Evaluating

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Image courtesy of Anne Hornyak

I swore I was never going to be a teacher. Really. I am not really sure why I was so adamant about it. My parents were both teachers and were quite passionate about their craft. I had them both as teachers at some point in my life and I actually thought they were two of the best teachers I had ever had. Well, thankfully, I had a moment of clarity in my second year of college as I was ‘persuaded’ (i.e. was forced) to take a TESL class of even though I had NO idea of what that entailed or meant. My intention was to drop the class about two weeks in and take something that was of more interest to me. Only thing is, that was the class that was of interest to me. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to be an English language instructor. It wasn’t for the pay (I never even asked how much they get paid. Silly me) because I didn’t care. This was where I was supposed to be.

Fast forward a number of years and here I am still working in the language classroom, but now I am also training those who, like me, see themselves working as English language teachers. There are a number of people who have had an influence on my teaching; some famous, others probably never will be. One writer who has had a good deal of influence, especially lately, has been Earl Stevick. For many ELT professionals, Dr. Stevick is known for his passion on viewing language instruction as a “total human experience”. His book Memory, Meaning, and Method was fundamental in helping understand the role that memory plays in language acquisition. Dr. Stevick has spent most of his life helping people make the connection between language instruction and language learning.

For myself, I have been spending a good deal of time lately re-examing his writings through the lens of a teacher who is passionate about the role that technology can play in helping students take ownership of their learning. I have always enjoyed technology, especially the use of computers, and I see the value in their use in the language classroom. For me, I have spent most of my time attempting to apply technology to good pedagogy. I started to see technology as playing the same role as the materials in the classroom where the goals and objectives are met through their usage.

In chapter three of his book Adapting and Writing Language Lessons, Stevick (1971) lays out three ways of examining language materials. The focus of this chapter is on ways to adapt textbook material for a particular classroom. He divides it into three categories: strength, lightness, and transparency. While the object of this evaluation is written material, this can easily be used in examining the use of technology tools for learning. I have adapted the three points to change to this particular focus.

Strength

In this section, Stevick starts with the question, “Does it carry its own weight by means of the rewards that make it available?”, and follows that up with idea that the rewards must be valid for the student, not the materials writer. In this case, the technology use must meet the needs of the student, not the teacher or the company creating it. If the reason for using the technology is to save the teacher time (ex. marking) but requires more work on the part of the student, this is not a valid ‘reward’ for the student. If it is simpler for the school to turn over their testing material to an outside firm that makes money from both administering the tool as well as the information that is gathers, this is not in the best interest of the student.

Stevick continues this section with five questions that have been adapted here to reflect the use of technology.

  1. Is the use of this tool relevant to present and likely future needs of the students?

  2. Will the use of this tool give students the things they need to reach whatever goal has been set?

  3. Does the tool allow for authentic use of the language, both linguistically and culturally?

  4. Will the students derive satisfaction from the use of this tool that goes beyond the feeling of completing the task or mastering the tool?

  5. To what extent will students be able to transfer the use of this tool into a more authentic, lifelike way?

To give an example of how this would be used to evaluate a technology-based tool, we will take a look at a series of tools that can be used to learn and practice verb tenses. There are a large number of online tools where students can read about the rules of verb tenses and then practice them using fill-in-the-blank type questions. One type website gives a series of sentences that have the base form of the verb and a blank space. Students are then required to choose a word from a drop-down menu for each blank. Once the student has completed the task, they simply click on the button to get their results. While there is a small immediate reward (for those who choose the correct response), this tool does not fully address questions 1-5 mentioned above. Students will have a difficult time making the transition from classroom to real life use.

Take a look at another tool where students can create their own questions in collaboration with their peers and with the guidance of the instructor. Here, the students not only can practice the use of the language, but are also engaged in applying what they learn to real-life situations and are able to transfer these skills to their language learning as well as other areas of their life. The strength of this tool goes far beyond the immediate short-term use and helps students connect with others who help them in achieving their goals.

Let’s examine some real-life applications of this idea to some online tools to which students have easy access.

Google Forms: Students can create their own questions and answers including both closed as well as open questions. That data is then collected and can be analysed to give feedback to the instructor and their peers. Imaging a situation where students create their own survey forms or questionnaires on the topic of their choice that applies what they have been learning linguistically. This tool is incredibly simple to use and can be adapted to a wide variety of situations including use outside of the classroom. Students will find this applicable to business, university, and home life as well.

Annotation tools: There are a number of tools online that allow users to comment on, highlight, and markup documents, images, and websites. This type of tools allows students to interact with the reading material that used to be exclusive to paper-based highlighters and pens. Not only was this not great for paper usage, but it was not very interactive in that students had difficulty sharing it with their peers. With electronic based text and annotation, students can even work on documents at the same time. Some annotation tools allow students to add rich media such as audio and video, enabling students to connect with the content using a variety of receptive and productive skills. Here again we have a set of tools that can be used in various settings beyond the classroom and with minimal learning curve.

VoiceThread: Here is another place that students can connect with one another through the use of a variety of media and mediums. Photos, videos, text, audio, presentations, and more can be posted and commented on by a group of students. This allows for asynchronous communication within the group and can be monitored and guided by the instructor. The applications seem endless.

Google Hangouts: Here is a place where students can teachers can converse in a live video conference that can be recorded for further evaluation or review. Students can also send messages, images, and links to enhance the conversation. This is another very transferable skill and a tool that doesn’t need a lot to get set up. There are mobile apps that allow students to connect on the go and can check up on what is happening in their groups or in the class.

Lightness

In this evaluation point, Stevick examines the “weariness” a lesson or linguistic component is for the student. For some students, something can be quite easy, where others might find it burdensome. This applies directly to the use of a technology tool. Introducing an application or component shouldn’t burden the students down in their usage or it or learning it. I have mentioned in all of my sessions that the use of too many tools or switching to the ‘latest and greatest’ isn’t always beneficial for the student. I keep hearing from or about teachers who want to find something ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ to their class, but have barely used or allowed the students to become familiar with the previous ones. Creating a safe and simple routine for students can be helpful to the students who don’t need to spend all their time learning new tools when the previous one would fit the learning just fine. Take time to carefully evaluate the possible uses of a technology component before jumping in and using it with your students. Think about these things when evaluating a technology tool for the classroom:

  1. What can be done with this tool? Is it a one use wonder or does it serve a variety of learning purposes?

  2. How easy is it to learn? Does it have a lengthy learning curve?

  3. How easy is it to connect with others?

Most tools I use in my class serve a variety of purposes and I try to keep the number of items to a minimum. Students get into a routine and are able to devise ways of using them for other tasks. Maybe the tool isn’t the flashiest or best in its class, but it is the best for our situation based on carefully selected criteria.

Transparency

Stevick notes that students should be able to see the reasoning and connections behind the material being used in class. The rationale behind the use of a textbook or activity should be clear to the student, even if it takes time to make the connection. This is no different for the use of technology. The reasons for the use of every technology tool in the classroom should be clearly understood by the student who is using it. It may take some time, but students should be able to make those links between what they are doing and the objectives set out in class. As Stevick states, “opacity is to be calculated from the point of view of the learner”. We need to realise that our evaluation of how useful this tool may be skewed by our way of learning. Stevick notes that what is obvious to us “may be perplexing for students from a different language background”, or, in this situation, their cultural background. Some cultures don’t see the value in collaborative learning or allowing students to take control of their own learning. This then clouds our judgement in regards to technology use for language learning.

Conclusion

To review, make sure that your evaluation and usage of technology for language education can pass this three-step process:

  • Is it strong enough? (i.e. Does it add pedagogical and continuing value?)

  • Is it light enough? (i.e. Can students use or learn it without too much difficulty?)

  • Is it clear enough? (i.e. Can students easily see the value in using it?)

It seems appropriate to conclude this post with a quote from Stevick in Humanism in language teaching: A critical perspective (1990), “Skilled and sensitive understanding of another person can release that other person’s whole self so it can deal adequately with whatever needs to be dealt with, whether cognitive or otherwise”. We need to be sensitive to the needs and skills of our students when deciding on the use of technology in the classroom.

References

Stevick, E. (1971). Adapting and writing language lessons. Washington DC: Foreign Service Institute. Retrieved from http://www.livelingua.com/fsi/FSI%20-%20Adapting%20and%20Writing%20Language%20Lessons.pdf

Stevick, E. (1990). Humanism in language teaching: A critical perspective. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://www-01.sil.org/lingualinks/languagelearning/booksbackinprint/onhumanisminlanguageteaching/humanism.pdf

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