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Using digital tools to help promote learning outside the classroom.

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The teacher is indispensable to ELT!

We are waiting for our flight at the airport. My husband talks quietly to his colleagues discussing a scientific project while I check in with our children, then click on various favorite links like The Free Dictionary, Teaching English and a few others. All around us people of all ages and nationalities are engaged in similar activities, talking, listening, writing, using their smartphones, iPads and other devices. The number of languages spoken is very impressive. From the pedagogical point of view, all we need to continue our work from anywhere is this one tool, one gadget which allows us to stay connected. While I am typing a colleague of mine pops up in Skype and I help her solve a minor crisis, speaking directly to her students. Such episodes are now routine for specialists in any sphere of activity.

The question of whether Skype, Zoom and other platforms are equal or at least as good as real live face-to-face sessions is fast becoming purely academic. Many teachers now use distance learning on a daily basis. For many it is a means of saving the time, among other considerations. Rather than spending an hour on a tiring commute both the teacher and their student (s) use the hour to conduct a lesson or to arrange a consultation.

Maybe even PTA meetings will eventually transition into virtuality. The parents will connect with their kids’ teachers via a program from their homes, and the teacher may also hold such discussions from the comfort of a home office or nook. E-journals and e-reports are now widely used by many schools, so there may be no need to meet in reality on a regular basis, unless there are some pressing matters or grave areas of concern, or emergencies.

Email, various instant messaging apps, forums are all well-established and accepted means of communication. A teacher may post homework and instructions, to later send out individual messages with grades and notes or recommendations. Students may send in their completed assignments, their questions and any relevant information or requests. Most final examinations are now done with regard to the future e-checks: students fill in the papers and submit them to be scanned and evaluated by a special computer program.

MyEnglishLab platform created by Longman-Pearson is similar to GoogleClassroom and several others. Depending on whether you wish to use a tool which is connected to the textbook, or to have an independent lesson, it pays to try them before usage. If your goal is to monitor and evaluate your students’ progress, MyEnglishLab is the tool for you. If you believe that your students’ skills are well-developed and they want more independence, use GoogleClassroom

. Adobe Spark allows everyone to create videos and sites using any device. This one I tried with EL teachers at various workshops, with great results. Later reports from my colleagues showed that this is a good tool to use with any age and level.

Padlet, a virtual Wall, is a constantly developing tool which is good for students, teachers and parents. It allows one to create web pages, to exchange news, to post likes and a host of other opportunities. It may act as a class newsletter.

For me, Tool #1 in education is still the Teacher. The first problem we often encounter when we begin ELT is this: most students use modern technology and various tools confidently - in their own language. We are the ones who show them how to use the newly acquired EL skills in various programs, we explain why it is important for them to read the news in English, to visit English language pages of such sites as Google and Wikipedia, to search for their favorite musical groups, TV shows and educational programs on YouTube or any other popular site in English.

Any tool, any program is created and used by human beings. Without our interaction Skype is just a web page. Unless we manage to stimulate our students none of the tools will be useful in their studies. How do we do it, how do we find a spark and nurture it? I always try to understand what is fascinating for my students, what their needs are, how hard or easy the subject is for them. Humour always helps. I share my frustration regarding my iPad’s inventive spelling, an irritating quirk familiar to anybody. No matter how many times I check my text, some of that inventive spelling often manages to seep through, and once I click “Post” I may notice some discrepancy, or worse, see it when the text is online.

What my students did, after assuring me that they were indeed familiar with this phenomenon: they scoured the recent news and made a nice little presentation of misprints and ridiculous nonsense phrases they found online. One aspect of using ICT in the classroom is always present, that of choice. There are so many resources, so many apps today, and they seem to be growing exponentially. How do we choose which ones to use, when, how often, inside or outside the classroom? This is what works for me and many teachers I meet at my own refresher courses and workshops. I choose one or two tools which I feel confident about, which really help me in my work with teachers and students. True, there are many others floating around. When my listeners ask me why I don’t use this or that one, or extol the virtues of a particular app, I always check it out. But I stick to the ones I prefer, those that showed good results in education. Not every app or program that is used in real life is a good educational tool for ELT. I am the one who initially taught my students how to search for anything online. Now they use the skills and expand on them daily.

Nina MK, Ph.D.