? The short, simple answer: I don't! As a teacher it's not primarily my job to correct every error that arises, as if errors were cockroaches to be stamped on. It's not my job to correct my learners' language, it's my job to make their language better, by providing help as much as "correction". Here's the long answer to the question.

As you can see from the illustration at the head of this post, these were originally notes handwritten on a sheet of paper taken from the trash bin. They were merely thoughts jotted down, here somewhat expanded, but never intended to be a complete list.

What have I missed, do you think…?

Great idea for a follow-up digital storytelling project

VW Microbus

Another photo from a shop window | Photo: Kim

Here's a photo that Kim sent me after she'd tried out an idea for digital storytelling that worked quite well in one of her classes.

Kim says:

I thought you might like this [photo, above]. The project worked well but not superbly (my class are kind of complicated!) If it had worked better, it might have been fun to do a second part to the story — the sequel!

I love the photo, Kim, and the idea is great! My experience with this sort of project is that people often say "Can we do another project like that?" Always say "yes!" when they say things like that 😉 !

A sequel or prequel is a great idea. In this particular case, you might suggest the two VWs meet on the journey back (see the original diagram, here): your story is in who the passengers were and what happened when they met.

Thanks also to Ashley for feedback, via Twitter:

I replied:

It helps, of course, if teachers are creative, too!

Various other people have provided feedback on this one (Alicia, Esther, Jordi A…): thank you all.

If you do try out any of the ideas you find here, I love to hear how they went!

Fun collaborative writing task: St George and the VW microbus

VW microbus

In a shop window…

Here's just a quick idea for a digital storytelling project: Kim asked me to suggest a fun writing task ("Is that an oxymoron?" some of the teens in her class might have thought… 😉 ! )

In Catalonia, we celebrate St George's Day (known here as Sant Jordi) and in many schools they include writing competitions as part of the events, so this one had to be related — to be done with 15-16 year olds.

The VW microbus model in the image was in a shop window here in Barcelona and the aging hippy in me had to have a photo of it. I then suggested it as the starting point of the story, of which we provided the learners with the barest of bones, including this very rough one-minute sketch:

rough sketch

The story
This was how the story has been presented to the learners, who have to complete it, in groups, by Thursday:

A person (man…? woman…?) leaves Town A (why…?), driving a VW microbus to go to Town B (in what country…? how far away…?), traveling over mountain roads, as per the sketch. On the way s/he picks up various other travelers (how many fit in a VW…?) who are trying to get to (where…? why…?).

One of the people is St George, one is a dragon (not necessarily a real dragon, possibly a very fiery little old lady, for example…)

We don't know anything else: you have to fill in all the missing details, each of you in your groups being one of the travelers, writing your own version of the same story.

My thinking was that this would be an ideal project for a class blog but would also have worked well on Tackk if you don't have a blog you already use with your class. Tackk is super easy to use, though you'd need one person to post all the different stories there, or else all use the same login.

A nice simple alternative would be to use shared Google Drive documents.

The original plan was:

  1. One lesson (50 minutes) working the story/stories out in groups (varying in size from 5 to 7, approx.), with as much help with vocabulary and ideas as possible coming from the teacher
  2. Writing the stories up at home, with as much collaboration as possible (Google Drive, Skype, WhatsApp… more or less whatever tools the learners wanted to use for that)
  3. One lesson, in class, putting the finishing touches to the stories, reading everyone else's stories, commenting on them, presenting them, getting feedback on the project, etc.

Learners sometimes — often! — say they "hate" writing (these learners said that last week!) but such projects are fun to do once you get people into them.

I think I'd in fact rather do such things than anything else in a language classroom.

Project work: the books on our shelves

Books on my shelf

My bookshelf: pride of place to the novels and short stories of Julio Cortázar

I'm doing the spring cleaning here on my blog, and either trashing or publishing some old posts that I had previously not got round to publishing.

This was originally an idea on The Guardian, which had readers photographing their bookshelves and describing what was on them, and what the contents say about them.

I took the photo of one of my own bookshelves and, before showing it to a group of adults, got them to guess what they thought I'd have on my shelf. Now that was fun! We then compared their ideas with what was actually in the photo — and they then had to go away, take photos of their own bookshelves on their phones and bring them back to class the next day and got people to talk about what it said about them.

If I was going to do it again — and it was a lot of fun, and productive of language — I'd probably get them to share the photos via either WhatsApp or a (private) Google+ Community, or possibly Instagram if whatever class I was doing it with were Instagram users.

Probably also a lot of fun to do if you had one of the learners collect all the photos and share them with everyone else in the class without revealing the names, so that no one knew whose shelf they were looking at and discussing.

See also a similar idea using photos of shoes, which used Edmodo.

DRPC: discuss, research, present and comment

Slide from presentation summarising task

Above, the third task I suggested in my session at our ELT Conference last weekend, with thanks due to Rachel and Yvette for carrying out the task with their learners and providing comments on it.

I'm a big fan of what I call DRPC tasks as they seem to produce the right blend of (1) plenty of face-to-fact discussion, with (2) language being provided as and when required; and of the learners then making (3) productive use of technology for communicative purposes, without the technology taking over from the latter.

DRPC Stages

  • Discussion In the case that I described, the discussion was on whether or not the class get enough exercise — in a class of teens, theoretically B2 but some way below that
  • Research After class, they were required to confirm or refute what had been said in class, by surveying each other and other kids in other classes in the school (a secondary school in France). For the research, which they did in groups of 3 or 4, some used the amazing Google Drive forms to create questionnaires, while others used a pedometer app to record actual data. Facebook and WhatsApp chat were also used for communicating between the group and with other peers.
  • Presentation Two weeks later, the groups made oral presentations in class, each of a maximum "3 slides in 3 minutes", with a 3-5 minute Q+A slot before the next presentation. Google Drive presentations (aka Google Slides) and Prezi were used to create the presentations with most of the work on the presentations being done outside class time. Some of the class did have time to rehearse in class, giving the presentation to the teacher.
  • Comments Subsequently, mainly using Tackk, which allows your learners to create a simple web page, and works great on a mobile phone, there was quite a lot of discussion of what had been said, quite a lot too about how "cool" some of the presentations were and how they'd done certain things in them.

As noted previously, designing tasks so that maximum advantage is taken of the time available in class is important, as is having that fourth commenting stage, to get more language and more communication out of the task — and out of the technology.

Below, also from my presentation, the sort of data that can be collected with a pedometer app:

Screenshots from Pacer app

And finally, a couple more, similar activities from my own Twitter feed: