I teach as a part-time English language instructor in a number of universities and up until this past academic year, have generally tended to approach anything that required the use of technology in class with some trepidation. Why? Well, I suppose the fear of the unknown and looking like a fool in front of my students has contributed, but more importantly, I was concerned that for the amount of effort required, the students might not benefit very much from it. Thankfully, neither of these things happened during my attempts at introducing some technology into my classes during this last semester, and I received mostly positive feedback from students. As a “non-techie teacher”, I would like to share some insights that I have gained through these efforts.
First of all, I should point out that I taught some classes in rooms where each student had a computer connected to the Internet, and others where I had just one computer connected to the Internet and hooked up to a large TV screen. In both cases, I used an application called VoiceThread. This is a web-based tool that allows students to create a sort of digital story. Users can upload documents or pictures and create text, audio (or video) comments to go along with them. These digital stories can then be shared with other users via email or by embedding them within a blog or homepage. What is even more impressive is the fact that other users can then attach their own comments on what they have just seen, thus giving feedback to the author of the VoiceThread and making any exercise a much more collaborative one. I suppose what was most appealing to me about this application is that students can produce some original material in English and then have their classmates watch or listen and comment on it. All of this is retained in the VoiceThread and is as such, a sort of digital record of the students’ work. VoiceThread also has an app for mobile devices and indeed, one of the more interesting things I noticed when learning to use VoiceThread was the fact that the app on the smart phone seemed easier to use and more intuitive than the computer-based version.
This brings me to some important issues that teachers need to remember if they decide to use some web-based applications in the classroom. First is Internet connectivity and broadband speeds. If you are in a computer room, for the most part, Internet connectivity and speeds are not usually an issue. However, if you are relying on a Wi-Fi connection or perhaps even the connection to the Internet that each student has via their cell phone, there can be problems. The type of mobile OS can also be a concern; VoiceThread is available on both Apple’s App Store and Google Play for Android but not all apps are available across all the mobile OS platforms. You should also pay attention to the memory space on the students’ mobile devices. Students with smart phones that are already short of memory may be less than keen to download an app that will take up even more of their precious bytes! Another point to bear in mind is how familiar or confident you yourself are when it comes to using the program or app involved. I use both an iPhone and an iPad so am reasonably confident with any iOS app but I am much less familiar with Android based devices. My wife has a smart phone that utilizes the Android OS, so if possible, I do try to download the app on her device in advance to see how it works on a different mobile OS.
When introducing students to some new technology, I usually try to make a presentation (with either PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote) containing some suitable screenshots outlining the procedures involved. This allows me to pause the presentation and walk around the classroom to see how well students are managing. For example, they may run into problems when downloading or registering new accounts for an app. I was rather surprised to see that quite a few students had failed to make a note of the password they used when creating new accounts. When the class met a week later, some students could not even remember which email address they had used when setting up the accounts!
I hope this article has left you less anxious about using technology in your classroom and helped to point out some potential banana skins if you do decide to use some form of technology in your classrooms.
Matt Caldwell. I have been teaching English in Japan for 20 years and teach as a part-time instructor at a number of universities in the Kansai region.