Ode to Technophobes

This week’s guest poster is Richard Osborne: podcaster, teacher, teacher trainer and all-round tech-savvy guru. If you struggle with integrating new technology into your teaching, he has some excellent advice, in his own inimitable style…

The global digital transformation has been on my mind these past few days. Yesterday came some of the most perfect examples.

On my way home to my sleepy little country town of Montignac from the big smoke of Perigueux, I thought to myself, “Hey, remember that new car radio you were thinking of buying for your tired old frumpy Opel Meriva, when you immediately opened your phone to look on Amazon like some sort of Mark-Zuckerberg-conditioned drone? Why don’t you take advantage of your being in the big city and go to one of those things… whatya-ma-call-it… a brick-and-mortar store, yes, that’s right.” So I quickly tapped “Norauto” (yes I actually remembered the name of a brick-and-mortar store, showing my age there) into my Waze navigation app on my phone.

Yes, ok, my anti-technology example hinged upon a bloody piece of technology. Otherwise what the hell else would I have done? Should I have wound down my window and asked some poor downtrodden serf walking the streets where the nearest Norauto was? Hoping she’d lift her head from her Instagram long enough to comprehend what I’d said. Waiting patiently for her to unfurl her grand map of Perigueux from her pocket (don’t be ridiculous, girls don’t have pockets) in the rain and start reading me out turns and road numbers? Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but even more ridiculous still is what would have actually happened in this scenario. She’d have simply typed “Norauto” into her own bloody Waze app, probably press some magical button that’d beam that information into my own phone, thus negating the whole process of asking in the first place.

Anyway, back to reality please. Where was I? Oh yes. Being guided by my wonderful Waze app, which is updated live with traffic information from other people who are also using the Waze app (and vice versa. Yes, take my personal information, take it all!), it spontaneously changes my route to avoid traffic jams, speeding towards my mysterious destination.

I was awash with excitement. Would they have the product I sought? Who knows. That’s the fun of it, isn’t it? Driving twenty minutes, spending petrol at €100 a litre, just to arrive at one of these once illustrious institutions of commercial frivolity, and finding they don’t ‘stock’ the product you seek. That state of not knowing is what makes it worth being human, ticking my brain’s anticipation sacks only to experience the full spectrum of crushing disappointment at the phrase, “Ah… sorry Sir, I’ll have to order that part in for you…”

Where was this slightly pungent employee going to order the part from, dear readers? You’ve guessed it. From the bleeding internet of course! Yes, that’s right, brick-and-mortar stores today are basically the physical click-and-collect points of the digital world. I give up. Amazon, here I come! [insert picture of Jeff Bezos laughing smoking a cigar in a tall leather chair please Tamara]

That’s not all. During this ill-advised foray into the good-old-days, I was listening to my favorite French radio station – France Info. Coincidence of all coincidences, they were talking to a representative of the police of Nice about a test the municipality conducted last year of a new facial recognition system using the city’s CCTV cameras.

The police rep couldn’t have said it better, and I paraphrase, “At first we thought this would never work, that you can’t replace a real human police officer when it comes to identifying a suspect in CCTV footage. After the test we’ve absolutely changed our minds. Furthermore, we realised that there are roles where technology can greatly alleviate the work of police officers, and areas where a human officer is absolutely irreplaceable.”

For me these are two examples show what’s happening in our world in terms of fear of technology turning to wondering how we ever did without it. I may be a self-confessed geek who runs head-first towards anything new, throwing caution and common sense to the wind, but there’s not much more to my technological prowess than that. I’ve never taken a training course in technology, I didn’t study computer programming in university. Back in my day (preach, old man) when I was in secondary school, the furthest we got was ‘word processing class’, where we sat and typed out printed texts into Microsoft Word for about 2 hours a week. It was hell, but by God did it teach me to type as fast as a German milkmaid on acid. Yes, I’ve lost you there, let’s move on and pretend that never happened.

The point that I’m very unclearly trying to make it this: Technology should be evaluated for its usefulness throughout the spectrum of human activities, but we must put measures in place to help ease people through the transition without fear leading to being left behind. Language teaching is no exception.

On that same radio show yesterday, a teenager talked about how one of the major changes in her school was that this year students at her school have no paper textbooks anymore. Not one. The state has paid for every single secondary student to have a tablet computer. All school materials are now online. If you’re the reactionary English teacher in one of those schools, clutching your copy of New English File in the supply closet, moistening its decade old pages with your tears, you must be #$%@ing bricking it.

This is why I’m writing this article. I’m looking at you, my nervous language teaching colleague, and I hear you. “I’m rubbish at technology, I’ll never be able to keep up with all these gadgets and doodads, what am I going to do?!” I can tell you, right here and now, you’re wrong. You can absolutely and easily catch up and use any technology you want. You just have to be like me – go running towards the technology head first, to hell with the consequences, to hell with people who think you’re ridiculous and mock you with such zingers as “How can she not even know how to type with all her fingers??” The hidden truth of the internet is: You’re not alone.

My job involves teaching freelance language teachers of all ages in France and abroad about how to use new technology in their language teaching. I can tell you from vast experience that a majority of language teachers, regardless of their age, don’t know how to use the same technologies you currently fear are coming to take your job. It actually surprised me how much this ratio of 5:1 – teachers who are comfortable with technology to teachers who are not – doesn’t change much based on age. I’ve met 60-year-olds who are miles more tech-savvy that some of my 20 -year-old teacher trainees.

In reality, there’s only one thing that separates them: Being able to get over the irrational fear of new things and simply go for it, try the technology out, push buttons and break things, make a mess, and slowly learn how the thing ticks.

Take Google Docs for example. I had a teacher trainee yesterday talking about Microsoft Word documents she’d created that, now she’s teaching at a distance, she’d like to share with her learners. Before she used to send them by email, asking the learners to write their answers in the document and send a copy back, to be corrected and once again sent to the learner. What she ends up with are three versions of the same document in an email chain. This is not in itself a complicated thing to manage, but once she starts doing it with 5, 10, 20 students at a time, it will become a logistical nightmare. She could, in theory, organise her email inbox into folders and be rigorous in storing students’ work in the correct place, but this would almost require as much effort as it would learning how to use Google Docs in the place of Microsoft Word.

The advantage of Google Docs is you can import your existing Word documents directly into your Google Drive and convert them without losing much formatting. Afterwards, you’ll have an original document that can be edited live by one or more of your learners. How they edit it is up to you. They can be given permission to simply ‘comment’ the document, that is to say, they can modify and add text, but the original will not be changed. The teacher can look at the modifications, give corrections in the form of comment replies, then erase them to return to the original unmodified text, ready for the next student to complete. They can equally be allowed to modify the original document as if they were they author. Even then, each modification is stored in a huge list of historical changes, each one able to be consulted and restored if necessary.

This means the teacher will now only have two version of the same document: One master version, stored safely in a private folder, and one duplicate version added to a student’s shared Google Drive folder for editing. Even if you think this is only a minor improvement on the original emailing Microsoft Word documents method, I can tell you that this basic transition into the sort of ‘neo-digital’ realm of using free, web-based software, will open up a world of possibilities for you.

For example, you can experiment with the Google Docs extension Kaizena (plugin available from the ‘Chrome Store’ in Google’s Chrome web browser). This plugin allows you and your learners to not only edit documents together, but add self-recorded spontaneous audio comments to parts of the text. Imagine the possibilities for replying to production questions that up to now could only be completed using writing skills? Suddenly, “Use the present perfect to describe a recent holiday you had,” can be answered as a speaking activity – for homework. This was an absolutely mind-blowing experience for me the first time I tried it, and now I encourage my learners to record themselves as frequently as possible in preference to writing their answers to my own homework activities.

Why not move on to experiment with Google Drawings, Google Sheets or Google Slides? These are an online whiteboard (admittedly very basic), an online Microsoft Excel and an online Microsoft Powerpoint respectively. Every application is free, and you can add links between individual documents through the ‘add link’ function which searches through your existing file from any of the other platforms. Why not branch out from Google, and experiment with Quizlet, Memrise, and Padlet? These are a flash-card quiz application, a spaced-interval vocabulary memorisation application, and a social link sharing board respectively.

I could go on, but my objective here is not to overload your brain with the possibilities of technology. I know there’s a point where I’ll scare you off. If you can even experiment with just Google Drive and Google Docs, I’ll be happy. These could be your first personal challenges of confidently charging towards new technologies, spending a good hour testing each of them, pushing all the buttons trying to make it make you a cup of coffee, to know in the end what it can and can’t do, where the bugs are, where it works well and where it doesn’t. In doing so, you’ll remove all embarrassment from future use of such technology with your students. Through one hour of simply imitating the autodidact baby smashing, chewing and throwing a new toy around to learn entirely through doing, I guarantee you’ll know more than 90% of the people you intend to use it with.

5 thoughts on “Ode to Technophobes”

  1. I teach English language in Nigeria. The major challenge I face is having to cope with large classes and I believe Technology could help ease that stress. I like to learn more about the use of Google Docs, Google Forms and other digital tools to alleviate my burden. I need your help to learn the use of digital technology in teaching English language. In addition, the teaching of Speech, pronunciation, listening speaking, are also areas I need digital technology.

    1. Hi Jacinta,
      If you click on Richard’s name at the top of the post, you will find contact details if you want more help from him.
      So glad you find the post useful – the aim is to help teachers!
      Pass it on…

    2. Hi Jacinta, thanks for commenting.

      Large classes using technology can be tricky. One of my main worries was, “How will I be able to interact a little with each learner to motivate them to engage with my online activities, while not going way over the amount of time I’m being paid to spend working outside of classroom time?” I know a lot of independent and contracted teachers I work with have the same worry.

      I think one solution you could take a lot of inspiration from is the Huggins International 30 day speaking challenge: http://hugginsinternational.com/30dayspeakingchallenge/

      It’s the finest implementation of what’s called ‘social learning’ that I’ve ever seen. Jonathan Huggins who runs the programme adds challenges every week to Google Docs for learners to come and complete by recording themselves and pasting a link to their audio for everyone else to listen to. There’s a Google Doc for every language, and people who speak that language more fluently come into the Doc to correct people who are just learning. Jonathan has made it so popular and efficient he’s able to offer it for free, as he doesn’t personally interact with the groups himself, apart from setting challenges and giving some overall guides and feedback on how people are learning.

      I’m not saying you should do the same thing, but social learning puts the responsibility and time pressure on the learners and not on you, the teacher. It’s one way of being able to get a large group to work online individually without you giving them individual attention and using up a tonne of teaching time you might not be paid for.

      If you want to chat more I’d be happy to chat to you, send me an email at richard@osbornesolutions.co

  2. Hi Richard,

    I already know how to use google docs (hooray!), google forms (because I attended one of your webinars) and padlet (recommended to me on my CELTA course). I feel like I know so much now after reading this article! Padlet was great but some of the kids I taught just couldn’t work out how to create an account and get onto it. I brought some computers into the classroom and spent a whole lesson on it, but some still couldn’t do it… The problem with padlet as well was that as it was a collaborative space, it meant making mistakes in front of the others. And the French don’t like doing that. I’m experimenting on some adults that I teach at the moment with my new knowledge and have already got them onto padlet. they love it because I can post videos for them to listen to for the next lesson; it saves so much time! They haven’t posted anything yet though! (grrrr). Thanks for this article Richard, it has made me realise that I know more than I thought and that anything is possible!

    1. I’m glad to hear that Lynda! It sounds like you’re jumping head first into the digital revolution. You won’t regret it!

      As for learners not posting anything, I’ve found it very difficult myself to get learners to take an active role in the online work. I think it requires a very high level of motivation on the part of the student. What’s more, when learners can post whenever and whatever they want, you lose control over how much of your time they take up having to interact with their content to show them you care and motivate them to post more. It can be a slippery slope to feeling overwhelmed from my own experience.

      Personally I’m getting a lot of success at the moment giving clear, simple rubric for the learners to play with related to the content I’m posting, and I’ve given up on expecting them to take the initiative to post their own content. I’ve also been hijacking other websites’ content a lot, such as BBC Learning English (who now have fully structured modules to assign learners to do!!) and the British Council reading activities. I ask learners to take a screenshot of their score, and the answers they got wrong, so we can go over it in class together.

      It seems strange perhaps but I’ve come to see it as no different than using a textbook like English File in class – it’s professionally developed content, and I’m not going to spend the time trying to do my own custom content to that quality level. It saves me a lot of time as a teacher, gives me a lot of meat to work with in the next class going over corrections, and my learners never seem to feel in any way cheated that it’s not me developing the content. It’s still me choosing it, assigning it and correcting it, and that seems to be enough to motivate them to do 9 / 10 of the digital homeworks I assign them.

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