February 2015
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MY TWO CENTS ON TECHNOLOGY
David Kertzner, ProActive English, Portland, Oregon, USA

I recall a time about 15 years ago when I was watching an NBA game on television.   Retired NBA legend Bill Walton and his former teammate, Steve Jones, had an exchange in the broadcast booth that went something like this:

Jones: “Look how energetic the Bucks’ zone defense has been over the past 5 minutes.”
Walton: “But Steve, they are still losing by 15 points.”
Jones: “But look how active they are!”
Walton: “Activity, my friend, is no substitute for accomplishment.”

I think about that story occasionally when I am working, especially around technology. Certainly, activity is a prerequisite for accomplishment—you have to get out of bed in the morning to make something happen that day. And simply turning on the computer, clicking and communicating does not mean you are being productive.

A second story: As a graduate of SIT in Brattleboro Vermont, I am one of many who bought into experiential learning as the underpinning of all language learning (and, really, all learning). In the mid-90s, I was based in the Bay Area where SIT’s umbrella organization, World Learning, maintained an intensive English program (IEP). Taking a cue from the dot-coms of Silicon Valley, World Learning’s IEP spent US$20,000 installing a sophisticated language lab and then required its trainers to bring classes to the lab for writing 3 days each week. The teachers did as they were told. Students began writing on the hard drives, sharing their writing with each other through the network, and commenting on each other’s writing the same way.

A teacher there expressed to me her dismay noting that for 10 years she had been processing writing as a class – doing pair work, group work, whole class discussions, everything we had learned to do at SIT. She had experienced lots of transformational moments. Now, she said, everyone sat with their backs to her and to each other, typed away, and gave feedback. Not a word was spoken. Was this better?

I am not sure of the answer to that question, but these two stories remind me that our greatest accomplishments, our most productive or fulfilling moments, however they may be measured or experienced, require mindfulness. Simply doing something because we can gets people excited—no doubt. Unfortunately, this has too often been the modus operandi of teaching and learning with technology.

We, as teachers, need to look at what we want to do as teachers based on what we know about learning, and then find the applications, the devices, the digital content that will help us and our students do that, not the other way around.

For all the gadgetry of smart devices, the glitter of social media, the wizardry of the cloud, the two most significant benefits of technology as a learning tool have not changed greatly over the past 20 years. They remain (1) offering access to learners from distances never conceived of 20 years ago and (2) organizing, sorting, and accessing good content from increasingly massive digital libraries.

Keep in mind, as well, that the biggest challenge with technology has only gotten bigger: managing the technological noise (the beeps, the critical messages, the not-so-important reminders) so that teachers and learners can focus on a qualitative experience and manageable amounts of communication in order to address well-thought out teaching and learning goals.

In the context of such mindfulness, I appreciated Jackie Gishbaugher’s and Bob Eckhart’s article in this newsletter. They describe challenges they have experienced in offering an EOP online training for a large-scale manufacturer not so much in terms of the software they use but in terms of the logistics of delivering content and addressing skills the client wants them to address. Their most pressing question is not dissimilar to one we should ask for every learning experience: How do we engage (1…5…50…100…350) learners from (one…two…three) continents with meaningful content in such a way that demonstrable progress can be made?

I have had a similar experience over the past several years working with a global consulting company where we have trained 70+ senior analysts who need to improve oral communication skills for their work on global teams and improve writing skills for producing market research documents. I have no illusion that this is as challenging as working with lower level learners in a food-processing plant—it is not. (I have done that too, and used technology with some impact—but that’s another article). In this situation, still, there is pressure as the client expects return on a significant investment.

Technology has made it easier—even possible. We have delivered small group classes on-site, provided face-to-face and remote individual coaching sessions, and generated sustainable asynchronous learning content with speaking opportunities and feedback for participants. While much of the content has been maintained on my company’s e-learning platform, any number of cloud-based services can now provide the same opportunity for other providers.

Here are the benefits of technology (access and content management) that I noted earlier for this situation:

Access

Whether it is through e-mail, telephone conferencing, or video calls, we have had access to managers of program participants along with the participants themselves in advance of the program, allowing us to conduct meaningful needs assessments from halfway around the world. Through this critical and often underappreciated first step in the process, we have been able to build important relationships with key stakeholders. We have been able to clarify program and individual goals so that we could all agree on where we were going before we started out.

Furthermore, we have been able to maintain this access while moving around the world—making our work time more efficient. Last year, my family spent 6 months living in Mexico. From that location, I conducted training sessions using GoTo Meeting (though any conferencing platform would have worked) with individuals in Japan, China, Taiwan, and Washington, DC, while a colleague worked from the Bay Area with participants in Korea, Japan, and China. We even ran a simulated presentation with a third colleague calling into a session from Michigan in the role of a potential client while I observed the exchange having logged in from my home office in Mexico. For the Tokyo-based participant, who communicates in this mode all the time with clients and colleagues, it was a riveting experience and the feedback was invaluable.

Content

In most workplace ESP situations, textbooks are of decreasing value for users—in my opinion. I would suggest that trainers should orient themselves, instead, to the concept of “mass customization”—the notion that trainers can provide variety and customization in the learning experience (including content delivery) without a corresponding increase in costs. As language trainers, we should see ourselves as sharing a core body of knowledge including the grammar and structure of English, which is basically the same as it has been for a long, long time. The contexts for using the language have certainly changed, sometimes dramatically over the past 20 years, but they also become more predictable for anyone who has had some experience training in corporate or vocational settings.

The trick, as I see it, is selecting appropriate core language content from one’s files, and working such content into contextualized (and reusable) learning activities for the client we are working with. This, in turn, depends on having organized learning files on one’s hard drive much in the same way the file cabinet used to be organized—only easier. Search functions can find well-labeled documents. Tools like Google Drive or other cloud services allow us to share content with those who need it, such as hired teachers, in-house teachers, and anyone else with an interest. The wheel does not need to get reinvented every time.

As with Gishbaugher’s and Eckhart’s article, this one does not come with any answers. We can only acknowledge that those who train using technology are replacing those who do not. But in terms of how we use technology as a part of the teaching and learning experience, I would suggest that there are several questions we need to continually ask ourselves. They are:

  • What do we want our technology to do?
  • Why do we want it to do that?
  • Can we do that? and (ultimately)
  • How much will that cost?


And if the answers to all those questions work within the bounds of your skills, the technical and cognitive abilities of participants, the pedagogy of our training, and the all-important budget, then we have reason to go forward.

If not, I encourage you to go up to the third floor, open a window, look at a dumpster below and drop that computer right on its little hard drive. Then call your friend on a smart or dumb phone and schedule coffee, a walk, basketball, or any other activity that does not involve a beep, downloading, wireless access, or a software update. Later, think about how you engage with your friend and see how that might be applied to your teaching practice. Afterwards, you will find, I believe, that your relationships with your computer, your students, and your colleagues are much, much better.


David Kertzner, co-editor of the ESPIS newsletter, is a past chair of the ESP Interest Section and founder of ProActive English, http://www.proactive-english.com, delivering on-site training in corporate and vocational settings. Mr. Kertzner holds a master of education degree and has overseen training in Asia and Europe, and around the United States.

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