Do you really want to invest in 500 iPads?

iPads ! Cool !!! But what would you actually do with them in language teaching…?

On our Director of Studies (DoS) course the week before last, the subject of iPads came up, specifically what a school should do with the iPads it has already purchased.

That's in fact probably a question that ought to have been given careful consideration before the purchase was ever made and there are others, too.

Some time ago now, I was asked to advise on whether or not another language school should invest in a very large number of tablets — in excess of 500 (!), that was.

In approximate order of the urgency in which they need to be considered, these were the issues that I raised:

  1. Number 1, the provision of wifi. If the school doesn't have an excellent wifi network, providing fast, excellent coverage to ALL classrooms, I'd forget the whole idea. At IH Barcelona, we've seen a spectacular increase in the number of people using our wifi network; what was excellent a year ago is now at times swamped by the demand for it.
  2. Who is actually to buy the tablets? The school or the learners? As technical support, I'd not want to be responsible for either the security and maintenance of a large number of tablets, or the installation and updating of apps on them. If the learners use their own, none of those will be the school's responsibility. You really wouldn't want to have to do that in a school unless you had in-house technical support with time on their hands!
  3. Are tablets necessary, anyway? What percentage of the learners are bringing their own tablets and smartphones to class in their bags and pockets? If that number is anywhere above about 33%, personally I wouldn't even consider buying them as a school but get the teachers to make use of the technology the learners are bringing to class (but in that case, make sure that you've dealt with #1, above).
  4. What is their intended use? That is, what pedagogical purpose/s are they going to serve? What exactly are the learners going to do with them? And will doing that mean that they learn more, better and faster?
  5. What training is going to be provided for teachers? I"ve left this one to #5, but if the answer to this question is "None" or "It's not necessary", I'd veto the whole idea (not, regrettably, that the IT people ever get power of veto 😉 !)

Assuming that we have clear answers for 1-5, I'd then and only then start to look at what makes and models can be obtained at what price (and I would not be blinded by the bullshit about how iPads are better than anything else!).

I've not included it in the list above, as I've made the assumption that the whole idea behind buying tablets is not just to look more modern in the eyes of the prospective student! It's not just a publicity gimmick, is it? I've seen far too many "initiatives" involving technology that in essence were that, virtually all of which have been fiascoes.

All in all, I would much rather see money spent in a language school on tablets than on interactive whiteboards (now there was a gimmick if ever there was one, unless you could really come up with truly interactive actitivites for it).

But I suspect that, given that so many learners now have their own smartphones, funds would be better spent on (1) training teachers to use technology better; (2) providing better in-house technical support; and (3) on subscriptions to things like school access to OneStopEnglish (€450 a year for up to 10 teachers) and the pro versions of tools like Animoto (€120 per year), Glogster (from $39), GoAnimate (from $99) or the amazing VideoScribe ($138).

Those tools don't come cheap, but what amazing things your learners (and your marketing team!) could do with them.

10 do's and don'ts for ELT teacher trainers using technology

Too long creating materials
How to really mess up a class: spend too long preparing materials, and not give yourself time for other, possibly more important things. See also (6), below.

In the summer here at IH Barcelona we have a ELT trainer training course (this year, July 27-31), on which I have a session on technology.

These were my 10 technology do's and don'ts from that session, here slightly expanded, intended for language teacher trainers, but I would say most the same things to language teachers, too.

  1. Do keep up-to-date with technology. You want to be at least aware of how it's developing and what new tools are coming along and what possibilities they might have for teacher training and language learning (and try the most promising of them out!). Following sites like Edutopia and MindShift is a good way to keep up, with an RSS reader like The Old Reader a useful tool to keep your head above water in the avalanche of new information.
  2. Do get beyond the photocopier and printer, PowerPoint and the projector. None of that is 21st century technology, which puts technology in the hands of everyone (like your learners), not just in the hands of a select few (like the teacher), as might have been the case when technology meant chalk and a blackboard eraser. A long time ago, I disabled my own photocopy code, and have never since taken a photocopy to a language class; would your trainees become better or worse teachers if you at least restricted access to photocopiers (you could of course actually smash the photocopiers!) ?
  3. Do take advantage of mobile devices. In most of the classes I come into contact with here in Barcelona, whether with language teachers or language learners, there are now almost invariably more smart devices than people. We shouldn't be leaving such things in bags and pockets for the entire class! You want to design tasks, and get your trainees to design tasks, that will incorporate smartphones for creating things like audio (aka podcasting), video and images (with Instagram opening up some fabulous possibilities).
  4. Do model good use of technology to trainees. You can't expect them to have their learners use mobile devices if you stuck with PowerPoint and Google Images. You want to show them how collaborating on shared Google Drive documents, for example, is so much more useful, and more powerful a tool for language learners to use, than sticking with Word.
  5. Do have learners not teachers using technology. Both with language teachers and language learners, I like not to touch the technology in my class at all, ever. Instead, I put someone "on keyboard", for the classroom computer but it goes way beyond that: you want learners collaboratively creating text and images, audio and video of their own for the purposes of active learning, rather have you displaying content you've selected for them to passively listen to and watch.
  6. Don't allow your trainees to waste a vast amount of time creating materials. In our computer room, I observe so many people on CELTA courses going so wrong on this one, spending hours trawling Google Images at the expense of more important things, such as language analysis and good task design: do your trainees actually know the language they are going to be teaching and the likely problems that will come up? If they don't, they would probably be better off with their noses in Practical English Usage (and see 7, below) or Scott Thornbury's How to Teach Vocabulary (Amazon) rather than trawling through hundreds of images on Google (which in any case is probably going to provide them with the wrong kind of images). See also the image from my IWB, which begins this post.
  7. Do encourage the use of technology for autonomy and independent learning. If you are training teachers, apps like the Macmillan Sound App and the Practical English Usage app are brilliant. If you have teaching practice with them, having the trainees discreetly video at least parts of their lessons on their mobiles is also great (I recommend having a peer filming on the phone of the person teaching, who can then watch him/herself afterwards, in private). With language learners, we want to be encouraging them to use apps like Memrise outside the classroom [see also this task]; and we want to persuade them to do simple things like change the language configured on their phones to English, and do the same for any tool they are using.
  8. Do take advantage of social media. A WhatsApp group or a private Google+ Community works well with trainees. Many of the trainees I come into contact with seem to have the former set up way before any of their trainers suggest they might. The latter we use for post-course support groups (now with 3000+ people!). Both are also great for trainees to see tools they could then use with their own language learners, with Edmodo being another option, especially with young learners. See also (9), below.
  9. Do encourage the use of technology for professional development. Whoever you are training, however much teaching experience they have, as teachers we all need to go on learning to teach. You can take formal courses, perhaps online (at IH Barcelona, or with publishers like Macmillan, or things like EdmodoCon or the EVO sessions or IATEFL Online); but there's so much informal ongoing professional development that can be done on places like Twitter (assuming you follow the right people and — especially — unfollow the wrong people) or some of the IATEFL SIGs. Technology isn't really for teaching, and while it's great for learning, it can also help teachers become better teachers.
  10. Do step outside your comfort zone. Word and PowerPoint never let you down, do they? I'd better stick with them…! Er, actually, don't do that! That's the equivalent of a language learner knowing the simple present plus everything  in the word list in their first coursebook, feeling safe with that and not wanting to learn anything else new. Try podcasting! Try Google Drive!

If you were in a foreign country, you wouldn't just order chicken and chips, would you? You'd try out the local dishes, wouldn't you? And you might ask the locals, or find out online (like, on social media!), what other things you might like, mightn't you?

Technology is still a foreign country to many people old and experienced enough to be teacher trainers. But Word and PowerPoint are chicken and chips and you know what Dr. Seuss would say… !

Great BBC podcast series to recommend to your learners

One that I posted on Twitter last week, BBC Learning English Drama, which is an excellent BBC podcast series:

In weekly episodes of 6-10 minutes, they are retelling both classics and stories specially written for the series, with Jamiaca Inn the current story. Probably suited for B2 (or a good B1) and above.

As a language teacher, what more vital role do you have than getting your learners started on independent mobile learning?

Podcasts that they will enjoy and learn from are a great way to achieve just that and you want to be recommending that kind of thing!

Best practice: have your learners use smartphones to make video

Flipped learning: technology is not about the teacher does with it!

Here's on I posted on Twitter this week:

The project and competition is here (you have only until 1st June to get your learners to complete it, so hurry!) and the book is this one, Film in Action, by Kieran Donaghy, who produces the ideas for using film clips in language teaching on the brilliant Film-English.com website.

Go to any language teaching conference nowadays and you're all but guaranteed to hear someone speaking about flipped learning and how it's the Next Big Thing. I'm sorry, I just don't buy it, not for language teaching. In ELT, I don't think we're paid anywhere near enough to be producing video content, no matter how easy smartphones have made that. Now getting learners to produce the videos — as in the competition — that's surely the way to go!

Here's another brilliant example of the sort of thing learners could produce, which I also tweeted this week, from Mike Harrison:

Can your learners — not you, your learners!!! — tell a video story in 6 seconds (or 15 if you use Instagram)?

A tweet from the Innovate ELT Conference this weekend quoting Ceri Jones suggested that we should "Ask not what your tool can do, ask what it can help you to do". IH Barcelona replied:

It seems to me that real innovation, revolution if you like, isn't going to come from tinkering with what teachers do or don't do, or from what teachers do with technology, but from what teachers get learners to do with technology.

Recommended | The other titles from Delta Publishing are well worth exploring. See also two excellent ones on technology — Going Mobile (Nicky Hockly and Gavin Dudeney) and Teaching Online (Nicky Hockly and Lindsay Clandfield).

On Twitter, as @Tom_IHBCN, I post a maximum of one thing a day which I think will be of interest to language teachers and/or learners.

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.