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Confidence in classroom technology is growing, but confidence in how best to use it has not kept pace.
According to one study, commissioned by Samsung, 90 percent of K-12 teachers surveyed believe that technology in the classroom is important to student success, but only 60 percent feel they are adequately prepared to use it. Another study released just last month found similar results: of the 33,000 classroom teachers surveyed, 78% responded that they were “not very comfortable” facilitating student collaboration with technology and 70% were uncomfortable using student data to guide instruction.
We are at a technological turning point for education in general, language in particular. But educators should never use technology for the sake of using technology. Without the right tech—and the right training—the possibilities of fast, engaging, and personalized learning are just missed opportunities.
Chicago-based educator Paul Emerich France warns about simply sticking learners in front of a screen to learn: “When we over-individualize learning—especially when we do so using technology—we isolate our children. We put them in silos and take away opportunities for them to connect with one another in order to learn.”
He poses four critical questions as a “litmus test” before investing in any classroom technology. If you can answer yes to these questions, he says, the technology successfully “puts human connection at the center”:
The answer to these questions, though, is not technology alone. The best answer, we believe, is a flipped classroom approach that blends technology with a competent, caring teacher.
Technology promises many benefits—if we can figure out how to use it. Consider the latest kitchen craze: the InstantPot™. Look on any online retail site and you’ll find thousands of positive reviews raving about how fast and easy dinner prep has become thanks to this pressure cooker. But filter for the negative reviews and you’ll find large numbers who give the appliance bad marks because it’s “too hard to use”.
The same concept applies for ed tech. If a tool tries to do too much, or its purpose is unclear, it’s unlikely to save time, make learning engaging, or provide any of the other benefits it promises. Defining a specific role for technology in the learning process helps identify the right tool and train educators and learners accordingly.
Our approach involves letting teachers and technology do what they each do best. When it comes to language instruction, technology is remarkably effective at promoting rote memorization of words and phrases. Spaced repetition algorithms and game-like activities allow learners to master vocabulary quickly—but also at their own pace. That is the role of technology in our programs: rapid mastery of key words and phrases. Having that outcome in mind helps us choose the right tool(s) that fit into our curriculum, not the other way around.
While computers can more quickly and economically teach the declarative parts of a language (word and phrases), a classroom teacher triumphs in guiding prepared learners through interpersonal, contextual, skills-based activities. Not only does declarative learning help students communicate in the obvious way (it’s helpful to know the word “flour” if all you want to do is buy flour), it also significantly strengthens the process of skill building. Conversations, role playing, morphology, syntax, and grammar all become easier, more satisfying, and more effective.
Technology use outside the classroom can level the playing field in the classroom. In our blended learning programs, we “flip” the learning, having all learners master key vocabulary online, before class. They can take as much or as little time as they need and their results are available to the teacher for analysis. This ensures each learner arrives in class equally prepared to use those new words in context—or get the extra help they need.
We call this approach Declaratively Accelerated Blended Learning. In our programs, we’ve found it gives all learners equal opportunity to participate and succeed.
Despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers, American schools are notorious for graduating students with two or more years of language study who can hardly speak or function in the language. Surely you’ve heard someone say “I took three years of Spanish in college, but I didn’t really learn anything.” When used well, technology can turn that around. By freeing up classroom time for communicative activities, language teachers can begin molding learners’ communicative proficiency.
Transparent Language is an advocate of proficiency-based language learning. We believe in devoting more class time to student-centered, productive tasks. This shifts the focus from what students know about a language to what they can actually do with that knowledge.
When technology is leveraged for pre-class preparation, it frees up class time for more doing, in the form of student-centered, contextual activities. The result is a more rewarding classroom experience, with more time spent actively engaging with peers and instructors. Teachers also have immediate access to student data and reports, so they know who has completed the assignment and when. While other students participate in a debate or skit, students who are struggling can receive extra assistance.
Enhancing human connection is at the heart of blended learning. Rather than replacing a classroom teacher with a computer and hoping for transformative results, blended learning augments the role of teachers and their ability to build connections with and among students.
Picture this: students come to class having already learned several dozen phrases online relating to weather and natural disasters. They spend class time simulating a relief response: delivering mock TV weather reports, drafting warning announcements, reciting emergency radio broadcasts, etc. This brings the material to life—emphasizing a connection to both the language and their peers with whom they’ve spent all of class speaking and collaborating.
We’ve heard that “teachers will not be replaced by technology, but teachers who do not use technology will be replaced by those who do.” We prefer this subtle difference from the former Chancellor at Defense Language Institute: technology will not replace teachers, but teachers who use technology well will replace those who do not. Of course, that requires teachers to receive the proper training to use technology well.