Digital skills and ELT

Digital Skills.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
Statistics tell us that 85% of pupils name communication with their peers as Reason #1 for attending school. Today even first-graders may be equipped with cell phones, iPads and other devices which allow them to stay in touch with relatives and friends on the 24/7/365 basis. Thus it may seem that children are knowledgeable enough and we do not need to do anything much to consolidate their digital skills. Actually it is not quite true. Though most kids know their way around a computer or laptop, they do not often realize that they may combine all this clicking with their EL level advancement. Even adolescents for instance would mostly or exclusively use only their native language when searching for information or texting their friends. They do not realize that they can broaden up their horizons, their general knowledge by looking up any relevant data in at least two languages, their own and the one they study. Nor do they use EL when typing all those endless messages to friends. We teachers often have to tell them that they should try and communicate in English among themselves, not only during a lesson, and that this is always good practice. Time and again I would meet several teenagers at a school city EL competition, traditionally called Olympiads in my country. Students from the region would complain that the city participants have more opportunities and thus better EL skills. I would always ask them if they knew how to use the internet, and if they ever consulted any sites in English prior to the competition. The answer sadly is nearly always “No”. Anything you ever wish to know you can find on YouTube and many other web pages. What is more, one can find the relevant information in any known language. One can use a tool like Google Translator to translate an incomprehensible text from any language into any other language. True, those translations are an approximation because they go word-for-word, but they do give one an idea of the general sense or meaning.

And then of course there is another big problem. Allow me to make a short lyrical digression. As a young child I once climbed up on a tall tree. It was very nice until I realized that I couldn't get down, and I froze. Somebody called my father who ran from his place of work. I was completely astonished when he climbed upwards very fast, still in his suit and tie. He carefully approached me, told me to get onto his back and hold tight, then went down. Once we were safely back on the ground he placed me in front of him and said calmly: "Remember, before you get in see if you know how to get out!" I remember!

Thus it came about that when a couple of very talented young teens hacked into the school system and gleefully painted beards and mustaches onto the faces of the school headmistress and several unpopular teachers, I did not rebuke them. Rather unfortunately I blurted out, "Why didn't you do it to my photo!" To which stupid remark I received a sensible reply, "What fool would do that to YOU?!" No, they had no idea how to undo their "achievement". Detention as such does not exist in the Russian school system. I managed to persuade the school administration not to call in their parents because this might result in unknown punishments at home. Instead I called a young IT consultant, told the boys they had to stay and learn, and then gave them my father's timeless advice.

Any teacher and any parent knows the universal answers children, especially teenagers, produce to an adult's questions. It is useless to ask them why they did this or that because they truly often do not know or cannot explain the reasons for their acting out. This includes digital exploits. Why did a young man hack into a military database? To see if he could do it of course. No, he never thought about the reactions, repercussions or dangers. Did you ever try to ask a child who called them, whom they were texting, and so on? "Nobody. Nothing". Children are often eager to do something, anything new. They seldom think of the consequences, nor can they formulate the aims of their "exercises". So we should perhaps pay attention to the dual sides of any digital skills usage, the first being EL and IT as the two important modern tools, and the second learning how not to do anything inappropriate, and how to undo or correct mistakes.

International projects are an excellent way to involve the whole class into a useful mind broadening activity. They may be simple correspondence, message and opinions exchange. For a higher level there are plenty of projects which are designed to last throughout a school year. Those often mean writing essays, creating web sites, making audio and video recordings, reading and evaluating what their peers from other countries wrote. In short, they help develop all the four traditional skills plus teach discipline, provide extra motivation, show the importance of following a set schedule. They also teach responsibility.

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