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How do you view tech tools?

As digital technology and the internet have developed over the last couple of decades, language teachers and their students have benefitted from all sorts of possibilities: online listening, viewing and reading, interactive websites to practise all the skills, online course books and interactive resources for whiteboard, computer, phone and tablet, all kinds of apps for vocabulary and creative use, not to mention those tools which help you be organised and communicate with classes and parents. It's hard to keep up really. Every teacher will have their own feelings about technology and which bits they find useful.

Now even though I am reaching dinosaur status, I must say I was always quite positive about tech. I persuaded my school to pay for an early computer-based language lab (Keylink), was a user of Fun with Texts (later to evolve into Textivate) embraced sites such as languagesonline.org.uk, Taskmagic and MYLO (a multi-skill interactive site paid for by the DfE then eventually cut). We invested in Boardworks for interactive whiteboard and subscribed to Atantot by Esther Mercier. We bought a set of Easispeak microphones which were a pain to recharge and were forever buying headphones which would get broken. My students did "web quests", online shopping tasks, end-of-year cultural research projects, and advanced level reading and listening. My Y10 classes wrote blogs which they updated in French about every two or three weeks. Our department was one of the biggest users of the school computer rooms.

Et pourtant...

Unlike colleagues I have encountered online or at meetings I have never been particularly enamoured with some aspects of tech, for instance apps such as Quizlet and Memrise or other popular tools such as Kahoot or Duolingo. Now this may be partly down to lack of experience with them ( I have tried them all briefly), but there is something more fundamental at stake for me and which is to do with how I see second language learning. What stimulated me in the classroom ( and my students to an extent!) was communicating, i.e. hearing, reading and sharing messages. I worked under the general assumption that by sharing meaningful language at the right level, nature would take its course and my students would improve their knowledge and skills.

For me this meant that the digital tools which appealed to me most were the ones which supplied interesting "comprehensible input" or allowed students to interact and practise vocabulary and grammar through meaningful messages. So to me, Languages Online is inherently more interesting and useful than Memrise. The latter, though popular and no doubt useful, feels less useful to me than a tool which allows for input and communication. Essentially, to me memorising vocabulary seems a bit, well, boring.

As usual this comes down to "opportunity cost": if you spend time on one task, what are you missing out on? For example, if a student were to spend an hour of enjoyable time creating a digital artefact such as a cartoon, would this time, despite its motivational value, be better spent getting more input or structured, meaningful practice? If a student spent half an hour doing flashcard vocabulary exercises with an app, would there have been deeper learning going on if that time had been spent reading the same vocab in context in a meaningful text where other skills, e.g. "parsing" (working out meaning from the grammar) is also required? As I say, single word learning feels less interesting and productive than acquiring words and chunks in context. ( This is supported by research too.)

So my questions to myself with digital tech were (and are):

Is this a gimmick (apparently fun but not very productive)?
Does is provide interesting language input at the right level?
Does it take so long that it's not worth it?
Does it do the job better than not using it?
Is the variety it adds a good enough reason for using it?
Does it allow students to manipulate meaningful language?
Does it provide interesting cultural input?
Will the students see the value of it and take it seriously?
How much does it cost?
Does it have good shelf life?
Am I smart enough to use it properly?

So when it come to the tech debate I generally find myself in the "good in moderation" camp. If were back in the classroom my students would be on their phones or tablets doing interactive grammar, watching video and recording themselves speak.

Incidentally, when I wrote Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher I decided to include, at the end of most chapters, a list of "tech tips". This was slightly risky as tech goes out of date, but I had accumulated enough knowledge from my own experience, blogs and conversations to be able to make recommendations. I didn't just include my own favourites, either, but rather a range which I knew to be popular in the language teaching community.

For all sorts of links to interactive French sites, apps and what not, check out the links pages of frenchteacher.net. The MFL teachers and consultants I know of who know most about this area would be Joe Dale, José Picardo, Rachel Smith and Catherine Ousselin.




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