Confessions and plans for redemption

I like to see myself as a reflective practitioner (as many teachers likely do), but as with most people I tend to block out some of my inadequacies by basic justifications of what I can and cannot do.  Of course, these justifications are just me rationalizing not doing what I should be finding a way to do.

I have been teaching a computer-assisted language learning (CALL) class for a couple years now and I am constantly trying to persuade teachers (mostly American K-12 teachers) that no matter what their circumstances they can incorporate some use of technology into their classrooms.  While I am not blindly advocating technology for all situations, I do recommend that they use it when it can make a difference in student learning.  This often falls into the categories of social learning (interaction on the global scale), access to native speakers of the target language (we are language teachers though this could apply to those fluent speakers in a content area), availability of authentic content (newspapers, video, audio, and such), and the motivation of publication.  I, however, have fallen terribly short in my own practice.

Students in the CALL class are all over this, likely touching on each category throughout what they would likely describe as a grueling semester of technological and pedagogical assignments and activities that force them into unknown realms on a weekly basis.  I’m not worried as much about that class as I am the message that I send by not having more of this represented in my own teaching of language students (EFL in Korea).  As I convince one set of students that technology can be used in any class, I woefully underutilize it in my own classes because it is problematic and easier not to do it.

In some ways I might be a little too hard on myself.  I do utilize technology to an extent including: listening activities, online video, interactive quizzes, plenty of text on issues from culture to current events, blogs to provide extra information to some classes on content and/or language resources available on the Web.  While this seems substantial, it is not really the type of interactions that I encourage others to pursue.  These are really one-way activities.  I’m providing information to my students.  There is not impetus for them to communicate with me, other students, or anyone for that matter.

So, what do I need to do?

This is not a crisis that has struck me just now.  I’ve been pondering it for a while now.  I have begun a couple projects that attempt to get at this sort of interaction.  My presentation class (the recipient of most of my technology initiatives) is in the process of putting together a “picture story” using Microsoft’s Picture Story 3.  I’m working out the specifics as we go, but this is generally what is happening. 

  1. They are choosing a topic as a class.  We have taken a couple of minutes discussing possibilities in a previous class and we’ll have to decide on one this week. 
  2. The students will then write a script for the topic.  Depending on which it is they might have to collaborate or they may be able to write their own parts.  Regardless, the pieces will have to flow, so everyone is going to have to cooperate in some way. 
  3. Then they will find pictures (I’ve told them that we’ll have to respect copyright, but they didn’t really get that.  It will be a mini-lecture in the future).  These pictures should help tell the story that they want to tell and they need to be digital (I’m not scanning anything). 
  4. Then they’ll have the opportunity to choose some theme music that will be used in the introduction, interim times, and the ending credits. 
  5. Then they will record their own parts using my digital recorder (I’ve got a condenser microphone for better results, though not perfect).  The idea is for these to be as perfect as possible.  We’ll work on their pronunciation, rhythm, and delivery style in a way that is difficult when they are all preparing completely different presentations.
  6. Lastly, I will put this together using Photo Story 3.  I floated the idea of one of them doing them and got NO interest.  This is not a credit course.  I will have enough problems with everyone doing all of the above parts.

This is a term project (we have 7-week terms).  We have about 4 more weeks to complete it on top of other independent presentation projects that they have.  I’m hoping that by dividing up the work and spreading it out over a long period of time that it will be doable and enjoyable.

The point of this activity is multifold.  The first is for them to have an opportunity to have a polished product that they can point to and say, “look at this.  I did this.”  It is difficult and often impossible for students to have presentations like this when working alone on a presentation.  Not to mention the difficulty in presenting in front of a group of people.  This project enables them to take a short text and perform it as well as they can away from a crowd and with as many retakes as they would like.  Notice there are also no pictures nor video of them.  This is an anonymous project that they can either choose to claim as their own or reject it completely with not hint that it is their work.  This is important for students of whom many are already accomplished professionals in their fields in a culture where people neither do nor speak until they are perfect at the performance of such tasks.

By now you may be saying, “Dan, it seems like this is pretty good.”  You’d be right for one class.  This is only one class.  I have a number of others.  Shouldn’t they be benefiting from the affordances of technology in their pursuit of language learning?  Of course they should and I do so little to promote this.  That is why I have decided on more projects that I might have to take control of in the beginning, but they should be self-sustaining after a while.

Most of my classes are “conversation” classes where this is a focus on oral interaction.  Anything beyond conversation would be met with scorn.  Korean students at this level have at least 10 or so years of English instruction under their belts.  This has been entirely (at least in the public schools from middle school on) grammar-based and focused on performance on English tests (grammar-focused, multiple-choice  or fill-in-the-blank, questions).  This has left little time for actually using the language in meaningful ways and this is where the language learning business comes in.  Teachers from English speaking countries are brought in to help student practice the language from birth to death (a representation of ages that attend language schools here in Korea).

This is where I come in.  I am part of that business that happens to have a big university name in their title to lend it more credence (as well as some degree titles 🙂

So, again, what can I do with these folks?  They have little interest in writing (online or in class).  They have little interest in reading.  They are only interested in listening and speaking to me.  However, there has be to more to language classes than this.  The one thing that I can get them to do (not reliably, but some of the time) is to do small tasks on their own time.  We can then use the products of these tasks in our conversations.  Their products can become the fodder for our discussions.  Those who do more work are better prepared and will, thus, be more visable in the discussions.  I’m hoping that the Korean academic competitiveness will come out in this situation.  Koreans, particularly those at my university, are extremely competitive in academics.  This has been burned into them from birth.  They have competed to attend the best middle schools, high schools, universities, and professions.  Medical doctors at this university represent those who won those competitions.

I picture most of these tasks being played out on a Wiki.  Not one for each class, but one for the entire program.  Each class can feed off of the work of the others.  Lower-proficiency learners’ work can be edited by higher-proficiency learners.  Old students can continue to be part of the community through this wiki.  This both encourages them to continue their language studies, and also ties them to our program (I may be a teacher, but I have a mind for business as well).  All projects can be played out here to some extent.  This then forms a collective memory that can be mined and fed off of by current students (as well as anyone else looking in–another marketing opportunity).  Lessons and tutorials can be added or linked to the site providing assistance for both current students and others who find the site.

I will be starting this today with paper-based assignments that will be begun in class and then moved into the online spaces slowly.  I’ll probably just touch the surface with this semester’s classes, but the experiences that I gain from this group will benefit the next group.

Wish me luck and I appreciate feedback if you actually made it down this far.

Dan

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