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Dave Dodgson - Learning disconnected

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If you are reading this post, then the blackout has finally ended.

If you are reading this post, then the blackout has finally ended. At the time of writing, three days have now passed since everything went offline – no internet, no mobile phone service, and only local calls from landlines. Right now, I am well and truly disconnected, possibly for the first time since the last century. Welcome to my offline world.

Most of the apps on my phone are currently useless. Much of the software on my classroom PC only has limited functionality. “So what?” you may say. “Surely you can manage for a few days without Facebook or Words With Friends!” Fair enough – many of those currently useless apps are trivial and the connected programmes I use on my class computer are not absolutely essential for my students’ learning. But this is no ‘first world problem’. This is very much the developing world and I suddenly find myself unable to connect with family or friends even by SMS, incapable of submitting this week’s assignment for my Dip TESOL online course on time, and rethinking the collaborative writing lesson I had planned using Google Docs.
It’s at a time like this when you are quite starkly shown what is important and what is not, what is absolutely necessary and what is inconsequential, what can be managed without and what would make life much easier. That is true for the classroom as well as daily life so as I sit here with nothing but Word to type my thoughts on, it occurred to me that describing how I got around this lack of internet to still ensure my students got the most of their lessons would be a good fit for this month’s technology topic.
In a way I am lucky. Here I am in Gabon, on the Western coast of Central Africa, and yet I have access to a lot of resources technological and otherwise. We have at least one PC in every classroom, two computer labs (all connected through a school-wide network), a large stock of iPads that can be borrowed for use in class, interactive whiteboards in about half of the rooms, and portable projectors for those without IWBs. That’s more hardware than any other school I’ve worked at!
That’s all irrelevant at the moment though as we can’t use a lot of it until the internet is fixed (apparently, the whole country is suffering from this blackout and the situation is not being helped by the national telecom company’s workers going on strike at the same time – the most optimistic estimates say we’ll be online again by Friday afternoon but most people seem to think it will take longer…) This week I had the following lessons planned with various groups:
  • A collaborative writing activity using Google Docs for my secondary EAL learners
  • Research for my IGCSE group into the life and works of the author Graham Greene
  • Recording interviews with staff and students about people they admire for a primary school podcasting project
  • Using a fake texting site to create a conversation between two characters for a creative writing activity with a language arts group
…all of which were affected by the complete absence of the internet. So here’s what we did instead:
Activity: Collaborative writing
What was planned: The plan was to use an image of a person from ELTpics and share it on Google Docs, where the students would brainstorm ideas about him/her to build up a picture of his/her character. Pairs of students would then write their stories on different documents before sharing them for peer feedback and editing.
What we did instead: I went through the various books in the EAL office until I found a suitable interesting face, photocopied it and stuck it on the whiteboard. The students then brainstormed on the board before getting into pairs and writing on paper. They then exchanged papers with other pairs who made their comment using Post-It notes.
Did the lack of internet make the lesson harder? It certainly made finding the picture harder! This took me about half an hour compared to the usual few minutes of browsing ELTpics. However, the students liked the communal feel of writing on the board together (eight students made it manageable) and the writing task went well also. I used Post-Its to avoid accusations of other groups ‘spoiling’ work by writing all over it but still the peer feedback and checking was a much messier and elongated process. Google Docs was definitely missed here.
Activity: Research into the life of Graham Greene
What was planned: Simple really – using the iPads the students (only two of them) would look up Graham Greene and report back to me on what they found out.
What we did instead: Our first port of call was the library but there was nothing on the author other than brief write-ups at the beginning or end of his books. We noted down the basic facts and then thought of questions we could ask to find out what we didn’t know. We then interviewed the English Literature teacher to see what she could tell us. Our reading of some of Graham Greene’s short stories was then brought forward.
Did the lack of internet make the lesson harder? It was harder in the sense that we couldn’t find out much information (I wanted them to research the background to the stories we were going to read as well for some context). However, until there was no internet available, I hadn’t even though of getting them to write questions about what they would like to know. On reflection, this would have been a better starting point than just giving them the iPads and telling them to Google it and it’s something to remember for next time.
Activity: Recording interviews
What was planned: Go around the school with iPads and interview people about their heroes, edit the recordings in the computer lab, and put them on the blog as podcasts.
What we did instead: Pretty much the same! We actually made use of my phone in the end as I could very easily transfer the files to my laptop. We then edited them together (this is a small group of four kids so it didn’t take too long). Even though uploading to the class blog is not possible right now, we still did the task and each student took a copy home on their USB sticks to share with their families.
Did the lack of internet make it easier or harder? The rethink brought on by the blackout helped me simplify. Instead of each student using an iPad and then transferring from four devices to four computers, we used my smaller, lighter phone and one PC and got the job done with less potential for technological hiccups along the way.
Activity: Creating a fake texting dialogue
What was planned: Using the characters from stories written in class the previous week, we were going to create fake text exchanges using (website) as a way to creatively retell the events and relate the characters’ reactions.
What we did instead: We did it on paper! Using A3 sheets, the students mocked up a text chat page and put speech bubbles from their characters down the facing sides of the page. They took a lot of care to ensure their papers looked authentic with the bubbles coloured differently and even a few ‘auto-correct’ misunderstandings!
Did the lack of internet make it easier or harder? It possibly took longer to do it this way as much time was spent on design and colouring and there were a few sheets of paper scrapped as the dialogue was started again. However, although the lack of internet meant it took longer and required more effort to get right, this seemed to add to the sense of ownership the students felt. Having painstakingly crafted the dialogue by hand, they felt a great deal of satisfaction in what they had done. Each dialogue also looked different rather than uniform which helped add to the sense of individual acheivement.
So, has the blackout affected our classroom learning in a negative way? Not really, we still did the tasks and they still got a lot out of it. The real differences were speed, as many activities took longer when done by hand and some tasks involved a lot of preparation time for me and my students. Technology is really just a tool. It doesn’t transform learning or somehow make it easier. It just makes it quicker most of the time. However, that can also come at the cost of individuality and creative thought…
Online documents still rule for collaborative writing though!
I hope I can see this post and your comments online soon…. ;-)