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November 2014
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Confessions of a Digital Neanderthal
by Thomas Healy

Recently, I discovered some notes that I had taken at a technology training session at the Pratt Institute in 2010, when several classrooms were equipped with SMART Boards. Under the title of the presentation and the date, all that I had written was “Do not write on the SMART Board with colored markers.”

For me, CALL directors were keepers of mysteries, like the high priests and priestesses of great ancient temples. They probably attended secret meetings and identified each other through a special handshake. Certainly, they spoke a language that I did not understand. When I completed my teacher training in the early 1990s, overhead projectors and boom boxes were high tech. I remember how excited I was when I first saw an erasable whiteboard and how dismayed I was in 2010 when one of the two useful whiteboards in my classroom was replaced by a SMART Board. I knew that I would never use it, and I had lost valuable board space.

At the same time, I found myself increasingly frustrated by students. While I didn’t have a cellphone of any kind, students were glued to their smartphones like Linus and his security blanket. Much of the time, I felt like a cabin attendant before takeoff. My passengers, however, wouldn’t put their devices away and kept trying to peek at their messages all during the flight. For the first time in my teaching career I felt old. I asked students what they were doing on their devices. “Everything and anything,” they answered. It was a couple of years before I actually understood what they were telling me.

One day, I saw a student trying to enlarge an image in her print textbook, as though it was an image on a smartphone. Many students laughed, but I was horrified. Clearly, she (and probably the entire class) was more familiar with digital content than print; she expected content to be interactive and manipulable. “Ah, a digital native,” the director of CALL said later. How could I, more a digital Neanderthal than a digital immigrant, motivate and engage digital natives?

In her book Understanding Language Teaching, Karen E. Johnson (1999) goes beyond asking instructors to reflect on their own teaching and encourages them to observe and try to understand students better. In addition to reflecting on my own technophobia, I tried to understand students’ behavior. Why, I asked myself, did students want to be online all the time but seemed to take forever to answer an email? Why, when I attempted to learn and use the Pratt Learning Management System (LMS), did they show so little interest? What were they doing with the photos they took after class of what I had written on my precious whiteboard? What was the “everything and anything” that they claimed to do online?

Essentially, they seemed to be recording and sharing: fleeting thoughts, what they were eating, where they were, their high scores in digital games, and yes, sometimes even images of grammar explanations from the board, and often using English. These students were all on Facebook and were members of private groups, such as the Pratt Korean Students Association and the Class of 2014. Whereas the LMS was teacher-driven and top-down, Facebook was collaborative. Compared to the LMS, everything posted on Facebook was open, instantly accessible, and inviting. Unlike emails sent on the Pratt email service, their text messages appeared on their phone screens immediately. If I could make it inviting and accessible, surely “everything and anything” could include what we did in class?

In 2011, I bought a smartphone and a student taught me the basic features. A week later, my nephew helped me join Facebook and showed me how to make private groups. It was still a foreign language to me, but this was a language that I could actually learn. I realized that unlike the SMART Board, smartphones and social media applications were designed for consumers, not for experts. Once I dipped my toe in, I found I could swim almost immediately.

Instead of using the college LMS, I created private groups on Facebook. In addition to posting assignments and notifications, we used Facebook and the students’ own devices in an interactive and collaborative way. For example, students used their phones to record their presentations, which they posted to our class group. After posting and discussing the criteria, we used the Facebook comments feature for feedback. We did peer reviewing of academic papers in a similar way. We used it to post images of what I had written on the board, images that students had taken of their own work, and countless other kinds of activities. In addition, students started posting and responding to their own questions, for example, questions about citations. I could see the class group becoming a community network in a way that the Pratt LMS could never be. Now, Facebook and the learners’ own devices have become essential tools in my class.

Classroom management was and remains a concern. Although we still use print textbooks, and pens and paper, students now have the potential distraction of their mobile devices. How can I be sure that they are working and not playing Candy Crush? When faced with issues such as this, I often return to my original observation; I get them to record and share. My students know that at any time, no matter what medium they are using, I can ask them to record their work, usually by taking a photograph, and share it on Facebook to be critiqued in class, or to send their work to me privately to be formally assessed later.

I am not sure whether I have become more confident using digital applications or whether digital applications have become simpler to use. Regardless, I have gone on to make grammar instruction videos using Keynote and Camtasia. In addition, students can now enlarge the images in my course pack because instead of photocopies, I make interactive PDFs using Adobe Acrobat Pro XI. I am currently considering how I can use digital technology to create multiple pathways for differentiated learning.

Having met several CALL directors at the TESOL conference in Portland this year, I’m pretty sure there is no secret handshake. And, no, I never did use the SMART Board, but I have not written on it yet either.


Johnson, K. E. (1999). Understanding language teaching. Boston, MA: Heinle.


Thomas Healy is an instructor at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York. His research interests include developing self-supported technology solutions using widely available and easy-to-use digital tools. He is a coauthor of the Smart Choice series published by Oxford University Press.

NOTE: A version of this article originally appeared in On CALL (July 2014). Used with permission.

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Table of Contents
TC Homepage
Intercultural Skills for the EFL Classroom
Applying for International Teaching Jobs
Confessions of a Digital Neanderthal
Quick Tip: M is for Motivation
Activities from New Ways in Teaching Vocabulary, Revised
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Job Link
U.S. Embassy ESL/EFL Teaching Projects, The English Language Fellow Program, Worldwide

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