It has become generally accepted that technology is going to revolutionize education, ELT included, in the near future. Moreover, it is seen as an incontrovertible fact by some (EdTech evangelists in Silicon Valley and New York, for example) that education is still stuck in the nineteenth century and that certain educational technologies under development will finally bring education into the twenty-first century, boosting learning efficacy by double-digit percentage points and change teachers’ jobs forever. ‘The revolution is coming’ we are told.
One of the reasons I am suspicious of these claims is that technology in education (and particularly in ELT) has already come a very long way. Indeed, it is easy to forget how much technology has already changed our industry. I want to remind ELTjam readers of how technology has already changed our industry, and in doing so I want to argue that digital technology has already revolutionized ELT. However, this revolution has not been initiated by publishers or by Silicon Valley ed-tech start-ups, but from the bottom up by teachers and learners using pre-existing, disruptive technologies not specifically designed for education. I will attempt to outline this revolution with reference to three technologies, free email, word processing software and social networks.
Firstly, as a full-time teacher myself I can tell you that being able to ask my students to email me their homework is a godsend. I have a ready-made record of who has done it (and who hasn’t) in my inbox, I don’t need to worry about cluttering my office with papers or losing something, I can retrieve students’ homework quickly and easily, I can move files into folders and label and categorize them; the advantages are endless. And email is not just useful for homework, far from it. For example, being able to send students links and files is invaluable; all this for free too.
Secondly, word processing software, such as Microsoft Word, is now ubiquitous and has significantly changed the process of learning and teaching ESL writing. Students can easily and quickly edit their own work in a way that was just not possible before. Teachers can use the Add Comment function to give feedback on written work; and although automatic spell checkers don’t relieve ESL students of the need to learn spelling, it is certainly a big help. Of course, Microsoft Word is also used by teachers worldwide for content creation.
Lastly, social networks are revolutionizing professional development for English teachers and providing opportunities for students to learn collaboratively. We ask ELT gurus questions on Facebook or on the comment sections on blogs. Weekly Twitter conversations such as ELTchat help teachers stay motivated, stay connected and learn new ideas. Teachers and teaching organizations disseminate information about professional development events and resources around the world (the British Council Teaching English Facebook page currently has 2.5 million ‘Likes’). Learners, for their part, can organize English clubs (insert shameless plug here) and other informal gatherings through sites like Facebook and Vkontact.
Other examples of technologies which teachers use include YouTube, Skype for online classes and classroom interviews and wikis for writing. Learners and teachers themselves are making the decisions to use (or not to use) these technologies. For example, the use of Twitter for professional development was pioneered by an independent group of teachers rather than by large organizations such as the British Council or an educational publisher. And thousands (possibly millions) of English teachers worldwide use email for homework and Word Processing software for teaching writing and for content creation of their own accord…… I could, of course, go on. Crucially, all this happens without the need for ministry directives or aggressive marketing by technology companies, we do it ourselves.
All this sounds pretty revolutionary to me. For sure, the revolution is not yet complete. It is constrained by lack of access to hardware (slow Internet in developing countries, or the lack of wifi in schools, for example) and by teacher attitudes (some teachers just don’t want to develop or try anything new). But it is important to remember what has already been achieved in terms of adapting technology for pedagogical and learning purposes in our field. We should be proud of how far we and our students have already come on our own.