I have about 15 minutes to write a post before I head off to the airport to meet one of students who is, even as I write this, winging her way back to Japan. She’s spent the past year in Australia, shopping at the super marker just across from the Australian campus, eating dinner with her home stay family, heading up to the gold coast for Friday surfing lessons. English is the language she breathes as she moves from day to day. But not all my students are so lucky. Most of them are trying to learn English here in Japan. If I chat with my students on the train after school, we invite a certain amount of scrutiny, the stares falling on us like tiny hammers. It can take a lot of courage to use English here in Japan.
Lately there have been a number of presentations at conferences and blog posts about how technology is a tool, how it should meet the needs of the students and enhance what happens in the classroom. Most people seem to be of the opinion that tech for tech’s sake isn’t very useful. But what if you really have no idea how students are going to react to a new web site or novel ways to explore English with their smart-phones until you give them the space to try it out in class?
For the past three years I’ve been working with my students to develop their vocabulary through the use of vocab cards and vocabulary note books. I was pretty much of the opinion that opening up a notebook and dashing down a word, a meaning, and a sample sentence was the easiest way to go. A notebook doesn’t run out of batteries, you don’t have to find a hot-spot, you can hand a friend your notebook and quiz each other. I couldn’t see how spending class time to get the students to learn and use Quizlet, the on-line flash card site, could further the goals of the program. But after reading some posts by Sandy Millinand catching a Tweet from Leo Selivan、I decided to give it a try.
I wrote up a set of 24 words drawn from Paul Nation’s modified General Service List, booked an hour of computer lab time, and then spent the time necessary to introduce the site to the students. This meant that I had to watch as students sweated over their username (because a username to a high school student is absolutely not an easily remembered combination of their first and last name, but an expression of personal identity) or forgot to check and fill in certain boxes insuring they had to start over again. Halfway through the 20 minutes it took to get every student signed up, I had decided that this was a terrible mistake. And once students started working with the card set, I didn’t change my mind much. Most of the students ignored the sample sentences, which I had checked against COCA to ensure I was using the vocab in a way that might actually be useful. They would listen to the word pronounced once by activating sound, but once they thought they had gotten the pronunciation, they basically ignored the sound in general. I spent some time working with individual students to help them use shadowing techniques when using and listening to the cards. But if I really wanted the students to get more out of Quizlet, I realized I would have to book at least another hour or two in the computer room. Vocabulary notebooks and word cards in conjunction with electronic dictionaries with a pronunciation button were looking pretty good to me.
But then one of my students, S-chan, suddenly shouted out, “I got 100%.” She had just taken a Quizlet test on the word cards she had been studying. In all the chaos of getting students logged on to the system and struggling to get them to use the site more effectively, I hadn’t noticed S-chan working her way through the cards. She had her headphones on and had been completely silent. Maybe that’s why she shouted so loudly. I watched as she pulled out her cell phone and snap a picture of the computer screen. “I’m sending this to my mom,” she said. She said it to the whole class. She said it to herself. And she said it with a kind of joy she rarely shows in class.
I’m not sure that S-Chan’s 100% success makes using Quizlet 100% worthwhile. But it made me rethink why I should or should not use tech in my classroom. Sure, I have ideas of what I want to see happen in my classroom. But those goals and my ideas for class are like the lopsided world maps of early cartographers. We never quite manage to sail over the sea of learning the way I think we will. My learners chose what and when they learn. For some of them, tech is going to give them the best chance they have for learning. Whether I think the tech enhances what happens in class or complements my goals is superfluous. So maybe there is a case to be made for using tech for tech’s sake. Not all the time. But sometimes. Maybe all that wasted time with passwords and broken internet connects and the like can be worth it.
I’m going to meet my student at the airport in 10 minutes and counting. English was the language she breathed for the past year. But not all my students are that lucky. Tech for tech’s sake. In an EFL environment like Japan, maybe there is no such thing as tech for tech’s sake. Every new site, every way to explore language or get exposed to English in different ways has a value that can’t be measured in what I see as wasted class minutes. Maybe for some of my students, tech might mean learning.