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Dr Evelina Galaczi, Head of Research Strategy, Cambridge Assessment English
At Cambridge Assessment English we’re often asked if digital technology will replace the language teacher and our answer is always ‘No’. Digital technology can never be the teacher of the future but it will be the teacher’s assistant, playing a supportive role which can make a valuable impact on learning outcomes. Technology can handle tasks that a teacher cannot do – whether through lack of time, or resources – and can add real value to the classroom. It’s important, for teachers to understand that a positive, proactive relationship with technology can help them and their learners. To achieve these outcomes, however, teachers need to expand and maintain their knowledge of learning technologies, and develop their ability to critically assess digital learning tools in order to identify those which offer the greatest benefit to their students.
A fundamental role for the teacher is to foster social learning. Social learning features interaction, discussion and collaboration between students, and creates a positive, inter-personal learning climate. It involves taking a flexible and interactive approach which encourages engagement across the class, while also retaining a ‘real-time’ sensitivity to individual needs. As this type of learning is focused on the application of knowledge, it also encourages higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation, or – in the case of language learning – the development of communicative competence. Current digital technologies cannot enable this type of social and collaborative learning as well as a teacher can, since such learning environments are highly dependent on the inter-personal relationship between the teacher and their class. Technology, instead, delivers learning content in an ‘atomistic’ way, as the educator Philip Kerr notes, where learning is broken down into discrete ‘atoms’ which (it is assumed) eventually come together to create ‘learning’. Current technologies are unable to handle the complexities, and therefore deliver the benefits, of ‘social learning’.
That’s not to say that technology is irrelevant in a socially collaborative learning environment. In terms of classroom administration, for example, technology can provide enhanced record keeping, greatly improving the teacher’s analysis of student performance, especially the identification of skills which could be improved by deliberate practice. This is where technology can really help. Deliberate practice in order to consolidate knowledge is considered essential for learning, but is challenging to do at class level as it takes time and requires specific focus on individual learners.
Digital tools allow students to practice practise discrete language skills repeatedly (e.g. specific grammar points or vocabulary), and for as long as they want or need to. Adaptive learning technologies – where tasks are adjusted according to ongoing student performance – can further extend deliberate practice. Teachers naturally adapt the content they use based on the ability of specific learners, but that’s difficult to do for individual learners; technology can provide adaptive learning experiences on a larger scale in an automated manner (but on limited domains of knowledge). Technology can also add value with marking of student work, and can provide feedback on student writing and aspects of speaking. (An example is Write and Improve, a writing development and feedback tool which is free for learners to use.) By marking students’ work, technology can reduce the administrative burden on teachers and give them more time for classroom teaching (although it cannot offer the depth or nuance a teacher can provide).
On-demand learning combined with instant feedback, delivered quickly and on a large scale, is a major advantage of language learning technology. Practice is vitally important for the individual, but it’s a real challenge for time-poor teachers who often have to deal with large classes, so the ability to access digital tools and feedback at anytime, anywhere, represents a significant expansion in learning opportunities and should (theoretically) lead to accelerated progress. The best digital tools will provide learning without any human biases, and without teacher burn-out, while also generating invaluable ‘big data’ on learning and progression. This data is already being used to improve the efficiency and accuracy of digital tools, and by teachers who use it to inform their own classroom practice.
It’s often the case that technology is warmly welcomed by students but not by teachers, whether because they lack the skills to use it properly, doubt its real value, or see it as a threat to their professional status. But I hope we’ve shown how – in the language classroom at least – technology can play a highly productive role, provided that it is mediated by a skilled teacher equipped with both language learning expertise and knowledge of digital tools. Teachers must learn how to assess and critique technology in order to identify those tools best placed to make a real contribution to the classroom. (Free resources for teachers providing guidance in this area can be found at www.thedigitalteacher.com and our Facebook page for teachers). By being more proactive and engaged with technology, and more responsive to its benefits, teachers will maintain their role at the centre of language learning, and help shape a digital future which actively benefits everyone.