Technology dilemmas: affordances, constraints, tips and tricks

Vicky Saumell talks about the benefits and challenges of using technology for language learning.

By Vicky Saumell

It is difficult to imagine a world without technology and, therefore, for me it is difficult to imagine a classroom without technology. But…. Yes, but. It’s important to remember that all that glitters is not gold.

Some of the benefits

I will start with the benefits I perceive as the most important.

The first is that there shouldn’t be a mismatch between the classroom and the outside world.

If we believe education is the preparation for life, we cannot forget the technology we use in our everyday life. And, of course, this will depend on the multiple existing contexts worldwide, so it’s not a matter of recommending types of technologies, but rather analysing the technological context in each particular case.

My second consideration in favour of using technology is the specific benefits for language learning.

And here I want to point out the affordances of technology to make certain tasks more dynamic and, most of all, to enable tasks that were otherwise impossible without the technology. One of the most fascinating changes that technology has enabled is the possibility of doing speaking tasks outside of the classroom by using audio or video recording apps or tools. I remember very well when speaking was confined to the classroom, and therefore its time limitations.

Another impactful benefit is the possibility of becoming interconnected with the world much more easily. Coming from a Spanish-speaking country, I also remember that my English-language interactions were also confined to the classroom as there were not many possibilities of encountering English outside of my language learning classes. We would cherish the occasional magazine or newspaper in English! No cable tv or internet to be able to see what was going on in other parts of the world. Even thinner was the chance of bumping into an English-speaking tourist! So the possibility of being able to find somebody to interact with in English, which is at hand nowadays thanks to technology, is a major advantage to language learning.

Some of the challenges

Going back to the but…it’s clear that there are some challenges too. The first and, maybe obvious one, is when technology fails. I believe this is no different than any other aspect of your lesson plan failing for any reason: you should always have an alternative plan to be able to adapt in such moments. Another aspect of this same problem is being as prepared as you can to troubleshoot your tech problem, which I will relate later to the issue of support.  

Another challenge is learning to manage the ICT-mediated learning experiences. When you bring in technology, you may also bring in new or different behaviours that need to be managed accordingly. And yet another challenge is that of keeping up to date with technological advances. For this I suggest you have a network of like-minded professionals who can recommend tools, apps and, most of all, meaningful ways of using them. It’s almost impossible to have time to be on top of everything so a sharing community is a big asset.

Another aspect worth mentioning is support. Are we teachers on our own when we integrate technology in our classes? The answer varies from place to place, and goes from “Yes, you are on your own” to “There’s a support IT department to help you”, and anything you can imagine in between. So, what should we do besides demanding more support from our institutions? As I said before, be as prepared as you can to troubleshoot your tech problems.

But how do you learn enough to be able to troubleshoot your own problems? Let’s talk about training. As with many walks of life, there are multiple pathways into educational technology. I will share mine as an example…. I have been a teacher since 1986 and I started experimenting with technology as early as 2005 or so. In 2007, I did the EVO Becoming a Webhead session and it was a career-changing experience. It opened my mind to a whole new dimension in language learning, changed my mindset and allowed me to become part of a huge community of practice with teachers all over the world.

Then came lots of reading, reading, reading and experimenting. Trying things out, working out what worked best. Eventually I decided to get a formal degree in Educational Technology in 2013. This course helped me to put my diverse knowledge into a more formal framework. And then, more reading and more experimenting and reframing according to your own contexts. I think the process is never-ending…

So my final words to anybody who is willing to integrate technology for language learning are: Be curious and take informed risks; read, read, read; try things out; reflect; try again. 
As Warren Shaver, project manager for ASTD Online Services said, “Click on everything including graphics, buttons, and links, to see where they lead. Don't be afraid to get lost, and don't worry about making mistakes. 'You can't break the Internet'”

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