FLEAT V: Foreign Language Education and Technology Uniting the World!

March 2005

English For Int'l Communication

Kansans Fight for Family Literacy

9-11 Continues Wreaking Havoc

The Ultimate Communicative Activity

Incompatibility of Lectures and High Tech

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Are You Experienced?
New Technologies Challenge Teaching Models

Rugged Itronix waterproof laptop, photo by Robb Scott, 1999Perhaps you teach at a "wireless" school or community, where the use of unplugged laptops is encouraged. Maybe you and your students use an interface such as Blackboard to extend on or even replace much of what has typically been done in a face-to-face setting. Many of us teach in environments like these today.

Educators have had access to multimedia resources and complementary technology for decades now, dating back at least to the early language laboratories most of which have evolved into computer labs and even disappeared with increasing Internet applications for language learning purposes.

I remember in the spring of 1988 watching a soon to retire professor of American history at the University of Kansas give his farewell lecture, to an overflowing crowd of students, colleagues, and fans, in the Kansas Memorial Union. It was truly a multimedia event, with colorful slides projected on a huge screen, along with songs and other sounds that brought to life the period he was describing. That was perhaps the epitome of a lecture format which engaged the full attention of learners.

There was another professor at K.U., in the late 1970s, who taught Introduction to Economics by speaking his lectures while at the very same time writing what he was saying, in cursive, on a chalkboard that spanned the entire front wall of the large lecture hall. He also kept your attention, mainly because you were so busy writing down, after him, everything he said. This made for excellent notes to study from.

Then there was the professor who taught undergraduate Genetics, and never referred even once in his lectures to the textbook for the course. Instead, overhead projections were used to display notes from his own research, conferences he was attending, and the latest information from scientific journals. There was so much presented in this professor's lectures that no one by themselves was able to prepare adequately for an exam. Those of us who sought out others in the course to form study groups were able to survive by pooling our notes.

One of my English professors at K.U. used to speak of the professor who taught him about John Milton's Paradise Lost, at the University of Wisconsin. The story went that this Milton scholar would enter the classroom and ask, "Now where were we?," to which a student would respond by reading the line in that epic poem where they had left off in the previous class meeting. Starting at that point, the professor would recite the next 100 lines from memory.

Similarly, one summer at K.U., there was a visiting Calculus I professor who introduced each unit by deriving on the board, from simple Algebra, the rules that would guide us in solving a new set of problems. And then there was my Intro to TESOL class, in which the professor responded to each question with an amazingly interesting (really!) anecdote from his ESL/EFL teaching experiences all over the world.

I thought that this article would be about the need to adapt our teaching styles to the available technology and to multi-tasking, split-attention, diverse learning styles of young people and others who attend college and vocational institutions today.

I thought that I was going to question professors who refuse to allow students to bring laptops and other technology gadgets into the classroom, and ask whether instead we need to find better ways of incorporating the presence of such tools into our design of learning experiences.

But this article, as it turns out, is on another topic: How can our instructional approaches utilize yet not fall prey to the vast array of multimedia and Internet technologies available in the education market? How can teachers engage the interests and the energy of students in order to focus both of these on words, pictures, and sounds which will best encourage growth and learning? What is the appropriate role of technology in the ideal educational setting?

It is getting harder to focus on questions like these in the context of incessant promotion of various technologies and their applications for education and language learning. My sense is that there will be wizards who orchestrate amazing classroom experiences which greatly facilitate learning for entertained and stimulated students. But there will also be, at the other end of the spectrum, masters of the teaching art who, with little more than a chalkboard and an active imagination, engage their students fully in valuable learning activities.

Another professor at K.U. introduced us to a sonnet by William Wordsworth that perhaps captures best the tension between freedom and control, chaos and order, the old and the new, with possible analogies in the high-tech / low-tech dichotomy.

Nuns Fret Not...

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselve, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, 'twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

I will leave it up to the reader to determine which is the technology-rich and which, the more natural, model in the analogy I am suggesting here.

Article by Robb Scott

2005 ESL MiniConference Online