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

I started this part of the talk by asking the audience what they understood to be the main difference between Educational Technology and Technological Education. A number of clear and concise responses explained that Ed Tech was technology that enabled and enhanced learning, learning through the technology, whereas Tech Ed was learning about the technology. This is the commonly accepted distinction. However, as a teacher of English, for me the difference is all in the word order. In Ed Tech, the education comes before the technology, whereas in Tech Ed, the technology comes first. In Ed Tech, teaching and learning drive the development of technology. This is a good thing. In Tech Ed, it is the other way around. This is bad.

Returning to the question of whether technology could replace language teachers, I shared with the audience an assignment I set for my MA course participants at the School for International Training (in Vermont), as part of a new 30-hour elective course entitled A Basic Introduction to Technology for Language Teachers. The assignment, one of a number of choices, was as follows: “Any teacher who can be replaced with a computer --- should be. Discuss.” Several of the braver MA course participants attempted this assignment and wrote thoughtful and intelligent responses. The most frequently recurring theme was that language teachers who are open to new ways and means of teaching and learning would be able to employ the technology as tools and resources to enhance classroom interaction. Such teachers would become in even greater demand, and so more likely to be promoted, rather than loose their jobs, replaced with a computer.

Another recurring theme in the essays was the fact that language teachers who were willing to accept that their students might know more about the technology and be more comfortable with it would also do better than those who still felt that they, as the teacher, should have all the necessary knowledge. In many cultures, this is still the expectation, that the teacher is the source of all the knowledge, and the students the recipients of this knowledge – called, appropriately, the transmission model of education. However, the sheer volume of information available to anyone with an Internet connection is making the notion of the all-knowing teacher almost impossible to maintain.

On slide 17, I looked at how we define “technology” as a way of further exploring our relationship with it. That technology is a powerful tool is now undeniable. However, it is crucial that we, the users, define the tool that is Information Technology (IT). We must define IT. IT must not define US. One way of avoiding this is to keep reminding ourselves of the fact that all tools are only as useful as their users make them.

One of my concerns – and a concern of many people worldwide – is that potential for the technology to widen even further the gap between those that have and those that do not. For the potential of the technology to be realized, even partially, the technological reinforcement of inequities must be avoided. Walk around the major cities of Brazil, around the major cities of most countries, and we see the terrible cost of greater opportunities for a privileged minority, at the expense of the majority. The benefits and advantages of technology must be made available to everyone. Or to none.

An interesting geographical assumption that I often come across is that computers are most logically located in cities or other large urban centers. However, some of the greatest value of the technology is its ability to connect disparate parties to create communities across the barriers and boundaries of time and space, as we discussed earlier. So, the single Internet-linked computer in the rural village school may, in fact, be of more value and more importance than a whole room full of the machines in a big city school.

Technology and training has been another recurring theme on my travels, both through the literature and through the countries. Although, it would perhaps be more accurate to talk of the lack of training when it comes to technology. No developed or developing country in the world today would allow just anyone to teach their children. Years and years of training is required first, followed by regular, on-going training to keep up to date. How very odd, then, that this logic is so infrequently applied to technology. I have met the managers of many educational institutions in many countries who have budgeted impressive sums of money for new hardware and software, but have left little or nothing for initial – and ongoing – teacher training. My own rule of thumb for this is a “ten percent rule”. That is, whatever the total budget is for hardware and software, allow at least ten per cent of that total for initial and on-going training and technical support.

Conclusion

I concluded the talk as I started – with questions. I briefly re-visited the two key questions I showed earlier: What does TiLT enables us to do now that we could not do before? and What does TiLT enables us to do better now than we could do before? I added two more questions that I believe are also essential when making decisions about educational technology:

• Does the technology improve and increase the quantity and quality of language teaching and learning?
• Does the technology enhance or inhibit our “connectedness” as language teachers and learners?

Sometimes we shy away from such questions because attempts to specify exactly what we mean by “quality” and “quantity” of language learning are fraught with difficulty, and even danger, as such notions can lead to strong emotions for some teachers and learners. Nevertheless, we can define these terms as best suit us, based on our own unique contexts and constraints, and attempt to create answers which may be flawed, but which are still better than the “best guesses”.

The issue of connecting through the technology was raised at different points in the preceding talk, but for me, one of the greatest developments that has been enabled by technology such as the Internet is for teachers and students to be more connected to each other, locally, nationally, internationally and globally. Such connections help to promote greater understanding, which in turn can reduce conflict and even lead to more peaceful and productive lives.

I concluded with thanks, as I was extremely grateful to the Organizing Committee of Brazil TESOL 2002 for giving me the opportunity to spend time with you, and to Thomson Learning for enabling me to be with you. I look foreword to seeing you again in the near future.

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