Low-tech learners

Many teachers who have tried to take an English class onto the internet have often come back with a similar problem - students who are reluctant to work on computers.

Low-tech learners - resources article

But how can we get around this?

  • Why are students reluctant?
  • Introducing the language
  • Switching on
  • Keep practising


Why are students reluctant?
It can be technophobia - fear or dislike of new technology, perhaps stemming from a lack of experience with computers. Alternatively, students may be unwilling to take part in computer-based lessons because they feel that in some way it's not proper language learning. This is often because they haven't had the relevant experience of using the internet for language learning, or indeed for anything "serious" such as studying. In some cases, even people with some experience of computers, it may just be a case of not knowing what is available for language learning.

Of course, in any one class you are likely to have a mixture of attitudes and experience, so when preparing a class to go into the computer lab for a web-based lesson, it is important to remember this when organizing groups (for example, putting an inexperienced student with somebody who has more). However, for now, let's imagine that you have a class of students who have never used the internet for language learning.

Introducing the language
The first step for an introduction to any new technology is careful exposure. Therefore a good place to start is to pre-teach computer lab meta-language. You need to identify the key terms - hardware and software, as well as relevant verbs and collocations. This need only take one lesson or so, before you even go into the computer lab. Remember to emphasise the language aspect at all times to offset any "I want to study English not IT" complaints. The next stage is to take the students into the computer room. Start with the basics: review the language with the class using the computers. It might be worth "disguising" the IT aspect by using this context to introduce/review the language of instruction giving. This language practice will be beneficial for all the learners, regardless of their technological abilities, and give the less technological students a first run at the computers without doing anything too complex.

Switching on
A good program to start students with would be a word processor - they are fairly basic and the majority of Windows programs look the same and use identical commands: file, new, open, close, cut, paste and so on. Alternatively you could go straight in with your internet browser and its basic functions. Again, the vocabulary could be presented beforehand using screenshots. Choose a simple web page which is user friendly, but which also does something without too much effort. By this I mean that a low-tech student can have a quick, clear result from their actions. Therefore, Google would be quite inappropriate - it looks simple and works simply, but the results are hard to interpret, and so not necessarily very satisfying for someone who doesn't know what they are looking. A better example would be the BBC's weather site because the learners can get instant identifiable results which they can apply to their own experiences.

Keep practising
As time goes on, use the internet regularly with your class. Introduce email to your class when they have become a little more familiar with the web. I would say this because although the basic mechanics of sending, writing and receiving email are incredibly simple, the task of setting up a free webmail address could be daunting for a total technophobe! In fact, I would say that registering on a webmail site is the only thing you could do in the students' first language just to make life easier! Of course your students may already be familiar with email anyway, or have their own email address supplied by the institution at which they are studying (for example many higher education institutions have this facility for their students).

The important thing is not to treat it as a "special" experience. Don't "do" computers in the second week of a course then never go back. This is a gradual process for all types of student. Book a regular session with the computers and set tasks each week connected to the topic you are covering. It's also important to expose students to the language learning sites. This will help maintain the language focus of internet use, so do this early on, giving your students a selection of exercise sites which they can use in their own time, or which you can send them to if they finish your chosen task early. Some sites of this type can be found on the links page of this website.

Leave a little time before you start using other aspects of internet use - for example discussion forums and chat rooms. I would personally avoid using chat rooms, except for very confident "hi-tech" students in EFL focussed chat rooms. Quite apart from the speed, which may unnerve more lo-tech students, native speaker users tend to use abbreviations and emoticons which will be very hard for students to understand very quickly. That said, some of the discussion forums at EFL web sites could be quite useful for learners, perhaps as a place to find "key-friends" or to ask for help with a sticky homework point.

Sam Shepherd, Eastbourne School of English

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