by James Egerton
One of my core teaching values is that my lessons contain realistic, true-to-life activities so that the English I teach can also find a place outside the four walls of the classroom. Amongst other things, this means integrating technology into my classroom practices just as tech is an inseparable part of other spheres of life: education, work, leisure and communication. For instance, penning a letter has an Olde England nostalgia to it, but when is the last time you wrote and sent a letter? So why do it in class?
Just as new technology has made professionals redundant throughout history, such as the power looms putting cotton workers out of work during the Industrial Revolution, so the tech machines are encroaching on other previously untouchable institutions. Teaching is no exception. So is tech now a threat to traditional classroom teaching? How should we react to this ever-changing, ever-growing elephant in the room? Is it friend or foe? It can certainly be a friend, but only if we’re canny enough to use it.
What Issues is Tech Solving?
“Schools as we know them now are obsolete. They are not broken, they’re outdated” – Sugata Mitra, SOLE (Self Organising Learning Environment) founder (which I’ll mention again later).
Even if you swap the blackboard for the interactive whiteboard, the current structure of classroom teaching looks eerily similar to black and white photos from 200 years ago, when mass education was developed to provide the Industrial Revolution with a competent workforce. So why might today’s learner turn their back on classroom learning?
- “I just don’t have the free time”.
There is a multitude of online resources available today. Language learning apps like Duolingo and revision cards on Quizlet can fit into any daily routine, and ‘learn English’ podcasts are also increasingly popular (some here: https://player.fm/featured/learning-english). It’s a question of priorities, and if learning English is not at the top of the pile, then it must be shoehorned in through multitasking or filling cracks that appear in the daily schedule. It’s how I’m currently learning Russian, and although imperfect, there’s no way I could commit to being in an exact time and place for a few hours a week to study in a classroom.
- “Physically getting to class is the problem – there’s too much traffic in the evenings”.
There are (more than 50) shades of removing the human teacher from the learning equation, and the most extreme is the growing trend for ‘virtual’ classrooms. One example: the Florida Virtual School offers courses taught completely online, with instructors available via phone, email, text or instant message – much like a call centre. Although it’s been heavily critiqued as soulless, a recent study claimed that students do just as well with this approach.
The next rung down is a ‘blended learning’ model, combining teacher and tech. Also in the USA, Rocketship schools have cut overheads by introducing more online classes and employing fewer teachers, with around a quarter of a student’s school day taught by computer.
Indeed, why oblige the learners to be in a physical classroom when everything can be online? Skyeng is one of the biggest online schools in Eastern Europe, with nearly 1,500 teachers around the world giving Skype lessons to over 10,000 students. This ‘face-to-face’ interaction dovetails with online resources like their own vocab, listening and subtitling apps.
- “We all have individual needs but the teacher teaches the class as a block”.
Every teacher knows that a class of 12 adults is a class of 12 individuals, but it’s almost impossible to cater for everyone’s preferences and needs simultaneously. It could be argued that tech dehumanises the educational experience, but it’s also true that it personalises content through data and analytics like a human brain just isn’t capable of. As Skyeng Chief Methodology Officer Marina Kladova told me, for example, “we’re trying to create a personalised learning path by adapting materials and lessons for learners based on their aims, interests and weak points”, and the tech does this through mass data collection. Language learning apps are also programmed to focus on individual weaknesses by spaced repetition: re-visiting errors and repeating words and concepts at set time intervals based on neurological research on how we learn. A human teacher might strive for this, but other practicalities often get in the way.
- “It reminds me too much of school – there’s no freedom”.
Sitting behind a desk absorbing information from someone who knows better. This archaic model of learning has certainly been updated over the last half century or so, with techniques such as Guided Discovery now commonplace (in some private language schools, at least). But isn’t even holding onto cerebral knowledge now outdated in today’s world in which a Google search on our phones will reveal anything? Going back to the idea of teaching real life skills, isn’t it more useful today to know how to find information, evaluate sources and forge an opinion from a barrage of so-called ‘facts’?
This is where the classroom and the traditional teacher may become obsolete, as SOLE founder Sugata Mitra suggests: “Could it be that we don’t need to go to school at all? Could it be that at the point of needing to know something, you could find out in 2 minutes?”
Beginning with his Hole in the Wall project in rural India in which he left computers in poor neighbourhoods and children taught themselves with them, Dr Mitra won the 2013 TED prize of $1 million and created his School in the Cloud. This SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environment) system works through educators posing Big Questions via Skype, igniting learners’ inspiration and encouraging them to use the Internet to find the answers. This project is growing and is used by schools all over the world (see www.schoolinthecloud.org).
I’m a Classroom Teacher. What’s the Future?
I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m not inclined to make an apocalyptic prediction on the future of classroom teaching. I won’t go down this rabbit hole now, but people might not even feel the need to learn foreign languages in the future, with developments such as Skype translation replacing the need to. But as it stands, I’d say that two elements are key if we’re to thrive alongside technology: integrating tech and doubling down on our human positives. We should frame these not as solutions to a problem, but rather an adaptation to a new reality; modernising learning even in the old-fashioned setting that is the classroom.
- Integrate tech
If tech isn’t to replace teachers, then we will certainly need teachers with technological skills. Generally, we should integrate tech to prepare learners for the world we live in now, let alone a technological future we know nothing about. These choices pop up every lesson planning session – letter writing or email writing? Lecture students or give them a question and let them research on phones and laptops (like the School in the Cloud concept)? Set more written exercises from the textbook for homework or use podcasts, apps and YouTube videos (www.tubequizard.com is fantastic)? The list goes on.
As far as making the jump outside the classroom, why not offer Skype lessons to those who don’t have time to attend physically? It might be uncomfortable for teachers at first, but we should prioritise our learners’ convenience over our own. Any change is tricky to adapt to, but we need to click into a growth mind-set and know that we can improve with focused practice at what at first seems beyond us.
- Be more human
Despite its rapid development, tech still can’t completely replace human-to-human interaction, so if learners decide that attending lessons in a classroom is to have any longevity, then being better humans is our best chance of survival. Learning a language alone without someone prompting you takes huge amounts of self-discipline and self-motivation (I’ve seen this first hand with my Russian studies), and being a psychologist in order to get the best out of each individual learner plays a huge role in teaching. Teaching is more than childminding students; it’s about getting them enthused and self-motivated, and we have that over any electronic device.
There should be a human connection in a classroom that satisfies a biological need for interaction. As Plato computer system developer David Woolley said, “Humans are social animals and there is something about the human connection between students and teachers that matters a lot…There are things that a computer will never be able to do as a good human teacher”. This could mean more student-to-student interaction, pair and group work, social activities outside lesson hours; generally creating a genuine sense of community which even social media hasn’t been able to imitate.
I attended an excellent workshop by Adrian Underhill in July on developing empathy and mindfulness, and these are qualities that tech just can’t replace: being genuinely interested, listening intently to someone, being truly mentally present as a participant in the classroom ecosystem. For all of tech’s advantages, there are important things that it just can’t do (yet). Maurice Conti, Director of Applied Research and Innovation at 3D software company Autodesk: “The A.I. is currently not that great at intuition but really good at brute force computation of tons and tons of data”, thus integrating tech and human strengths can “combine into something that is greater than the sum of its parts”.
So although there are several cheaper and more time-efficient alternatives to physically attending a classroom to learn English, offering learners what they can’t get elsewhere is paramount to the survival of traditional classroom teaching. In any case, integrating tech into our learners’ language lives is vital for our teaching to have any real life overlap; burying our heads in the sand really isn’t an option.
Author’s Bio: James is a Delta-qualified ADoS currently working at International House Riga, Latvia. He studied French and Spanish at university before teaching in Spain for four years, and he has lived and worked in Riga since September 2016. He takes regular in-house teacher training sessions, is an IHCYLT course tutor and has presented several webinars and IH conference talks. He blogs on ELT at www.jamesegerton.wordpress.com.
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