Technology Column: What happened to the Sad Obsessive Degenerates Society?

by Shaun Wilden

Having spent a few days reading through all twenty years of the IH journal to see what has been said about technology, I feel like I deserve to be an honorary member of S.O.D.S.  Perhaps double so as I recently asked Santa for a retro gaming system so I can play the original Super Mario, albeit this time in HD. If Mario finds a mushroom, he will turn into Super Mario!  If you find all 6 coins the castle door, will open. Or so they say.


Don’t worry, tech hasn’t finally addled my mind. If, like me, you had read all those journals then you would know that the first really tech-related article appeared in issue 2, when the then DOS of IH Coimbra, Dave Tucker told readers of his ’puerile pastime’. In it, Dave founded S.O.D.S for those who felt using computer games for language practice could be a useful tool with students. Hence the Mario related conditionals in the first paragraph. As Dave notes, there is so much language in games, from conditionals practice to the language of instructions and the language of reviews.

Nineteen years on, the idea of using games is one that remains with us, perhaps even more so now that mobile technology has given many people a portable games console. Game-based learning has growing traction as people explore motivation and engagement. Nearly two decades since Dave’s article, there are many websites and blogs now dedicated to games and gaming in education. That said, hands-up anyone who has played a good computer game that was actually designed for language learning

404 – Design Failure

Poor design was something picked up by Gavin Dudeney in the same year that S.O.D.S was founded, who explored the ‘damp squib’ of multimedia language courses. Back then, the publishing world was trying its hardest to utilise the CD-ROM as a way to create a modern bells and whistles interactive language course… and in Gavin’s opinion failing miserably. A machine can only tell if an answer is correct if it falls in to pre-programmed parameters, something of a stumbling block if you want to be truly interactive.  Nineteen years later, we’re still faced with this issue and though technology has improved and CD-ROMs are becoming obsolete, most multimedia approaches to language remain uninteractive.

Given the failure of things like the interactive second life experience and the rise of apps like Duolingo, which claim to have millions of users, perhaps it’s the mechanics of gaming we’re attracted to. Might accruing experience, levelling up and rewards in our educational games be preferable to interactivity?  After all, is repeating a level of Super Mario until you get all the coins really that different from the more traditional classroom techniques that aim for rote learning?

In defence of multimedia courses, one area that has got better is the ability to record yourself. I doubt that Gavin’s pronunciation would still score so highly for his experimental ‘grunting and moaning in the way of a soft porn actor’ these days. Though that might be interesting for some in a VR world, which is probably what we’ll try as the next attempt at creating interactivity with tech in language learning.

Tech is the Future – And the Past

“To predict the next developments in the implementation of IT in ELT reaches the dangerous ground of the crystal ball,” said Howard Ramsay in the spring 2000 edition of Journal. Especially as Dan Schulstad added in 2014 “each new thing is a “game changer” and for that we can partly thank the snake oil sellers that market their products”. But where will we go with technology? Will it be virtual reality? In which we can take our students on a field trip to London without leaving our classrooms. Or maybe as the pessimists predict, we’re doomed anyway as technology is making simultaneous translation an ever-closer reality, thereby eradicating language teaching (though as any hitchhiker will remind you ‘beware the Babel fish’).

On the bright side, 20 years after the Journal started I would imagine most IH teachers are beyond needing such instructions Gavin Dudeney provided in Issue 3:

“If you decide to surf the Net to find ideas and materials that might be of help to you in the classroom, the easiest approach is through a Browser such as Yahoo.”

I’d also like to think that most of us could answer the question posed in Spring 2000’s journal by Karen Momber, who asked whether “the Internet [should] be used as a resource bank, a ‘treat’ for learners, or can it be integrated into the courses?”

And whatever your thoughts on technology’s place in language teaching, as Dave said back in 1997, “I firmly believe in the power of computer games to hold the attention, or at least spark the enthusiasm of groups of Younger Learners, when other situational presentations disappear in a welter of armpit fart.”

And on that note I hereby submit my application to be a S.O.D.

Author’s Bio: Shaun Wilden has been involved in English language teaching for over twenty years. He is currently the International House World Organisation Teacher Training Coordinator. He also maintains several online teaching sites including and is interested in the application of technology to teaching. He is a moderator of the twitter #eltchat group which meets every Wednesday to discuss issues and ideas in ELT and membership secretary of the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG. Feel free to follow him @shaunwilden or read his blog ( When not sitting at a computer, Shaun enjoys growing food in his garden and then cooking it.