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The Joys and Pains of Language, Learning and Technology:
A Personal Account of a Personal Journey
Andy Curtis

Part One - cont...

Questions are an excellent way of promoting interaction – it has even been suggested that interaction in all languages and all cultures is built around question-and-answer sequences – but as teachers we know that it is important to avoid overusing our best strategies and approaches. So, I presented some hypotheses instead. My first one showed my lack of knowledge of colloquial Brazilian Portuguese, as I put forward the acronym TiLT. This is my shorthand for Technology in Language Teaching (and learning). But wave of smiles and gentle laughter that wound its way around the room made me realize that it had another meaning for my audience!

I then presented six hypotheses for the audience to consider and respond to. The first was: TiLT solves problems. I asked for a show of hands, depending on who agreed and who disagreed with this statement. Many people agreed with the statement. And many did not. The second hypothesis was: TiLT creates problems. Again, a mixed response. The next two hypotheses were also a “matched pair”, and a logical extension of the first pair: TiLT solves more problems than it creates versus TiLT creates more problems than it solves. Interestingly, some people were able to agree with both statements, which illustrated, amongst other things, the fact that apparently opposite statements are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first four hypotheses were designed to move us towards a more balanced position, as expressed in the last two hypotheses I presented: TiLT Creates as many solutions as it does problems and TiLT creates as many challenges as it does opportunities. These two, rather producing a mixed response, were generally agreed with by almost everyone.

Creating a balanced point of view of technology – of it problems as well as its potential – is still not something I find very commonly. Usually, I still find a more polarized debate, with one side promoting all the possibilities without sufficiently acknowledging the limitations, and with the other side doing the reverse. This reminds me of reactions to major shifts in language teaching methodology. Whether the shift is from grammar translation to audio lingual to communicative or back to grammar-based approaches, two camps are quickly established, one in favor and one against, which exist for a surprisingly long time before they find a mutual understanding.

A reflection of the stage we seem to be at now, regarding TiLT, is a response along the lines of: “Technology is the answer”. I encouraged anyone in the audience who hears that statement to reply with: “Possibly. But what was the question?” I showed a similar question-answer response on the following slide (number 13): “Technology is the solution” to be met with “Possibly. But what was the problem?” These exchanges – taken from real life conversations I hear in universities and colleges around the world – highlight two prevalent and powerful but seriously flawed assumptions:

1) The quicker we move from problem to the solution, the better
2) The problem can usually be solved with (more) technology

The first flawed assumption generally leads to woefully inadequate problem-definition, rendering the solution doomed before it has begun. The second flawed assumption misses the need to consider technology as a tool, a means rather than an end itself. It is possible that a room full of computers is the best solution. But, if there is only intermittent electricity – which is the case in some areas I’ve worked in – then maybe a set of good, old-fashioned, battery-operated audio-tape recorders may be better. Perhaps even something as low tech as books printed on paper. Whatever is most appropriate.

Having taken a break from questions, I felt it was time to return to them. I suggested that a fundamental question which was, in my experience, often inadequately considered, if not overlooked completely, was the following: What does TiLT enables us to do now that we could not do before? A variation on this being: What does TiLT enables us to do better now than we could do before? Without considering these questions first, all other questions become obsolete.
People often expect, perhaps not unreasonably, that plenary speakers will provide answers. But it must have been clear to my audience by now that I am more interested in questions than answers. In my experience, anyone can come up with an answer – especially a wrong one – the real challenge is finding the right question. Also, I have come to reject the notion of plenary speakers, educational consultants, and anyone else being an “outside expert”. If you are from the outside, then you are, by definition, not an expert. I may know a lot about technology in language teaching and learning, but I know relatively little about the day to day realities of the teachers of English in Brazil. Consequently – and deliberately – the two key questions I posed above cannot be answered by me. They can only be properly answered by the real “experts” – the teachers and students in the classroom everyday.

Part Two

Questions are an excellent way of promoting interaction – it has even been suggested that interaction in all languages and all cultures is built around question-and-answer sequences – but as teachers we know that it is important to avoid overusing our best strategies and approaches. So, I presented some hypotheses instead. My first one showed my lack of knowledge of colloquial Brazilian Portuguese, as I put forward the acronym TiLT. This is my shorthand for Technology in Language Teaching (and learning). But wave of smiles and gentle laughter that wound its way around the room made me realize that it had another meaning for my audience!

I then presented six hypotheses for the audience to consider and respond to. The first was: TiLT solves problems. I asked for a show of hands, depending on who agreed and who disagreed with this statement. Many people agreed with the statement. And many did not. The second hypothesis was: TiLT creates problems. Again, a mixed response. The next two hypotheses were also a “matched pair”, and a logical extension of the first pair: TiLT solves more problems than it creates versus TiLT creates more problems than it solves. Interestingly, some people were able to agree with both statements, which illustrated, amongst other things, the fact that apparently opposite statements are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first four hypotheses were designed to move us towards a more balanced position, as expressed in the last two hypotheses I presented: TiLT Creates as many solutions as it does problems and TiLT creates as many challenges as it does opportunities. These two, rather producing a mixed response, were generally agreed with by almost everyone.

Creating a balanced point of view of technology – of it problems as well as its potential – is still not something I find very commonly. Usually, I still find a more polarized debate, with one side promoting all the possibilities without sufficiently acknowledging the limitations, and with the other side doing the reverse. This reminds me of reactions to major shifts in language teaching methodology. Whether the shift is from grammar translation to audio lingual to communicative or back to grammar-based approaches, two camps are quickly established, one in favor and one against, which exist for a surprisingly long time before they find a mutual understanding.

A reflection of the stage we seem to be at now, regarding TiLT, is a response along the lines of: “Technology is the answer”. I encouraged anyone in the audience who hears that statement to reply with: “Possibly. But what was the question?” I showed a similar question-answer response on the following slide (number 13): “Technology is the solution” to be met with “Possibly. But what was the problem?” These exchanges – taken from real life conversations I hear in universities and colleges around the world – highlight two prevalent and powerful but seriously flawed assumptions:

1) The quicker we move from problem to the solution, the better
2) The problem can usually be solved with (more) technology

The first flawed assumption generally leads to woefully inadequate problem-definition, rendering the solution doomed before it has begun. The second flawed assumption misses the need to consider technology as a tool, a means rather than an end itself. It is possible that a room full of computers is the best solution. But, if there is only intermittent electricity – which is the case in some areas I’ve worked in – then maybe a set of good, old-fashioned, battery-operated audio-tape recorders may be better. Perhaps even something as low tech as books printed on paper. Whatever is most appropriate.

Having taken a break from questions, I felt it was time to return to them. I suggested that a fundamental question which was, in my experience, often inadequately considered, if not overlooked completely, was the following: What does TiLT enables us to do now that we could not do before? A variation on this being: What does TiLT enables us to do better now than we could do before? Without considering these questions first, all other questions become obsolete.
People often expect, perhaps not unreasonably, that plenary speakers will provide answers. But it must have been clear to my audience by now that I am more interested in questions than answers. In my experience, anyone can come up with an answer – especially a wrong one – the real challenge is finding the right question. Also, I have come to reject the notion of plenary speakers, educational consultants, and anyone else being an “outside expert”. If you are from the outside, then you are, by definition, not an expert. I may know a lot about technology in language teaching and learning, but I know relatively little about the day to day realities of the teachers of English in Brazil. Consequently – and deliberately – the two key questions I posed above cannot be answered by me. They can only be properly answered by the real “experts” – the teachers and students in the classroom everyday.

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